Memoir Organization: The Chapter that Pushes “Pause”

Book open to a page

Structure is always a major decision for memoir authors. Should you simply go chronologically, starting from the beginning of your saga and following with chapters that document the incidents as they rolled out in your life?

Or, instead, should you view your life as a collection of topics and tackle each subject matter one at a time? For example, you might devote a chapter to your professional life. Within that chapter, you can go chronologically, but everything that’s important about your work will get covered. Maybe another chapter is about your extended family, your spirituality or your hobbies. Your life becomes a collection of aspects of who you are.

Only One Rule: There Are No Rules

There are no rules in writing a memoir. Let me say that again. I’m not talking only about structure. This is your life. You are the one who lived it, and you are the one who is writing about it. You get to decide what to include and how to present your life. There are no rules in memoir writing. So you can employ a chronological structure and still interrupt the time line with a chapter that is more topic-centered.

Let’s say your memoir’s core focus is the way you contracted, suffered from, and then rebounded from a rare illness. You want to explain what happened to you and perhaps help others who might have the same illness. You lay it out chronologically, starting from the time you were young and healthy, recalling the first signs of the illness, documenting the details of your treatment and finishing with your triumph and recovery.

Example of a “Pause” Chapter

During your ordeal, you picked up painting. This gave you a way to pass long hours, take your mind off your troubles, express yourself creatively, and bond with a local artist who sold paintings on the street. And, eventually after you conquered your medical problems, painting provided a side income that continues to benefit you in current time as you’re writing your memoir.

Although painting has become an important aspect of your life and your recovery, it still feels tangential to your medically focused memoir. So that’s one problem: should you include it at all? The second issue is that it develops over time. If you introduce incidents involving painting into every chapter in which they fit chronologically, you’ll be mentioning it a lot but only as a paragraph here and a paragraph there. You’ll always have to stop what you’re talking about to catch up on this development in your hobby.

An easier way to manage a topic like this is to devote one whole chapter to your painting. Insert the chapter into the chronology of when you set up that first easel in your basement studio. Then explain how the diversion helped you throughout your illness and your life. You can use a sort of future “would” tense: “I would discover that this creative outlet would fulfill me not only while I was sick but long afterward.” Then you can go into the details.

If It’s Good Enough for Springsteen…

I noticed that Bruce Springsteen uses this chapter-interrupt device in his memoir, Born to Run. He singles out one of his E Street Band members, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, for a separate chapter that pauses the general chronology of his memoir in order to tell everything about his colleague’s talents and the relationship that developed between them. He takes this narrative well past the point in time where the previous chapter leaves off while providing a bit of background of Clemons’s life before that point as well.

More Uses for the Interrupting Chapter Device

It’s a huge freedom! This single-chapter departure from your own structure takes the burden off you as a writer, permitting you to explain something in depth without having to revisit it in multiple chapters. You also can use it to preview how that one aspect of your life turns out, tease other pieces of your life you either haven’t yet introduced or haven’t yet resolved, or pay special homage to a person, institution, company or topic.

Admittedly, devoting a separate chapter to a topic is not as difficult than weaving it into your long memoir thread. But don’t feel as if you’re taking the easy way out. When something is easier for the memoir author to write, that means it’s probably easier for the reader to understand, keep track of and enjoy. And that’s the whole point, right?

5 Memoir Writing Tips We Can Glean from Tina Brown

Vanity Fair Diaries

I just finished Tina Brown’s memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries, about her time as editor-in-chief of the magazine Vanity Fair from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. I liked it. You can read my Goodreads review here.

Brown is recognized as one of the best magazine editors of all time, but she’s a very good writer as well. Here are five lessons we can learn from this memoir:

1. Keep a diary.

You can’t go back to your childhood and start writing down everything that happened throughout your life, but if you’re thinking that you may “someday” write a memoir, start keeping a diary now! Then you won’t have to rely on your memory. Imagine that! What if you opened a book of entries you’d written right at the time the events were taking place? Your memoir would be rich with detail. That’s exactly what you find in The Vanity Fair Diaries. Tina Brown kept an account of everything, from what she wore to what she ate, from the dinner party conversations to her impressions of the other guests. It’s like fiction, the way the writer can just make it up and mention all of those things, except these details are not made up.

