Think of memoir’s first chapter as a suitcase

One way to judge a good memoir is by its first chapter.

At a memoir writing workshop I attended before writing “The Percussionist’s Wife,” author Paulette Bates Alden (“Crossing the Moon”) maintained the first chapter was a reflection of all that was to follow. “The first chapter is like a suitcase,” she said. “Pack some things there that you can unpack later.”

Often, a story begins at a crucial decision point (the suitcase), and then flashes back to tell the story leading up to this moment (the unpacking). In the “Percussionist’s Wife,” I did this by describing my encounter with a Reiki master who accurately summed up my messy marriage; 95% of the rest of the book unpacks this mess.

Donna Tartt uses this effective approach to narrative in “The Goldfinch,” which I reviewed recently on my Minnesota Transplant blog. It’s not a memoir, but this work of fiction reads like it could be. The first two pages tell us about Theo being holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam; the rest of the book, beginning with the beautiful line “Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” tell us how Theo got there.

Need another example? Stephen Chbosky references Aunt Helen in the letter that begins “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (another work of fiction). Later, of course, Aunt Helen plays a primary role in why the main character was writing letters at all.

As in life in general, first impressions matter, and so does the first chapter of your memoir. Thinking of it as a suitcase might help you make the most of it.

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