Most of us write the first draft of our memoir chronologically, setting down what happened in order, or thematically, thinking of what happened and expanding from that time, place, or feeling. Both are terrific ways to generate a first draft.
But memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. Or, a memoir as straight guidebook—detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology—is a dry thing.
Still, the writer must never lose the rope entirely. The ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and read that.
Structure is easier in a “quest” memoir. Climbing a mountain, beating cancer, and overcoming addiction tend to have turning-point decisions and physical setbacks that map easily.
In a “quiet” memoir, personal growth must be presented as dramatic action. You treat your permanent change as a dramatic goal you didn’t know you were working toward. “I’m worth more than I thought I was” is a dark goal. The Character of You moves toward change blindly, but You the Writer knows when you got there. The author can see the pattern and invest moments with deeper meaning than they may have had at the time. For example:
- When it happened: I had to pack all my stuff and get out and it broke my heart that I couldn’t take my mom’s painting.
- What you know now: That was the first big sacrifice I made to get out of a bad relationship—I just didn’t learn enough not to get into the next bad relationship.
- What you do as the author: Leaving Jim was the turning point of Act One. Mourning the loss of the painting is my low point opening Act Two. I want to show that losing that painting cost me a lot, and when I stayed with Brad, part of my decision was not wanting that pain again.
But! Don’t spell that out in your narrative. Let the reader put it together.
Look at the difference between:
I thought about leaving Brad, but then I remembered sitting there in that crappy motel room and mourning my mother’s painting. I didn’t want to feel that pain again, and I guess that was enough reason to stay, or so I thought at the time.
Brad’s slap burned on my cheek like the poppies in the painting I’d left behind. But our threadbare couch was better than another night in a crappy motel room.
Show us what’s happening. Let the reader deduce what it means.
That brings us to the two structures are particularly useful for memoir. They’re also great for blog posts, essays, and magazine and newspaper articles.
Letter e Structure
The story flows like a lowercase e. Start at the crossbar in a moment of action or a key decision, and move forward for a short time.
“I met my gynecologist in Starbucks and she acted like she didn’t know me…”
—Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
“I lost my boot off the side of a cliff, but my feet were so screwed up at this point, I went ahead and threw away the other boot.”
Circle back around the top of the e—how did you end up here? Fill in just enough backstory to return us to the point of action. Give the events that are the context of your decision, not your whole life story.
“I grew up in Texas in a weird family with a lot of taxidermy. Then I met Victor.”
“My mom died and our family splintered. I got into heroin. I decided hiking the Pacific Coast Trail would change me or kill me.”
You’ve reached the crossbar of the e again. Skip to the end of the scene—or to the consequences of the action—and continue forward. Depending on how much backstory is needed, you might be at the end of Act One or going into the last act. If you’re still early, use another structure from here.
For more Letter e structure examples, check out “high trash” books, like Judith Krantz’s Scruples. Yes, really! Krantz is a master at reaching a turning point in the main action, introducing a new character and their backstory, then returning to the main action.
Circular structure is great for essay collections but tough for single plot line books, because it’s hard to make a series of attempts satisfying for that long. However, if your memoir is voice-driven—people just want to spend time with your funny or beautiful writing—or a “collage” memoir of dreamy prose-poem scenes, circular may be enough.
Start by identifying the key challenge or question you’re facing:
- How did I grow into being myself as a young gay boy, and how do I still relate to the world in those ways as an adult? (Me Talk Pretty One Day)
- How is who I am now rooted in being from Florida? (Sunshine State)
- How did I become a blogging celebrity who hides under tables from anxiety at my own events? (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened)
The first scene shows that challenge in action: how does it actually harm or impede your life? Then, show the protagonist trying to change with an anecdote or action that was ultimately unsuccessful, or succeeded enough to keep moving forward. Pair this with analysis or reflection about what happened and why it didn’t work, or why it wasn’t satisfying enough to end the story. Keep repeating attempts paired with reflection until the narrator reaches permanent change. Close with a scene showing this changed self in action, often one that mirrors the opening scene. Now the protagonist can react differently.
With each scene, you’re searching for an answer to your main question. Each scene resolves when you find an answer and like it (or not!), or you don’t find an answer but deal with the question in another specific way.
Eat, Pray, Love is a circular memoir, and Elizabeth Gilbert raises the stakes in each round: Eat to recover from a bad relationship; Pray to rediscover herself and her spirituality; Love to move forward in her life as a healed person.
Circular structure usually works best for shorter work. A circular book must actively raise the stakes in each successive repetition. Your prose must engage the reader at every turn. Even if the reader sees “uh-oh, here we go again…” they need to feel “oh gosh I hope it works out this time!”
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book will be published by Woodhall Press in September 2021. Learn more at her website.