In the previous blog post, I discussed two ways of starting your memoir. No matter what approach you take, eventually you’ll have enough words on the page, or enough of an outline, to think about your book’s structure.
There are two tried-and-true ways to structure a narrative:
TIME-BASED MEMOIRS are straightforward, chronological stories. Three of my favorites in this style are Educated by Tara Westover, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. All three of these books are chronological and happen to be childhood memoirs.
Writing a time-based memoir does NOT mean that you have to tell every detail from A to Z, only that the chronology moves steadily from the past forward in time. In your early drafts, you’ll want to get as much on the page as possible, but as you write, you’ll trim the anecdotes down to the most vivid moments in your life story.
THEME-BASED MEMOIRS are not necessarily chronological, but every chapter is devoted to a different aspect of the same thing. One great example is David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, his book about living in Paris. Another is She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brocke, an exploration of the author’s own life as she researches her mysterious mother’s past. Another great theme-based memoir is A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, a book about the author’s childhood in small-town Indiana. Instead of being chronological, all three of these books have chapters related to main themes. In Kimmel’s book, for instance, every chapter is devoted to some aspect of small-town life, while Sedaris devotes each chapter to a different aspect of his life as an American struggling to master the language and customs of France.
As you write, think about what makes the most emotional impact. Do you want your reader to be inside your childhood voice and point of view, limited to only what you know? Do you want the adult perspective? Does it make more sense to move back and forth in time, building suspense that way?
Next up: How to Write a Memoir, Part 3: Deciding What Stays and What Goes