Choosing a timeframe for your memoir

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, I’m examining the time frame of a memoir.

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When writing a memoir, one of the first choices an author must make is how much to write about.

The biggest difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the time frame. Both types of books are written a person about themselves (almost always in first person), but an autobiography usually covers one’s whole life, while a memoir usually covers a specific period of time or a specific element of one’s life.

Rather than beginning with something like, “I was born to a coon hunter and a farmer’s wife in a cabin in the big woods,” which might be the right opening line for the right person in an autobiography, a memoir usually begins with a specific conflict point in one’s life.

For example, a grief memoir about the death of a loved one usually begins with the death. An obvious example would be Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a groundbreaking memoir about the year after her husband’s death. Julie Metz in Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal writes about uncovering her husband’s secret life after his sudden death. Of course she writes about how they met and their life together before he died, but the heart of her memoir is about the year or two after he drops dead in their kitchen. Similarly, Elizabeth Alexander writes about the year or so after her artist husband dies in The Light of the World; she’s a poet, and her memoir is achingly sad, but unlike the cad Metz married, Alexander’s husband was an amazing person who we get to know through flashbacks.

In all three of these fine books (I highly recommend all three), we read about the deceased as a living, breathing person, but the story is about the memoirist and how she coped with the death.

The satisfying part of writing memoir is that you can skip over the boring and irrelevant details of your life and stick with the most dramatic.

In the memoir I’m reading now, Cara Brookins writes about the nine months it took her and her four children to build a house and soothe some of their insecurities in Rise: How a House Built a Family. The time frame is about nine months, but Brookins describes the fear and sorrows that brought them to having to build their own house by interspersing chapters about construction with chapters flashing back to her troubled marriages.

An example of a little bit longer time frame in books still described as memoir, consider David Carr’s The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life–His Own. Carr writes about his battles with addiction over a period of years. And he also addresses researching — like an investigative reporter with the paper trail and exhaustive interviews with friends — that period of his life. It’s not really a story of a whole life — it’s a story of addiction.

In my first memoir The Percussionist’s Wife: A Memoir of Sex, Crime & Betrayal, I wrote about the 16 years I was married to a man who, in the middle of the marriage, was accused of a criminal sexual offense. I barely mention my childhood and only touch on my work life because they weren’t relevant to the story I was telling, one about a failed marriage.

Now, in Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982, the story is about the year I turned 15 and learned to French kiss. The time frame is about a year, and details about my elementary school years or the time in college are not relevant to the story I’m telling. (If the story was a little more true to the details, I would call it a memoir, but instead I’m classifying it as autobiographical fiction. I’ll address this categorization in a post on Thursday.)

If you are crystal clear on the story you’re attempting to tell, the end of a memoir will be very clear. When you’ve solved your problem, whatever it is, the story is finished. You’ve accepted the death, you got better, you found true love, you got through the bankruptcy — at some point you get to the top of the mountain you’ve climbed, and then the story is done. If readers care about what’s happened since then, consider writing another memoir.

If you discover through your writing that you don’t yet have a solution, then your story isn’t finished yet and you probably don’t have a memoir yet. You might have some healing left to do. However, I did once read a somewhat convoluted but nonetheless fascinating story of a woman who is the victim of sexual dysfunction. Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir by Cris Mazza is a uniquely structured memoir that some readers may find ends unsatisfyingly.

If you can pinpoint when the conflict in your story begins and when it ends, then you’ve nailed the time frame for your memoir. If not, maybe you’ve got an autobiography on your hands.

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