View Full Version : need help with chapters in memoirs

02-23-2007, 02:49 AM
I'm writing my life story and am having problems with chapters. I started it with my younger years and was wondering if second chapter could be teen years..

02-23-2007, 07:08 AM
Here is a suggestion from my literary agent, who is very sharp . . .

A good memoir needs to build in power from a humble beginning to a powerful end. Each chapter needs to build upon the ones before, and they need to reach for some kind of conclusion. The conclusion, of course, is why you read the book.

The book should have threads, woven through it, that tie the chapters together into an integrated whole.

So when you plan the book, think about that advice. How will chapter two build upon chapter one, and where are they all headed?

If you do not know the answer to this, what you have is a series of stories laid end to end. And that's not a memoir. It's a collection of stories.

02-23-2007, 05:18 PM
Generally, a memoir is based on a few isolated years (or series of events surrounding one subject). If you're writing about childhood, then teens, then adult, it's called autobiography. This was the most difficult thing for me to understand when I started writing my memoir. I wanted to focus on a ten year period, but childhood scenes seemed relevant to this ten year period. So I used flashbacks--carefully though and only when absolutely necessary, because they bring story to a screeching halt. But if used sparingly, and at the right time, they can be quite effective for filling in some gaps. Just don't use ones that are not relevant to the years you're focusing on. For example, if your memoir is about how Grandma's death destroyed the family because they fought over her inheritance, than a flashback about protag watching Grandma volunteer at a soup kitchen is relevant (it shows her generosity) but a flashback about how you won the spelling bee in 3rd grade probably isn't (unless somehow it ties into the family greed or Grandma). If you haven't already, check out the memoir books thread in this forum. There's several books on memoir writing that will help you understand the form. They won't write the book for you, but I found them helpful for generating ideas and narrowing my focus. Good luck!

04-28-2007, 09:32 AM
Good thoughts John!
Calamity, I have wondered about what you said because many of the memoirs I have read take place during an isolated number of years. But in my own case, the events of my childhood were very pivotal in forming the adult me, and informed my adulthood in so many ways. I find catharsis/resolution/conclusion in my memoir by tying together the problems I experienced in adulthood with many of the events I experienced as a child. Do you think it is better (more effective, or necessary by definition) to just focus on one age range, ala Running with Scissors, then Dry, then hopefully another book where the author tells us what happened after Dry? Am I actually writing an autobiography rather than a memoir?

04-28-2007, 05:15 PM
Running With Scissors and Dry each stand on their own. They are separate stories. When you consider your own life, consider that there may well be several books there.

You asked what happens after Dry? Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects.

And what happens before Running With Scissors? That's in my book, Look Me in the Eye

If certain events in your childhood shaped your life as an adult, you could write about both things in one book, without writing all the stories of life in between. The childhood experience would be the thread carrying it forward.

My book, for example, only devotes 5 of 300+ pages to my automobile business, even though I spent 20 years there. And my photography doesn't appear in the book at all. And yet it's a complete work, because the Asperger's thread ties it all together. It does not have to be "the whole story" to work. It just has to be a coherent whole. That's the difference between autobiography and memoir. Memoir is made from snippets of your life experience that shape up to form a message.

04-28-2007, 07:13 PM
Thank you very much John. I just joined this site last night and already I have gotten so much out of it. My memoir just turned into two books and looking at it this way has opened up and cleaned up so many writing snafus. I really appreciate your excellent input and the opportunity to read the ideas and opinions of so many thoughtful writiters.

I have always thought of RWS and Dry as being different from MT and PSE, in that the RWS and Dry seemed like memoirs while the other two seemed more like David Sadaris-ish autobiographical short stories. This is because the first two are more recovery-specific while the last two mention abuse and addiction and the subsequent recoveries, but also are about many other things unrelated. But maybe they are not so unrelated after all. When I reframe it as you are suggesting, they do come together as a comprehensive whole. And I can't wait to read your book.