What’s your memoir structure?

Despite my best efforts, my inbox always remains stuffed with newsletters for and about writing, which contain more intriguing links than I could ever have time to click on, let alone read. Mostly I sigh and remind myself that I really should cull the number of email lists to which I subscribe. Occasionally – and always when I have something more valuable to do, such as finish the chapter I’m working on, or meet a deadline – I’ll do a commando-style raid on these newsletters, click around madly for 20 minutes and if I’m really lucky, a shining star will appear amidst the cyberspace junk.

Having completed one such raid, I’m sharing with you my discovery: an excerpt on structure in memoir by Marion Roach Smith, the author of the brand-new The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, based on the course she’s been teaching for 14 years. Marion’s also the author of four books and a helpful blog, which is where I came across her.

What’s the structure of your memoir? It’s a question that I ask the writers I work with, and it’s a question that I ask of myself. It’s not a question about the content of your book, its setting or its chronology. In fact, chronology is probably the least interesting way to structure any story. In this excerpt on the Gotham Writers Workshop website, Marion Roach Smith says when an agent or editor asks you about structure,

What’s really being asked is how you plan to dole out your argument. What sustainable grid will you use to lay out that argument, one fact at a time, so that we understand it, and perhaps even agree with you at the end?

For me, structure is king. In my first book, it was not until I figured out the structure that I could even conceive of writing the whole thing. It took me a long time to realize that the stages of my home renovation – drying out the foundations, smoothing over the drilled walls, then painting the house inside and out – had parallels with my experience of grief. Those three separate but related activities gave me my start. I had the organizing idea in place, and finally I could see my way forward.

With my current project, it’s a bit different. It’s still personal, it’s still nonfiction, but I’m trying for something of a hybrid. I’ve been particularly inspired by books by Elif Batuman (The Possessed) and Geoff Dyer (Out of Sheer Rage), whose autobiographical writings bear a relationship to most memoir writing similar to that between a fish and a bicycle. So while the rules of conventional  memoir structure do not appear to apply to my project, a structure nevertheless must apply. I am sorry to say that part of the reason this project is taking so long is that I think I’m still finding my structure in the draft material I’ve been writing this year. The outline of chapters I wrote in January has morphed considerably both in content and in tone; sometimes I’m confident that an original theme is emerging  from all this word-wrangling, but at other times I wonder if it’s all a horrible waste of time, a years-long dream from which I must awake and go off to find something eminently more sensible to do.

In long-form memoir, the only way to find a structure is to first reduce your book idea to one sentence.

This is about the best advice I’ve read on how to work out structure in your memoir. I’m going to try following it, and if you’re working on a memoir then you should probably have a go at such a sentence yourself. But I have a feeling that Marion Roach Smith might tell me to go back to the beginning – or attend one of her classes. At the very least I should read her book.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Virginia: I am 40,000 words and a couple of years into my memoir, called The Rubber Knife Gang. It is more like a series of connected essays that document my struggles to raise boys without a father. And their travails in growing up adrift. I was a reporter for many years and began writing about our fatherlessness eight years ago.

    My single sentence: The Rubber Knife Gang is at once a loving portrait, and yet a screed and bare bones account of making sense of what it means to become a young man, and an unflinching look at what it might mean to grow into masculinity without the benefit of a father.

    Whoa…that was sentence really a great exercise for me. Thank you! Jonna

    1. Wow, Jonna! Thank you for your comment and your fab sentence (and sorry I’m a little late to reply, I was away for a few days). I think fatherlessness is a huge and urgent topic, and I like the idea of your manuscript emerging as connected essays. There’s an honesty in your writerly voice that I’m sure would speak to other mothers who have faced or are facing similar struggles. The best thing you can do to help increase your chance of publication, as I’m sure you know, is to get a couple of those essays published. I wish you every success with your memoir.

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