I’ve been thinking more this month about how to find your way into the wealth of material that is your life, and compose from it a memoir. I wrote about this last month, and actually in all my columns since the pandemic began, and the […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
How To Structure Your Memoir (third and final in the pandemic series: stay at home and write your memoir )
When the pandemic started, I wrote about using stay-at-home time to work on your memoir, and then followed up with a column on the basics of organizing your shimmering images—your vivid memories.With back-to-school mentally kicking in (even if back-to-school is unfamiliar), it’s time to find […]
Last month I wrote about using your time, while at home, to work on a memoir and suggested the basics for getting started.
This month here’s the next step: what to do with all those memories you’ve been stockpiling, or with all the stories you’ve already written. Do you use them to plot your memoir? Should you create an outline, and stuff all the memory stories into it? It’s tempting to try.
But my belief is that in the early stages, it’s best to write freely, without any structure hanging over your head. The heart of your memoir—what it’s really about, and what will guide its shape—is best found by letting yourself suss out the emotional hot spots in memory and record the details before you define a story line.
Still, I know you want to master the shape of your story sooner, rather than later. Hence, here’s a tool for control: Create a series of folders (hard copy or digital) and store inside them the memory fragments you’ve been gathering—with catchy titles to remember them by: Heron; Thunderbird cruising Hampton Street, whatever. Or file the stories you’ve already written in these folders.
Label the folders with general topics. If a lot of your memories revolve around your mother, label one folder: Mom. Or maybe you’ve been remembering a lot of stuff about your son. Put his name on one of files. Maybe you’ve been writing about a place you used to live, or somewhere you’ve traveled: Aunt Louise’s house; The Beach; Indonesia. Group all those stories in a folder with that name.
It’s pretty rudimentary stuff, I know, this kind of organization, but it can, miraculously, give you a lot of power and help you see new connections, and the gentle structure and those connections will give you glimpses of central concerns in your life.
And those concerns will lead you to your plot.
As for the idea of coming out of the gate with a plot for your memoir and typing up an outline—before you’ve even mined your memories—chances are, if you feel compelled to do that, you will shortly feel stuck.
And why is that?
Because crafting a plot implies you know what the narrator (you) wants to achieve, what you are trying to show with your story, and usually when you first begin writing, you don’t have a clue.
That’s not a bad thing; it’s just the reality of writing memoir.
Once you get a handle on what you are writing about—your central concerns— you can start shaping the story arc.
But until you have gotten past that first burst of memory and emotion, and begun to understand the larger forces behind your memories, you are better off just puttering along: recalling, writing, filing.
What you are looking for in this process are the pivotal memories that will gird the structure of your memoir. Those pivotal memories are the key, but first you must find them, and that takes some free-form puttering—not plotting—for now.
We are all going to have time eddying around us in these coming weeks, as life shifts into a new and unfamiliar rhythm, but once we strike that rhythm—whatever it is for each individual household—once we get past the panic and stock piling of supplies, […]
People talk. And in your memoir, even if you are the kind of writer who leans more toward the meditative/reflective style of memoir writing—at some point, your characters will open their mouths and speak. So, the question becomes: Are you allowed to invent? Obviously, you […]
It was 1973 when Gene and I settled into a pattern of living together in my Canoga Park, California apartment where I’d lived when I was married and where my toddler son, Jim, and I continued to live after my divorce. Gene was the only black person in the complex. We socialized with our neighbors and lived happily in our little neck of the woods until there was a turnover in the managers.
I was sitting poolside, watching Jim play in the wading pool, when two police officers entered the front gate and walked towards the main building. Gene said he was shooting pool when the policemen approached him and said, “Put your pool stick down,” as they fingered their billy clubs. He looked for a place to hang up his stick and again heard, “Put the pool stick down!” Confused, he laid the cue on the table. The officers handcuffed him stating, “You’re under arrest.” They didn’t tell him why. This was his first arrest in 32 years and that included twenty years growing up in Alabama, the epitome of the Jim Crow South, where young black men were frequently arrested for nothing. He’d never expected treatment like this in California.
Soon, the officers I’d seen earlier, marched Gene, handcuffed and bewildered, out the door and down the stairs. They paraded him past the pool area. Jim started to cry. Confused and shaken, I grabbed Jim’s hand and ran back to our apartment.
I paced back and forth holding my son and patting his back to calm him. All the while I wondered what was happening, what I should do, and unable to do anything but wait.
Later Gene told me that the police drove ten miles to the Van Nuys jail and placed him in a cold room alone with a table and two chairs—just like on Law and Order. A detective entered. “Do you know why you’re here?” he asked.
“I haven’t a clue,” Gene answered.
“Do you know a Vivian Kowalski?”
