Structuring a Memoir:
Scratching your head over how to structure your memoir? It can seem like such an intimidating puzzle! How do you un-jumble a lifetime of experiences? What’s the best way to tell your unique story?
Memoir experts will blithely assure you, of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But that’s not terribly helpful.
So, let’s take a look at four typical memoir structures you could choose from:
- Chronological Journey: Probably the most common choice for a memoir, the chronological journey sweeps your reader along your life path from beginning to end in a straight-forward, time-driven narration. This structure can be easily broken into chapters for different years, decades, or life-periods: birth, childhood, early adulthood, working years, and later life, for example. If you’re looking for a simple, intuitive, easy-to-apply style, this format’s for you.
- Periodic or Segmented Stories: This type of memoir is a collection of individual anecdotes. Although each short story stands alone, they all share some common theme. Example: Perhaps you want to tell stories from a ten-year stint in the military. Or maybe you’re hoping to share helpful take-aways from three decades as a foster mom. If there’s a strong common theme in otherwise unrelated stories, consider letting each story stand alone – and let all of them together shine light on your underlying theme. Because the “structure” here is only the common link or theme, stories don’t even necessarily have to be arranged in chronological order (though often that makes it easier for your reader to follow).
- Issue-Evolution Story-Telling: An issue-driven memoir begins with some “Big Problem” or issue, and shows how you ultimately overcame or resolved it. Example: Maybe you’ve escaped abuse or overcome cancer, and hope to share your hard-won tips and take-aways. Or perhaps your life goal was to become a ballerina, but you had to fight your way through a myriad of difficulties to get there. Structure-wise, this type of memoir typically opens by describing the problem or crisis, moves on to share stories that illuminate the conflict, and wraps up with a (hopefully happy!) resolution.
- The Happy Breadcrumb Path: Pssst, here’s a deep, dark, little-known secret: memoirs don’t have to be neatly-organized! Some of the most charming life stories I’ve ever read were simply collections of wonderful memories. Think of the “happy breadcrumb path” as a meandering trail of anecdotes sharing scenes in a fun and fascinating life. Those stories don’t have to be organized around any particular timeline or theme. They don’t have to even be “significant” in some life-shattering, world-changing way. They can simply be tales from a life well-lived, memories of important people or places you encountered along the way. Recollections about the way things “used to be” are often especially treasured by family, and this type of memoir may be handed down to future generations long after you’re gone.