2. Don’t worry so much about naming names.

One very common question we get is whether a memoir author should obscure the identity of people presented in an unflattering way. Maybe if you change the name and the description, and say in your memoir that some people’s identity has been disguised, that will keep them from suing you for defamation of character or libel or whatever authors are so afraid of getting sued for. Tina Brown throws caution to the wind and tells it like it is whether the person she’s trashing is famous or not. I don’t necessarily encourage you to be as harsh as she is in this book, but tell your truth. If it’s the truth, that’s your defense. And if it’s your opinion, as Brown presents a lot of her trash talk, then you’re free to express it how you wish.

3. Write in specifics, not generalities.

I explain this point in the Goodreads review, so I’ll just quote it:

For example, why call someone a girlfriend when you can call her a seductress? From “seductress,” the reader learns so much about Brown’s regard for the person. It’s not fiancée or lover, paramour or gold digger, not even temptress. Another example: Brown observes that it had become fashionable for women to remove their earrings before dessert. She tries in vain to make sense of this odd trend, but concludes simply that when “the creme brulée arrives,” the earrings come off. She could have just said “when the dessert arrives,” but she never would do that. I get it. Don’t repeat a word when you can drill into it and hit something specific instead.

4. Write a good first line—and a good last line.

I wouldn’t say this book has a great first line: “I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity.” But it does set the stage for the decade she’s about to roll out. It makes you want to read at least the next sentence. It’s the last line that I like: “But I also hear something else, something I can’t resist—the sweet Gershwin strings of a new opportunity.” An epilogue follows, but this is the last line of the main book. Again, Brown gets specific with “the sweet Gershwin strings.” It’s a true ending, closure. She lets us know that we’re leaving her in a good place. And she sets herself up for a possible sequel.

5. Show and tell.

The conventional advice to writers is “show, don’t tell.” Describe what’s going on in an objective way. Don’t say it smelled good in the room; tell the reader it smelled like freshly mown grass after a rain. The reader will get the idea that you think that smells good, since who wouldn’t? This is all great advice. But it’s a memoir, not a piece of fiction. You can tell the reader how you felt about seeing someone after so many years or how tasting the soup reminded you of your mother. You can let the reader into your brain and do a lot of showing but also some telling, as Tina Brown does in this book.

Memoirs of Summer 2020 Have a Familiar Ring

Cover of Loni Love memoir

What do Jessica Simpson, Madeleine Albright, Ihlan Omar, Colin Jost and a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of have in common? They’re all authors of memoirs published this summer. Coming out of one of the strangest summers we’ve ever experienced, what’s different about these memoirs compared with previous ones?

Nothing.

People write about themselves for many reasons, but by the time you publish a memoir it’s because you think someone may be interested in reading about how you solved a problem, came out the other side of a challenge, managed a particular situation or just plain lived as you. That’s as true in summer 2020 as in any other time.

For celebrity authors, the book will sell well if there’s a big reveal. Hey, Jessica Simpson, what was it like to date John Mayer? André Leon Talley, what’s it like to be a Black, gay fashion editor at Vogue?

No matter how fascinating the life, for a memoir to be a good read it still must be written well. As a comedian, Loni Love has an easy time making I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To entertaining. TV and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld knows how to stage a scene, so it’s not much of a leap to exercise a flair for description while writing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. It’s right in journalist Eilene Zimmerman’s wheelhouse to report on her husband’s addiction in Smacked.

Google “memoirs summer 2020,” and you’ll pull up a long list of autobiographical tales that all sound tempting to take a look at. Many of the authors are first-timers, and one summer you may find yourself on one of those lists. Meanwhile, keep writing! And keep reading. These memoirs will inspire you to craft your story as candidly and compellingly as you can.

Journaling Can Be First Step in Writing Memoirs

Cover of Little Women

On a visit to the Boston area some years ago, I took a tour of Orchard House, which is where Louisa May Alcott wrote her memoirs in the form of Little Women and other well-loved books. In an introductory video, an actress portraying Miss Alcott talked about her home and how she became such a widely read author. She’d always kept a journal, so when she decided to write a book for girls based on her own family, she had a lot of information already in writing and did not have to rely on her memory. Thus she encouraged everyone to keep a journal.

That seems like great advice. You never know when the urge will strike to write your autobiography. If, earlier, you described important events right when they occurred, you’ll have a much more accurate account of how they unfolded and who said what. You’ll be able to capture the feelings of the day—the weather, sounds, colors and your own emotional responses.