She was the new manager, and Gene told them he knew her. The agent explained that she had accused him of putting a screwdriver to her side and demanding that she have sex with him or he would harm her two children. He was horrified and told the cops that was a lie. In fact, the police had merely asked her how things were going. Apparently, she’d taken that opportunity to invent a story, a racial hoax, an act of fabricating a crime and blaming it on a person of another race.
Gene had been marched away at one o’clock. I received his one promised phone call two hours later. “Annie, I’m at the Van Nuys jail,” he said. “I need you to bail me out.”
“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” I answered.
Once out on bail, Gene phoned the apartments’ parent company, Larwin, and explained what had happened. He told them, “This is a case of racial housing discrimination. Your managers didn’t like a black man living with a white woman, so they accused me of a felony as a ruse to get me out of the complex—even if that meant going to jail!” Larwin tested Gene’s theory and fired the managers.
On the day of Gene’s arraignment, we sat on a wooden bench in the cavernous marble hallway of the criminal justice building where we met Larry Trygstad, the attorney I had hired. We held hands. After an hour, Larry left and returned with the news that Vivian hadn’t shown up. The charges were dropped. The nightmare was over. We felt vindicated to learn that Vivian and her husband had fled to Canada, from whence they had come, to escape prosecution for violating the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Gene and I rethought a sacred principle of the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Now we knew that an accusation was all it took for a person to get arrested—especially for a black man.
Forty-six years later Robert Mitchell, a black California man, sued the city of Bakersfield claiming he was wrongfully arrested after refusing to give officers his name during a traffic stop. He asserted his rights because “I’ve had past incidents where I’ve been arrested and it was unlawful and I didn’t know my rights.” The city agreed to a $60,000 settlement in 2019, and unfair treatment of black men continues.
This post was submitted by Los Angeles writer Ann Carnes, at work on her memoir: Miss Ann and Her Man.
I love men, prefer their company, and sympathize with them, maybe because I had two brothers. Men don’t have it easy—for millennia, they’ve been suffering oceans of anxiety because they had to support their families and fight our wars, but I’m a woman, and I […]
Stephanie Davis-Namm, Richard White, Park Plazas & Santa Fe—Why We Write Memoir: A Manifesto for 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly
I often get queries about how to write a short memoir and make it worth reading. I have decided to share a gnarly situation from my own life to show you how to take the content of your day-to-day and turn it into a short […]
If you’re writing a memoir this year, you will—at some point—confront the question of whether your story should read like a novel. The answer to that question is as individual as your writing style and the story you have to tell.
Maybe you naturally share stories of your life as if they were great tales unspooling, one action leading to another, characters as vivid as peacocks, and minimal ruminating about the meaning of it all. The novel approach is a great shape for you then.
But what if you are a writer who approaches personal experience differently—in a more meditative mode, like a journal writer reflecting on events, weighing the context, considering the effects other choices might have made, sifting through the complexities of fate and opportunity? The novel form may not be the right approach for you.
Yet, either way is okay. Both creative drives can yield a wonderful story. It’s your voice at play here, your life. You get to make your memoir be whatever you need it to be.
As for the marketplace and what might get picked up by an agent and actually make it into print, some in writing circles will counsel you to pursue only the breakneck excitement of a contemporary adventure novel—but can you write like that? Do you want to? Does that story telling form fit the kind of story you have to tell?
Selling a memoir and writing a memoir are two different things, and while agents who might take on memoir projects, might think the market best accepts the novelesque approach in memoir, the next big bestseller could run one-hundred and eighty degrees counter to that assumption. You can’t second guess what will sell, or what the buying public will fall in love with.
And because of that, it’s just best to tell the story you need to tell, the one in your heart, the way it comes out of you and onto the page. Then get some feedback from a professional editor, or from astute reading friends, to determine how you might improve your manuscript.
How ever you do it, it is true, a memoir does have to have a shape. It has to be contained in some kind of form, but the story telling approach of the contemporary American novel is only one kind of form, or shape. Maybe your memoir is best told as podcasts—as a spoken story—with no end yet in sight. Maybe you need to make a couple of YouTube videos that capture best the story you are remembering. Maybe it is a book but it’s a combination of journal entries and running commentary, or a collection of free-standing chapters each one about a single family member and how he or she shaped your journey. Or maybe it consists entirely of letters, emails, and texts written between you and a loved one that capture the essence of love and trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I don’t know, and neither does that person out there whispering in your ear that your memoir needs to have the shape of a novel.
Writing a memoir is deeply personal, and you have to follow your writing strengths and the cues the story gives you.
It is essential, though, that you also educate yourself about the difference between writing a memoir, and selling a memoir. So, in this new year, commit to writing that memoir you’ve been thinking about for so long, but also commit to learning about the industry of publishing. That way your story will have a better chance of finding the path it deserves.
Happy New Year of writing.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I happened upon a short blurb about a book in the Quality Paperback Book Club newsletter. That’s going to be a hit! I thought, so I ordered a copy, read it, and watched the world of story roll over in front […]