What is the structure of a memoir?

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metamemoir

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I repeat: what is the structure of a memoir?

I keep getting feedback that my memoir writing is missing "structure" but no specifics as to what that entails. (I also get: "where is this going?", "I got lost", "what's the point of this?", "what's this about?").

I do get positive feedback as well, but the negative feedback is particularly troubling because I don't know where to start in fixing it!
 

alleycat

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Couldn't you ask your beta reader to be more detailed?

It sounds like you've just written "scenes" or "slices" from your life and a reader can't see a theme (or what is called in novels a "character arc"). Can the reader tell where you're going with your story, even from the beginning or by just reading the blurb? If someone's memoir is a series of events that don't have a common thread (a reader can't see how the events are related) then it's going to be hard for a reader to develop an interest in the story. If the events show how someone has overcome some major obstacle or fulfilled some goal in life then it can draw a reader in.

Can you describe the memoir in two or three sentences, or thirty words or less, and tell someone what the "story" is about?
 
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jerrywaxler

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I repeat: what is the structure of a memoir?

I keep getting feedback that my memoir writing is missing "structure" but no specifics as to what that entails. (I also get: "where is this going?", "I got lost", "what's the point of this?", "what's this about?").

I do get positive feedback as well, but the negative feedback is particularly troubling because I don't know where to start in fixing it!

Hi Phillip Michael,

It's a big question, and i will try to give a small answer, or rather several small answers:

1) All stories need a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces the protagonist and the dramatic tension that drives the character forward. The middle shows the character overcoming obstacles, and learning. The ending relieves the tension and shows the character in his or her wiser state, often pondering the lessons of the story.

2) The "structure" also refers to the chronological sequence of events. Life happens in order, and even though memories dish up a potpourri, a random smorgasbord of events, memoirs put them back into an order that a reader can follow.

2a) Some memoirs include variations on simple chronology. Andrew X. Pham, Theresa Weir, and Rachel Simon wrote successful memoirs that interweave an earlier time with a later time. Gretchen Rubin's memoir Happiness Project is organized with a different project for each month. Often the period of time of the story is significant. David Berner in Accidental Lessons took a year to go through his story.

3a) Sometimes readers will complain about lack of structure but another way to "fix" what's bothering them is by paying close attention to the psychological pressure that drives the story. Because memoirs tend to be oriented toward overcoming psychological obstacles, the underlying pressure of the story is taking place in the character's mind. (For example, many memoirs are organized around a search for self-identity. AM Homes Mistress's Daughter is a good example. I could easily list a dozen. this is a very common theme.) By clarifying and strengthening this propulsion, the reader will *feel* a sense of structure, and the problem might be solved.

I hope this helps.

Jerry
 

Chris P

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I'll echo what Alley and Jerry have said about a memoir needing to read like a story, either thematic, chronological, etc.

My other suggestion is to read tons of memoirs and pay attention to what you appreciate and what you don't. There is no shortage: war memoirs, travel memoirs, celebrity memoirs, the list goes on.

Ones that I thought were quite good:

Life by Keith Richards
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Looking for Lovedu by Ann Jones
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Sex in the South by Suzy Parker

ETA: Good grief, how could I have forgotten about Bill Bryson? A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country are excellent.
 
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metamemoir

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Wow, thanks guys! Those were some helpful answers (esp. considering that the memoir/autobio board is generally quiet). I appreciate the use of specific terms and examples!

I am eagerly on my way to my city's main library with several tote bags. I plan on stocking up on memoirs AND some "how-to" books. I've jotted down the titles you all mentioned in your posts on my "shopping list" so perhaps I will pick one of them up if it appeals to me.
 

metamemoir

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Couldn't you ask your beta reader to be more detailed?

It sounds like you've just written "scenes" or "slices" from your life and a reader can't see a theme (or what is called in novels a "character arc"). Can the reader tell where you're going with your story, even from the beginning or by just reading the blurb? If someone's memoir is a series of events that don't have a common thread (a reader can't see how the events are related) then it's going to be hard for a reader to develop an interest in the story. If the events show how someone has overcome some major obstacle or fulfilled some goal in life then it can draw a reader in.

Can you describe the memoir in two or three sentences, or thirty words or less, and tell someone what the "story" is about?

You are correct in that at this point I am more just writing scenes and slices.

I gave my friend about 4,000+ words from a chapter I am writing (it's about halfway done I'd say). The chapter is about the end of my relationship with my best friend from childhood. Chronologically, it interweaves scenes from the very last time I ever spoke to him as well as memories and descriptions from throughout our friendship.

Some of the other chapters I'm working on are very free flowing and spontaneous mixtures of descriptions and anecdotes about certain relationships/time periods. However this chapter (the one she got lost with) has a clear central thread of action where I recount the events of my final meeting with my best friend from childhood. So it is bizarre to me that she would get lost in the latter chapter but seemed to have gleaned an unintentional arc in the former chapter.

My very first sentence of the latter chapter is something along the lines of "I vividly recall the last time I ever saw John Doe." Then I proceed to talk about the action of going over to John Doe's house for that last and final time. Sure, I go on tangents (i.e. "we hop into our new black SUV. ever since his promotion, my dad has been indulging in conspicuous consumption...bla bla; and I do give lengthy descriptions of the house). But I just don't get how you can be "lost" when I'm tell you exactly what's about to happen: the friendship is about to end tonight!!! I mean, if anything, the complaint should be I've given the map too soon.

Admittedly, there is a good chance that she simply misarticulated her issue with my piece. But I've relentlessly been hounding her for feedback on other pieces so I'll have to be patient and find the right moment to finesse my request for clarification...
 
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Siri Kirpal

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A good how-to book is Tristine Rainer's Your Life As Story. It goes into structure at some length.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

khobar

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But I just don't get how you can be "lost" when I'm tell you exactly what's about to happen: the friendship is about to end tonight!!! I mean, if anything, the complaint should be I've given the map too soon.

You may have revealed the problem with that - maybe you're doing too much telling rather than showing. It's also possible you are putting in too much detail.
 

Lavinia

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Showing

I agree with Khobar. Seems like maybe you are telling, not showing. One example of this is in your example itself. The opening sentence of your chapter is, "I vividly remember the last time I saw John Doe." What picture does that put in the reader's mind? I can only speak for myself, but I "see" no picture at all. It's too vague. It's too common. Surely everyone has had the experience of remembering the last time they saw someone before they died or disappeared or whatever.

What if you were more specific? What if you said something like;

"If I'd known that would be his last pizza, I would have let him get the anchovies."

-or-

"If I'd known he was going to die while watching the six-o-clock news, in that Lazy Boy chair I gave him for father's day, I would have insisted he at least shave for the occasion."

You get the idea. Paint a picture. It's so important. ~L
 

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