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?