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?

A Memoir of Random Life Stories

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.