Every memoir needs these six parts:
- a reason to be told-or a theme,
- a structure that allows audiences to meet the main character-which is you- in a moment that likely illustrates when things were a little unusual in your life, and
- then the story should let your audience follow you through a series of key moments in your life that help explain who you are and how you think until,
- you are finally ready to reach the climaxing crises in your life that is the centerpiece of your book, and after the climax is introduced,
- your story should begin to release the tension caused by the climax by sharing the actions, decisions and epiphanies that helped diffuse the tension and problems associated with the climax, and finally,
- share the climax resolution-or describe the outcomes of all the actions, decisions and epiphanies that tried to resolve the climax’s tension-to bring closure to the climax which also brings closure to the book.
The activities below will help you shape your life-long experience with apparently random and unrelated events into a focused and defined story with a purpose that includes each of the six parts listed above.
Discover What Drives You
Adair Lara is an award-winning columnist and author, a book coach and the author of the acclaimed “Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay.”
Her October 2010 Writer’s Digest article “The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir” was the first introduction to creating structure for memoirs that actually made sense to me. Lara explained that memoirs are focused stories on a specific topic and are driven by emotionally-charged events instead of a list of sequential events like an autobiography. This distinction makes it possible for an author to have multiple memoirs that each highlight different themes-or moments-in their life even if it covers the same time frame, but each author can only have one autobiography…unless of course you write a second autobiography that picks up on the years where the last one ended.
Instead of using the word “theme,” Lara teaches memoir writers to focus their book by challenging them to find the “desire line” that drives their actions and decision-making. The desire line is the glue that should hold all the parts of your memoir together, and if what you are trying to add doesn’t fit the desire line then you know that it should not be part of the memoir. Your desire line is something that you want strongly enough that you base your day-to-day life decisions on it.
Maybe you desire to be an entrepreneur, so your decisions about where you would live, you would socialize with, where you would go to school, who and when you date and even what time you get up in the morning would be grounded in your desire to to be an entrepreneur.
Maybe you desire to be a better parent than your child’s new stepmom, be the first person in your family to attend college, or be a teacher whose students always succeed. Maybe your life decisions have been inspired by your desire to leave a legacy that your grandchildren will be proud of, to make a new life for yourself after your decisions led your family into bankruptcy or to live a self-sufficient lifestyle that minimizes your expenses.
It’s not always easy to clearly define our desires because we don’t always talk about them, but Lara offers this advice in her article for helping you define your desire:
Don’t expect to come up with your desire line immediately: It’s not that easy. At first, I thought the desire line for my book about my relationship with my teenager was, “I wanted to keep my daughter safe”—but then I realized that was more about her than it was about me. The desire line must be one that makes the story about you. In my case, I had to keep searching until I found the right desire line: “I wanted to be a good mother.”
Make your desire line as specific as you can. Avoid vague desires like, “I wanted to be loved,” or, “I wanted to belong”—they’re too general simply because everybody wants those things. If you’re stuck, a good way to come up with the specific desire line is to write a one-page fantasy in which you get your ideal ending in the story you’re telling. That’s the story of you getting what you wanted. Now: What was it?
This exercise will definitely get you closer towards defining your desire line-or theme. If you are still not quite there, use a timeline to fill-in the gaps.
Let a Timeline Clarify Your Memoir’s Theme
Linda Joy Myers-who is actually Dr. Linda Joy Myers-is the President and founder of National Association of Memoir Writers and the author of several memoir writing tools for aspiring memoirists. Whether you plan to write the classic novel-type memoir or experiment with other forms like the memoir anthology, memoir as a short book or a personal essay, a timeline can be a useful tool for helping you identify the key life-changing events you want to focus on in your book.
Start by listing 10-20 moments in your life that were life-shaping moments of change. Imagine that Dr. Phil, Oprah or some other talk show host were conducting a 45 minute interview of you to share your life lessons with the world. What are the 10-20 events that the talk show audience would absolutely need to hear in order to get an appreciation for your story? These are the 10-20 moments that will go on your timeline.
These need to be big moments, but they might be very different kinds of moments. Some of them might be moments when you were incredibly proud of an achievement and soaring with happiness. Other moments may have been marked with a tone of grief or despair. The one thing your moments must have in common is that they all mark a time in your life when you changed the way you saw yourself, changed the way you viewed others or changed your perspective on life in general.
Here are more tips from Dr. Myers on completing this activity as written in her article “Beginning Your Memoir and Creating Your Narrative Arc”:
On a large sheet of paper, draw a long, horizontal line to represent time, and mark your birth about one-fourth of the way along that line. In this way, you can note the events that you might want to write that occurred before your birth—stories of family, parents, or grandparents—the lore that you picked up through eavesdropping at holidays or family picnics!
Divide the horizontal line into sections that represent decades, and chart the years of each decade along the horizontal line. Begin to locate your turning point events along your timeline.
In my workshops, there is always an “aha” when doing this exercise. Thinking about significant turning points can be illuminating and provides new insights. When people see events laid out on the timeline, they start seeing how certain events clustered, or how some events were closer to or further away from another one. The emotional impact of the timeline exercise is powerful. There’s nothing like an image representing the important moments of our lives to offer new ways of seeing our lives.
We rarely take the time to truly reflect on our life experiences, so this can be a very powerful experience that may cause you to relive some of your brightest and darkest moments. That is part of what makes memoir writing a powerful therapeutic tool. Just remember that you have the right to choose what to include and what not to include.
These activities provide a great starting point for shaping your memoir. Both Lara and Dr. Myers have great articles that go on to explain how to use your theme-or desire line-and central stories to create what is known as a narrative arc that gives your memoir the structure you need so you’ll know where the book will start, where it will end, and how to position your key life-changing moments in-between and share them as creative sensory experiences for your readers. So after you use the activities above to define the specific message you want to share and which key lessons and experiences you want readers to walk away with, I highly recommend reading Lara’s “The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir” and Dr. Myers’ “Beginning Your Memoir and Creating Your Narrative Arc” to develop an understanding of your next steps and to find links to other memoir writing resources from these authors.