Given the remarkable interest from Writing.ie readers in the writing of memoir, we decided to re-publish this excellent series of articles from the authors of The Accidental Memoir, Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper.
You’ve done the hard work. Written about people and places and cars and music and house-moves and jobs and relationships. You’ve edited the fragments. So, what’s the next step? Structure.
Where do you begin? With a story that predates your birth but is somehow significant? On the day you were born? At a pivotal moment in your life? Or do you start in the present before scrolling back in time?
Do you structure as you go along or work on layout at the end? Do you meticulously plan before you start writing? Questions, questions. What’s the answer? Well, there isn’t one. Every writer works differently. Some are habitually organised and need a clean, clear path. Others like a less structured approach and plan on the hoof, structure at the end. How you work is often dependent on your personality and/or the nature of your project.
There’s no right or wrong. Try different approaches to see what works for you and your particular type of memoir.
A box of memories
You might have heard of the unbound ‘book in a box’ (The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson). So, what’s wrong with just presenting your memories in a seemingly random way. Make the reader work. Skip from one moment to the next. Back and forth in time. After all, that’s the way our memories seem to work, so why shouldn’t your memoir reflect the erratic pattern of the human mind?
Treat your memories like a collage. Print out and spread out on the floor. Sit down in the middle and look at the hundreds of memories that surround you. We can’t guarantee it’ll work in five minutes. But try shuffling them around to find a natural order, connections. Be experimental. Don’t be governed by how you think a memoir should look. See what comes out if you shift your ideas over the canvas of your floor. In Helen MacDonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, the author braids three interconnected stories, going backwards and forwards in time.
Is there a thread?
Reread your stories, the experiences you’ve had, the people you’ve known, the places you’ve lived. Is there a common theme? A seam that runs through your life. Are your memories focused on one person, are you hooked on a place, or addicted to something? We all have our preoccupations, passions and dominant emotions. It might help to write down possible themes and ring the most important or prominent. It could be you’re a workaholic, a lover of the great outdoors, a car enthusiast. You could use this theme to structure your memoir starting each chapter with a title related to work, the weather, a car journey. It’s like seeing your life through a lens. In Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, one central idea holds the memoir together. A walk along the Pacific trail allows her to reminisce as well as keeping the story moving.
Memoir is a slice of life. It can cover days, weeks or decades. Structuring chronologically can give your memoir shape and a title, Seven Days in the Life of … Print out your stories and begin with the earliest, go through to the most recent. You could start each chapter with a date. Does it make sense chronologically? Is this the best way to structure? Try it out before you decide. You can always begin with the end. In Alexander Master’s book, Stuart: A Life Backward, the author tells the story of Stuart Clive Short starting on the day he found him lying on a pavement in Cambridge, working back through his life.
Good fiction starts at a moment of change, an event that hooks the reader in to the main action of the story. You could do the same. Start your memoir with its engine running. Find the most dramatic moment in your life and use it as an opener. The day you walked out on your job, left your partner or boarded a ship to Lapland. Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray Love, begins with a breakdown. Elizabeth weeping on the bathroom floor. The structure of her life has irrevocably broken down and everything is about to change. Will she find love and happiness? This is the question that keeps readers turning the page.
You might want to give your memoir a creative scaffold. Think hard about how to present your stories in an innovative and engaging way. Will your chapters be a series of letters to someone? To different people? Emails to a friend? Will your story be narrated by a snail at the end of the garden? Will the past be revealed in witty postcards to your pet Labrador? Don’t limit your imagination. Try, try, try different ways to your tell story. Is your memoir dark, light or a combination of both? Imaginative and evocative chapter headings could help set the tone and give the memoir consistency.
You don’t need to include everything you’ve written about. Some things will fit and the ideas and memories will play off each other and build to illustrate a good picture of your life. You might have produced a remarkable piece of writing but if the vignette doesn’t fit, then leave it out and save it for another day, another book.
(c) Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper
About The Accidental Memoir:
The Accidental Memoir truly is for all: writers and non-writers, teachers and students, the perfect book for anyone seeking inspiration or imaginative ways to explore their own life story.
The story of you.
The Accidental Memoir takes you on a journey of self-discovery, from the origins of your family name and earliest memories, to what you’d invent and how you’d change the world. This beautifully illustrated book is filled with inventive and accessible writing prompts, as well as tips for anyone wanting to document their lives and explore their creativity.
Want to flex your writing muscles, exorcise your demons, relive moments of magic, make sense of life, have fun and leave a lasting legacy? The Accidental Memoir will show you how.
This innovative concept was developed as an Arts Council project to help people tap into their own lives. Working with diverse groups from refugees to the elderly and prisoners, it has been a resounding success in unearthing stories that otherwise may never have been told.
Order your copy online here.