Even if you never turn your journal entries into a full book, the process of journaling can be rewarding in itself. Alcott has been widely quoted as writing, in 1855, “I am in the garret with my papers round me, and a pile of apples to eat while I write my journal, plan stories, and enjoy the patter of rain on the roof, in peace and quiet.” You never know—maybe your memoirs will become as famous as Louisa’s!


Naming Your Memoir: Not So Easy for Us Non-Celebrities

Michelle Obama gave her heralded memoir the unremarkable title of Becoming. Snarky comic George Carlin tried only semi-successfully working his famous “7 dirty words” stand-up routine into his autobiography by calling it the generic Last Words. Creative Desi Arnaz came up with the less-than-creative A Book, dramatically gifted Katharine Hepburn wrote the undramatically named memoir Me, the autobiography of trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier carries the trite title of The Measure of a Man, original Johnny Cash chose the unoriginal Cash, Dolly Parton and Ozzy Osbourne had similar thoughts with, respectively, Dolly and I Am Ozzy and genius inventor Ben Franklin devised The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. So maybe you don’t have to hurt your brain and struggle to figure out what to call your memoir, right?

Wrong! You are not a former first lady, disruptive comedian, Oscar-winning actor, iconic singer or founding father. You cannot rely on name recognition to attract readership, so you need a title that actually says something.

For guidance, let’s continue down the celebrity list. The late Carrie Fisher had a best-seller with Wishful Drinking. A pun is not an original idea, because puns are so popular for memoir titles and a bit of a copout since they’re clever by definition. But Fisher’s title—comedic, dramatic and tragic all at once—has so many implications that I like it a lot. Michael J. Fox named his autobiography Lucky Man: A Memoir. This simple title gives the reader immediate knowledge of the author’s outlook on life, even without the ironic twist implying that someone living with Parkinson’s Disease might be considered quite unlucky. Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees sparks curiosity about which boys, which trees and what any of that has to do with the author.

Duplication is another thing to consider. With all of the books out there, duplicating a title is a strong possibility. Using your own name in the title is the most obvious way to avoid that, but it’s not the only idea. Tina Fey’s famous Bossypants has a memorable name that pretty much ensures uniqueness. Crafting a very long title increases the chances that yours will be the only one to have it. Consider Billy Crystal’s memoir, called Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? A funny title is great for an upbeat memoir, but even comedians run the gamut on this dynamic. Both Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Chandler and Yes Please by Amy Poehler earned rave reviews, but I think we know which one gets the catchy title award.

If there’s an ultimate title to emulate, I’d choose Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A title doesn’t get better than that—revealing that the author’s life has provided insight into the feeling of being caged while inviting the reader to look inside to find out where the joy or optimism—the “singing”— comes in. But Angelou is a poet; we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that standard. We ordinary, non-poet, non-celebs should put some thought into it, test out a few of our title finalists on friends and family and then give it our best shot. And if all else fails, yes, there’s a Buzzfeed quiz that will create a memoir title for you.

What You Can Learn From Olivia de Havilland

We all want to own our legacies, but we’re not fully in control of that. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would not consider 102-year-old “Gone With the Wind” actress Olivia de Havilland’s claim that a TV show needed her permission to present her likeness and character. The FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was based on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed de Havilland as somewhat of a gossip, which the elder actress found offensive. The Supreme Court let stand a California appeals court’s decision that de Havilland had no say in how she was depicted in art. The decision read in part: “Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star—‘a living legend’—or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history. Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

You’re probably not famous, and you most likely will not find yourself portrayed as a character in a movie or TV show. But you still could be mentioned in someone’s memoir. Right now, someone who knows you could be writing up an account of your actions. Maybe in that person’s eyes you were the unfair boss, nerdy cousin or mean girl in high school, while you recall a completely different dynamic to the relationship between the two of you. Go to any of the memoir discussions on social media, and a common question is: Should I change the names of the people I include in my memoir? The thing is that changing the name doesn’t necessarily hide the identity. People who know the author are likely to recognize the person whether the name is real or not.

Sometimes these authors will approach the people and ask whether they mind being included in the memoir. If you’re approached, you can always plead with the author not to include you. That may work, or it may not. Sometimes all the author is doing is giving you a little advance notice, but the mention is a done deal. So what can you do? Write your own story. Own your truth. Provide the narrative of your life as you recall it. That way, you’ll at least have your version and, unlike Olivia de Havilland, won’t have to ask the Supreme Court to decide whether you’re a gossip or just a really open person.

