Structure Isn’t the Holy Grail You’re Looking For

Image: dense layers of scaffolding inside the Hagia Sophia, obscuring a light-filled arched window.
“scaffolding at the hagia sophia” by saragoldsmith is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).

It’s Tuesday at 4:30 PM. A writer’s name flashes across my Zoom screen.

As we begin her free consultation, she tells me about the harrowing memoir she plans to write. The project is her first book, and she’s not sure where to begin.

After a five-minute banter about the writing process, she says, “Can you tell me how to structure my memoir?”

As I craft a reply to this frequently asked question she leans in, waiting, perhaps even hoping and praying, that I’ll share the secret that easily and efficiently unlocks her project’s genius.

I understand because I repeatedly asked the same question early in my writing process.

At the time, I thought structure was the holy grail of storytelling. Like the characters in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, all I had to do was choose wisely. Complete the task and I’d soon double fist the prizes ever writer seeks: the ecstasy of having written and the pride of holding my published book. Fail and the bones of my project might crumble, right along with my motivation.

Unfortunately, structure isn’t the storytelling holy grail.

It’s just one of many important components.

Think of a completed memoir as a dwelling with scenes and exposition as the building blocks. Chapters are the rooms. Structure is the frame that holds it together. Your narrative arc is the blueprint that guides construction and determines your structure.

In real life, blueprints are created long before construction begins.

But memoir writing is an iterative process that begins with Anne Lamott’s shitty first draft and then slowly develops and deepens. The early stages in this process sometimes feel like building a skyscraper with nothing but air. No wonder writers seek a structure to hold onto!

So how do you keep from white knuckling your way through an early draft?

As I look back at what I needed—and what my clients now crave—it’s scaffolding, not capital S structure.

In construction, scaffolding is a temporary structure that supports the work on a building whether it’s new walls, repairs, or cleaning. Once the work is complete, the scaffolds are removed.

Here are a few scaffolds that can support your first-draft efforts.

Scaffold #1: Choose a time in your life, not your whole life

While autobiography covers a life from birth to death, memoir is about one experience.

Marion Roach Smith says it this way: memoir is about what you know after what you’ve been through.

Break your life into epic moments—an odd career, a monumental journey, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a loss that changed everything.

Your first draft should be about one of these things and the lessons you learned.

Scaffold #2: Establish a timeline

You’ll be tempted to start at age three on that formative day when someone stole your cookie. No matter how delicious the cookie, refrain from doing this. Instead, begin at the point when you first noticed the problem. Unless you’re writing a coming-of-age story, it’s likely this event took place in adulthood.

For example, in The Suicide Index, Joan Wickersham’s problem is creating order around her father’s suicide. While earlier life events affect the way she responds to this family tragedy, she begins with her father’s death—the day her problem first occurred.

Once you’ve established a beginning, select an ending.

Journeys and time-limited events often have clear endings. For example, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild ends when she completes her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Carmen Maria Machado’s book In the Dream House follows the rise and fall of an abusive relationship.

If your ending isn’t clear, you can create a time marker, like Joan Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir she wrote about grieving during the first year after her husband’s death. 

If your final moment isn’t definitive, and a time marker doesn’t work, identify the first instance when you experienced peace, and let that serve as your first-draft ending. At this point, don’t worry about pinning down the perfect scene. Instead, choose a “good enough” ending—one that results in a completed draft. Once you solidify your narrative arc, you’ll find the right ending for your book.

Scaffold #3: Choose plain over fancy

Maybe you read In the Dream House, The Fact of a Body, or Safekeeping and thought I want to do that. I get it. These books are elegantly arranged, and perhaps you’re a writer who can also pull this off.

But few writers begin with an elegant, or fancy, structure. More often, it’s something they discover after many drafts and years of hard work.

For a first draft, stick with a linear, chronological structure and minimize flashbacks. I suggest this for two reasons. Flashbacks by their nature occur out of order. Once you accumulate hundreds of pages, it can be easy to forget where you placed them.

And, while you might think a flashback juxtaposes nicely with a certain scene, flashbacks only work if they tell us something about the character that’s immediately relevant to the story. In a first draft, those insights are rare.

Scaffold #4: Let your mind wander

I know, I told you not to start your book with the cookie. But sometimes your brain reallyreallyreally wants to write about the cookie.

So, write about the cookie, and the time you fell out of the tree, and even your first kiss.

Your unconscious is a wise creative ally that frequently learns through association. It also knows the things you need to work through so you can truly understand your story. Some of the moments you’ll feel compelled to write about will ultimately belong in your manuscript, but others are just prewriting. Instead of adding them to the timeline you’ve already established, keep them in a separate file that’s also ordered chronologically. This will prevent you from becoming overly attached to them. It will also dampen your compulsion to begin with that cookie.

Scaffold #5: Give up the dream of having written

Holding a completed manuscript is a delicious, soul-satisfying state. If I could bottle it, my life would be complete. But focusing on the dream of having written leads to impatience. It’s the number one reason why writers ask so many questions about structure. Instead, embrace the process and scaffold your way to a first draft. Once you’ve achieved this goal, you’ll be one step closer to understanding and identifying your memoir’s structure.

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