One of our Write My Memoirs authors recently asked for our help in figuring out how to fashion a memoir that had no obvious structure. The author did what memoir authors are often advised to do: write out the stories you want to include without worrying about how to connect them. So now he had this collection of what he called anecdotes and vignettes, which he grouped into categories such as “childhood,” “school years,” “hobbies” and “pets.” He didn’t know what to do next. His stories didn’t naturally form a theme or involve turning points in his life. He wanted to share them as experiences, not to hand down life lessons. But he wanted his book to be interesting enough that people would read it story by story.
In my reply to this author, I reminded him that memoirs don’t come with rules. It’s your book and your life story; you get to determine how to present it. If the writing is good, the reader will want to continue on to the next story. Still, I had some suggestions for him to think about that may apply to anyone collecting life stories with no particular theme in mind:
- Retain the disconnect. Just place the stories in random order. In this structure, the introduction will be important. You can introduce your book as a window into your memory as you look back over your life. Whether funny, touching, bittersweet, sad or frightening, these episodes together create the ensemble of experiences that define your life.
- Make it a diary. Date the stories, arrange them in chronological order and present each one in a chapter in that order as if you’re writing a diary. When you’ve written all of them, an implied narrative may be revealed even if you don’t see that happening until you’ve finished.
- Present stories as letters. For each story, identify the person in your life who would want to know about that story, and write the story as if you’re writing a letter to that person. Maybe one story would be something you would write to your mother and another would be something you’d tell a friend. Perhaps you have a great story from high school that you would send to a teacher to thank the teacher for his/her part in how it worked out. Same with a job and a boss. One story could be a letter to your child explaining something about your earlier life, before the child was born; another could be a letter to a deceased grandparent giving a peek into how your life turned out. This sounds contrived, but with skill it could be really cool.
- Consider the reader’s perspective. Once you’ve written out all the stories, reexamine them from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know you. Sometimes we’re just too close to the work to be objective and see it with fresh eyes, and often there’s more of a theme than first appears. You don’t need a perfect narrative or story arc to still be able to link each story to the next. For example, let’s say you write a chapter about something that happened at your brother’s wedding. Then you can start the next chapter with, “My brother was long-settled into marriage by the time I saw him again, and did I have a story to tell him! I’d just returned from a business trip to Brazil, where I met a woman who made me think about marriage for myself.”
Patterns sometimes pop out during the editing process. So if you’re having the same dilemma as this author who wrote to us, keep writing and put the question of structure aside until you get to the editing stage. And remember that we’re here to help at that point—please consider our Write My Memoirs editing services if you’d like a professional eye on your work.