Memoir Watch for June 2018

One way to motivate yourself while you’re writing your own memoir is to read other people’s memoirs. At Write My Memoirs we like to keep you up to date on the upcoming autobiographies that will be available each season. Here are a few of the memoirs coming out in June alone. Follow us on Twitter for more!

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home
Natalie Goldberg
Publication date: June 5
A potentially fatal form of cancer forces the author, a writing teacher and Zen enthusiast, to take a new approach to living and dying.

My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie
Todd Fisher
Publication date: June 5
Losing his mother, Debbie Reynolds, and sister, Carrie Fisher, just a day apart inspired Todd Fisher to share his family’s personal stories and photos.

Sick: A Memoir
Porochista Khakpour
Publication date: June 5
As Lyme Disease gains broader awareness, author Porochista Khakpour’s account of her own struggle with the condition is timely.

Hunger
Roxane Gay
Publication date: June 19
Prolific writer Roxane Gay looks at body image issues in the aftermath of her weight loss surgery.

Once Upon a Farm
Rory Feek
Publication date: June 19
The surviving half of a country music duo, the author chronicles his life with his young daughter in the two years since the death of his wife and singing partner, Joey Feek.

Room to Dream
David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Publication date: June 19
Interviews with friends, family members and colleagues give director David Lynch’s memoir a biographical spin as he explores his creative projects and life’s journey.

Believe It: My Journey of Success, Failure, and Overcoming the Odds
Nick Foles
Publication date: June 26
The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback reveals how he miraculously came back from a torn ACL to lead his team to Super Bowl glory.

 

Think You’re Funny? Write a Memoir

Think You’re Funny? Write a Memoir
Everybody’s a comedian, right? If you’re witty and thinking about writing a funny book, you might want to start with a memoir. New writers are always advised to write about “something you know.” What do you know better than your own life? And if you’re naturally funny, you’ve no doubt been picking up comedy material for decades about your relatives, your pets, school, your workplace, colleagues, friends and the typical, yet absurd, situations in which we all find ourselves. Write out all of those stories, one by one, and soon you will have the chapters to your humorous memoir.
Coming from the opposite direction, you may start out to write an ordinary memoir and discover that through your writer’s eye everything comes out funny. Even though you document your life’s dry facts and chronicle some unpleasant milestones such as parents’ deaths, you may find that what you recall best are the amusing, often heartwarming anecdotes that accompany even the saddest occasions in your life. In developing your voice as a writer, you should embrace that approach not only because it’s your natural voice, but also because humor keeps the reader engaged.
As part of your research, read some funny memoirs! There are plenty available; catch these links on Bookish.com and more on Flavorwire.com. From The Lottery author Shirley Jackson’s 1953 autobiography, Life Among the Savages, to recent memoirs of comedy icons like I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me by Joan Rivers and Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres, you will be laughing as you pick up tips for the construction and flow of a funny memoir.
http://www.bookish.com/articles/can-we-talk-recent-hilarious-memoirs-by-women?=edit1
http://flavorwire.com/281223/10-of-the-most-hilarious-memoirs-youll-ever-read

Everybody’s a comedian, right? If you’re witty and thinking about writing a funny book, you might want to start with a memoir. New writers are always advised to write about “something you know.” What do you know better than your own life? And if you’re naturally funny, you’ve no doubt been picking up comedy material for decades about your relatives, your pets, school, your workplace, colleagues, friends and the typical, yet absurd, situations in which we all find ourselves. Write out all of those stories, one by one, and soon you will have the chapters to your humorous memoir.

Coming from the opposite direction, you may start out to write an ordinary memoir and discover that through your writer’s eye everything comes out funny. Even though you document your life’s dry facts and chronicle some unpleasant milestones such as parents’ deaths, you may find that what you recall best are the amusing, often heartwarming anecdotes that accompany even the saddest occasions in your life. In developing your voice as a writer, you should embrace that approach not only because it’s your natural voice, but also because humor keeps the reader engaged.

As part of your research, read some funny memoirs! There are plenty available; catch these suggestions on Bookish.com and Flavorwire.com. From The Lottery author Shirley Jackson’s 1953 autobiography, Life Among the Savages, to recent memoirs of comedy icons like I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me by Joan Rivers and Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres, you will be laughing as you pick up tips for the construction and flow of a funny memoir.

