What gives memoirs their power is the narrowness of their focus."
~ William Zinsser, On Writing Well
The first task in shaping and structuring your story is deciding on its focus: the path, the spine, the container, the resonant theme -- whatever terminology and imagery work for you. The difficult part does not, generally, have much to do with deciding what to write about; it is deciding what NOT to write about that is difficult, what to leave out.
Because you are not crafting The Comprehensive History of Me: Every Relationship, Every Trip, Every Funny Moment, and Every Revelation I've Ever Had in My Life (and if you are embarking on that book, please let me warn you: you are the only person who will want to read it), you will have to decide what you are going to pass over, set aside, leave out of this memoir (and perhaps put in the next one).
This is more difficult than it sounds.
We have all led interesting lives, some more than others, to be sure, but as I said in the introduction, I am continually awed and humbled by the extraordinary life stories of the people who attend my workshops, and it has helped me to appreciate just how fascinating human beings truly are. That said, no matter how exciting your travels and travails have been, how dramatically awful your childhood was, no matter how funny certain episodes were or how many far-flung jobs or disastrous marriages you've had, no matter how many moments of insight you've been blessed with while watching your children grow, you cannot include it all. Let me say that again: you cannot include it all.
Sorry, I just need to say that a third time: YOU CANNOT INCLUDE IT ALL.
I mean this kindly. I mean this to be one of the greatest gifts I can offer you. Because the clearer you are about the focus for your memoir and the narrower that focus is, the less often you will wander, lose your way, become frustrated, overwhelmed, create reams of work you will end up having to cut/burn/recycle/eat, the less often you will feel compelled to smash your head against the computer screen, throw pens or crusts of toast across the room, or decide that today is the day you are going to heap all your clothes in the centre of your bed, sort them by colour, and then fold them in the trendy Japanese fashion* -- all in an effort to avoid having to wrestle with the multi-tentacled monster your memoir has become.
Deciding what not to write is part of drilling down to the essentials of our story. If you would like to write about your relationship with your father, for example, you will not ALSO be writing about the troubling aspects of your relationship with your mother and older brother UNLESS those things also move your larger story along. You might choose a period of time to focus on -- childhood being the obvious one -- but within that time frame you will need to select which few episodes best create the portrait you envision and which episodes you will leave out because, while they might be interesting in their own way, they either do not contribute to the larger theme or they are similar enough to something you've already shown us they drag down the momentum of the greater story.
Let's say you are choosing a particular setting to write about, maybe the four years you spent living in India. The focus or theme with need to be a larger journey than simply the day-to-day life you lived and the various adventures you had along the way. Did you arrive feeling that you wanted to help people only to discover that you were the one so often being helped by demonstrations of grace, resilience, acceptance? Then your focus will be upon those episodes that push that larger theme along, and leaving out those that may be colourful and wonderful but do not add something to that overarching story.
Warning: it will be painful to leave people out, to delete meaningful moments, to refrain from telling us about your favourite adventures, etc. But if you would like to guard against the head-smashing, pen-and crust-throwing behaviours I mentioned earlier, you will need to make some tough decisions --ideally early on in the process -- and continually check in with yourself that you are staying on course.
So here's what I'd suggest:
Make your focus even narrower than you think it needs to be. Be ruthless. Choose ONE storyline. ONE theme. ONE subject. ONE place. ONE relationship. ONE block of time.
Austerity isn't normally my default position, but
Don't worry: this does not mean that your memoir must contain gruelling psychological drama or emotional narcissism (best to leave that stuff in journals, anyway), but if you would like readers to have a connection or an emotional response to your story, you will need to invite us to settle in behind your eyes, to see and feel alongside you. The more willing you are to allow readers to inhabit your interior life (in all its contradictions, imperfections and complexities), the more we will be able to move into the story and experience it ourselves. And the more fulfilling an experience it will be to read your memoir.
*This link for the trendy Japanese fashion for folding clothes is included here for clarity's sake only and NOT as encouragement to try this as an avoidance technique!