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 the heart of your story and structure your memoir.

You probabaly have a lot of memories written down. But they don’t make a story until they’re connected. So, how do you get from remembering and writing to a structured memoir?

You narrow.

You say to yourself: “I’m going to write about the summer I was 12,” or “I’m going to write about those three years I lived with my grandmother,” or “my experience as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school,” or “that year I traveled the South in my cranky old van.”

Whatever it is, it needs to be a tight subset of your whole life. You can’t write about your whole life in a memoir. (That’s an autobiography, and it’s a different form.)

So, go through your shimmering images and pull out all the ones that pivot around the time period you’ve chosen, heap them into one file, and stash away the rest—they are for another memoir, for another time.

Repeat: Put away all the other shimmering images!

As you work with this winnowed chunk of life, more memories will jump up—some joyous, some the color of dirt. They are all important, especially the ones that come roaring back. They are the poles upon which you hang the story line. They will lead you to the heart of your story.

Heart of the story is always something ephemeral, some idea or notion larger than the details of daily living. It’s a concept, like:

• the summer I was 12—discovery
• those three years I lived with my grandmother—patience, or acceptance
• as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school—discipline, or fear, or perseverance, or faith
• the year I traveled the South in my old van—trust

Your work now is to name the essence of that time.

How do you do that?

By reading the shimmering images you’ve written; writing new ones; feeling your way back and looking at the past with the eyes of now. What did you end up learning? What were you seeking? What did you find? Was it a time of discovery, or patience, acceptance, discipline, fear, perseverance, faith. Trust? Or . . . ?

These are the human experience, and once you land on the big issue that rattled those days, you’ll have a lodestar to guide you through your story.

It’s a wholistic process: checking out what you’ve written, writing new stuff, trying out concept words to see if they capture your heart. Back and forth you go: memories and concepts, memories and feelings, writing, saving, writing, dumping. It’s a time of great trust in yourself, because you can’t get to an outline for your memoir until you figure out what your memories are illuminating. Writing a memoir is not just about the events; it’s about what they mean.

I know this is an untidy process, but writing is untidy, and vexing, especially when writing about your life, which you are still living and still figuring out.

But bottom line, follow these steps:
1) write a bunch of shimmering images, just to explore
2) after awhile stop writing broadly and choose a narrow period of your life that feels full of juice
3) put all the other shimmering images—that aren’t from that slim period in time—into a SAVE file and leave them alone
4) focus on the designated time period and let more shimmering images rise. Write them. Ask yourself what they mean. Get back to your feelings. What did that period in your life teach you? What did you have to accept, or overcome?
5) give that lesson a name: humility, courage, unconditional love
6) line up chronologically, in a new word processing file, all the shimmering images you’ve written that fit your time period, no matter how clunky they are sitting next to each other

Now, get to work crafting your memoir: rewrite those first-draft shimmering images making sure each one, in some way, leans into the concept you’ve named.

Let your narrator muse about what you struggled with, what you were pushed to confront.
Write connecting passages to link the shimmering images, fill in gaps, add new insights, throw out what no longer fits, and always allow the heart to guide the story.