Memoir: “Changing the Narrative”

Memoir: “Changing the Narrative”
This morning here in “Chicagoland,” as we call it, we awoke to more snow falling—no surprise there—but also to the news that our city’s own Jesse Jackson Jr. is planning to write a memoir. The announcement comes as Jackson is awaiting sentencing after he and his wife pleaded guilty to a bit of crime—filing false tax returns for Sandi, mail fraud and making false statements for Jesse Jr.—that could land Jesse in prison for up to nearly five years. Jackson also has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
An unnamed source told The Chicago Tribune that Jackson wants to write the memoir in order to “clear up his legacy” and, since “he has nothing else to do right now,” he’s “desperately trying to change the narrative of his life story.”
As I’ve noted before in blog posts, this is a common reason to write an autobiography, even for people who are not facing jail time and are not famous. It’s human nature to want to clear up and clean up your legacy by correcting the perceived “facts” of your life, justifying your behavior, explaining your intentions and, perhaps, expressing contrition for some of what you’ve done. It’s tricky, though. This type of memoir can sound whiny and be seen as making excuses or blaming other people for your bad decisions. But it also can be very satisfying. Even if you don’t change anyone’s mind, you’ve had the gratification of telling your side of your own life story.

This morning here in “Chicagoland,” as we call it, we awoke to more snow falling—no surprise there—but also to the news that our city’s fallen hero, Jesse Jackson Jr., is planning to write a memoir. The announcement comes as Jackson is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a bit of crime—conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and making false statements—that could land Jesse in prison for up to nearly five years. Jackson also has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

An unnamed source told The Chicago Tribune that Jackson wants to write the memoir in order to “clear up his legacy” and, since “he has nothing else to do right now,” he’s “desperately trying to change the narrative of his life story.”

As I’ve noted before in blog posts, this is a common reason to write an autobiography, even for people who are not facing jail time and are not famous. It’s human nature to want to clear up and clean up your legacy by correcting the perceived “facts” of your life, justifying your behavior, explaining your intentions and, perhaps, expressing contrition for some of what you’ve done. It’s tricky, though. This type of memoir can sound whiny and be seen as making excuses or blaming other people for your bad decisions. But it also can be very satisfying. Even if you don’t change anyone’s mind as you attempt to “change the narrative,” you have the gratification of telling your side of your own life story. And everyone has the right to do that.

Why We’re Drawn To Biography, Part II

Why We’re Drawn To Biography, Part II
As we discovered last week, every nonfiction best-seller list is peppered by, and sometimes dominated by, well-crafted biographies and autobiographies. The lion’s share of these life stories focus on the famous and infamous. From heads of state and war generals to rock stars and athletes, famous people fascinate us. On the dark side, we also want to know all about political assassins, dictators and Mafiosos.
Ordinary human nature is intriguing enough, but when the person rises to become a household name, we enjoy tracing the entire life. How did the person become famous? Was it a level of genius or talent—or evil—that seemed to be there from birth and would stand out no matter what? Was it the upbringing? Circumstances and luck?
We’re curious for a lot of reasons. Some people read these stories looking for a sort of playbook: what route should I take to become a U.S. president, or how can I raise my child to be the next Major League home run hitter? If the subject hails from royalty or generational wealth, the story lets us peek into a world to which we have no other access; we can live vicariously for the length of the book. We’re interested, too, in what goes on in the mind of a criminal, perhaps to make sure that we or our children are not headed in that direction.
There’s one more reason we love reading about famous people. Check back next time for that one!

As we discovered last week, every nonfiction best-seller list is peppered by, and sometimes dominated by, well-crafted biographies and autobiographies. The lion’s share of this genre focuses on the famous and infamous. From heads of state and war generals to rock stars and athletes, famous people fascinate us. On the dark side, we also want to know all about political assassins, dictators and Mafiosos.

Ordinary human nature is intriguing enough, but when the person rises to become a household name, we enjoy tracing the entire life. How did the person become famous? Was it a level of genius or talent—or evil—that seemed to be there from birth and would stand out no matter what? Was it the upbringing? Circumstances and luck?

We’re curious for a lot of reasons. Some people read these stories looking for a sort of playbook: what route should I take to become a U.S. president, or how can I raise my child to be the next Major League home run hitter? If the subject hails from royalty or generational wealth, a memoir or biography lets us peek into a world to which we have no other access; we can live vicariously for the length of the book. We’re interested, too, in what goes on in the mind of a criminal, perhaps to make sure that we or our children are not headed in that direction.

There’s one more reason we love reading about famous people. Check back next time for that one!