I love memoir; it has to be my favorite genre (at least for now). Through my work reviewing books for Kirkus Indie, I get to read a lot of them. The problem is, many of the memoirs I read are terrible, just a chore to hack my way through. The reason? Many a rookie memoir writer seems to think “memoir = the story of my life.” They write down everything, in strict chronological order (and often neglect setting and other characters), with no sense of theme.
Before you begin writing your memoir, you have to answer the most important question: why are you writing this? What is the message or lesson you want people to come away with after they read it? If your only reason to write a memoir is to work out the issues you have with your family, or another therapeutic reason, then by all means, go ahead. Just don’t expect to gain many readers. Your memoir has to have a theme, a reason, a point. Once you’ve got that, you can begin to create a structure for it beyond “this happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened” ad nauseum.
Your memoir must be a story – that is, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For that, the time-tested narrative arc works well:
The beginning of your story introduces us to the characters and setting, and it contains foreshadowing of whatever conflict or conflicts will follow. End this section (or act, if you will) with the first hint that things are about to get complicated, i.e., “there’s a disturbance in the force.”
Needless to say, every story must have conflict; it may be inner or outer, but it has to matter, in a big way, to the protagonist (i.e., you). Find that conflict and organize your story around it with scenes that show the rising tension pulling us toward the climax.
The climax has to be the point of no return, when the conflict has gotten to the point where a decision, or decisive action, must be taken, when it can’t be ignored or placated any longer. Everything will change, one way or another, after this point.
Finally, show readers the resolution, or how things worked out. Try to find some element, some image or symbol, that will tie the resolution back to something in the beginning of the story, giving it a feel of having come full circle. In the denouement of “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls describes the halo of a candle flame “dancing on the border between order and chaos,” a reference to a conversation with her father earlier in the book.
Now that you have an idea of the arc of your story, you’ll need to outline it. How detailed or general is up to you. GalleyCat has an excellent list of different tools for outlining your story here.
Needless to say, by imposing a narrative arc on your life story, some things will be taken out. As Sue William Silverman writes in “Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir” (probably the best book on how to write memoir on the shelves now),
“Whereas a fiction writer crafts images onto [a] blank canvas, a memoirist decides what to remove from it … what remains will be one thematically cohesive picture.”
And, we’re hopeful, an interesting and successful story.