Thursday, July 20, 2017

Especially for new memoirists: Determine your structure

If you recently started writing your memoir, or plan to begin soon, think about its structure—its framework, its organization.

Structure is important, especially if your memoir is a collection of stories along a specific theme. (Click here to review the definition of memoir. Briefly, it focuses on a segment of your life—a specific theme or time period.)

If you’ve based your memoir on a theme, you’ve probably made a list of stand-alone vignettes that pertain to your theme. You’ve written rough drafts of some of them, and others remain on your to-do list. At this point, you’re working with a collection of loosely related stories.

How will you organize those vignettes—those chapters, those stand-alone accounts—in the best order?

Always keep in mind this desired outcome: You want to hand your readers a coherent, organized, satisfying story.

But sometimes accomplishing that task is easier said than done.

“Most people embarking on writing a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task,” writes William Zinsser. “What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never written at all.” (How To Write a Memoir; emphasis mine)

Don’t let that happen to you! Make a plan—come up with an arrangement for your stories. Determine the best sequence for them.

Here’s an idea: If you’re writing your memoir about family, group your vignettes according to these topics:
  • stories about your sister
  • stories about your grandfather
  • stories about your cousins
  • stories about your grandchildren, etc.

Deciding on your structure can be as easy as that.

Here’s another idea: Choose a poem as your theme and use it to establish your structure.

For example, look at this poem Kathy Pooler wrote. While you read it, take note: Each line could be the topic of a separate chapter.

After the dry cough that lingered,
After that December night of not being able to breathe,
After all those trips to the clinic for chemotherapy,
After the trips to Boston for a stem cell transplant,
After my bald head, covered in hats for each season,
After the nausea, retching and fatigue,
After all those sleepless nights of uncertainty,
After the scans, needle sticks and Neupogen shots…
You held me close and told me I was beautiful and never stopped believing I would recover.

A poem like Kathy’s could provide you with an effective framework (and result in a powerful story).

Here’s yet another idea: Choose a Bible passage as your theme and use its verses as your structure. For example, each of the Beatitudes could serve as the topic of one chapter:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3-10)

Use each Beatitude as a chapter and write stories that illustrate what it means and how to live it out in everyday life.

For example, for the first Beatitude, define “blessed.” Explain what Jesus meant by “poor in spirit.” Then write one or more accounts about your own experience of living a poor-in-spirit life—or about someone else who lived a poor-in-spirit life and served as a role model for you. Define what Jesus meant by “kingdom of heaven” and show what the kingdom of heaven looks like in the lives of those who are poor in spirit. And then, in good memoir form, conclude by explaining how living according to that verse shaped you into a different person.

And then write about the second Beatitude, and so on. If you continue writing, using the rest of those verses as chapter titles, you can write a whole memoir!

A good structure can be your friend, your helper.

“The structure is the framework you write into,
your security blanket,
your assurance that all your hard work
will result in a completed manuscript.
(Priscilla Long, The Writer’s Portable Mentor; emphasis mine)

And that’s what you want, right?

Dedicate time to coming up with a good structure.

You’ll be pleased with your finished memoir,
and your readers will thank you.

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