As we work our way through the month-long blogging bonanza celebrating the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982, we’ll begin each week with Structure Sunday where I’ll share some important elements to consider when structuring a memoir. Today, we’ll start in the beginning: With the first chapter.
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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.
Author Donna Tartt uses this effective approach to narrative in The Goldfinch, which I reviewed on my Minnesota Transplant blog. It’s not a memoir, but this work of fiction reads like it could be. It’s so memorable, in fact, that even though I read it three years ago, I found myself recommending it to a well-read artist yesterday who made frequent references to books in the exhibit didactics featured with his paintings. The first two pages of The Goldfinch 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 that reads like nonfiction). Later, of course, Aunt Helen plays a primary role in why the main character was writing letters at all.
The introduction of my latest book, which I’m classifying as autobiographical fiction, describes how Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat was born and gives the reader a glimpse of what is to come in the following pages.
After writing my first memoir about my first marriage and how it went so catastrophically off the rails, I got nostalgic for the simplicity of my first loves—or, more appropriately labeled, “likes”—and started reading the diaries I had kept so devotedly when the “boy crazies” infected my teenage mind. I was surprised at how surprised I was as I read. After all, I had written the entries in the first place. I had experienced all those intense feelings. How could I have forgotten them? What I remembered as simple was, oh-so-complex. I was surprised, too, by all the obvious signals boys were sending me that eluded me at the time and all the mistakes I, regrettably, was doomed to repeat. How naïve I had been. But hidden among all my blind blunders regarding my burgeoning sexuality and opposite-sex liaisons, I was surprised to find the seeds of many truths I still held dear, even after decades of experience in kissing, relationships and marriage.
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.