By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Structuring the Memoir

With the first draft of my client's memoir now coming up to 90,000 words, I am looking ahead to getting the rest of his memories down on paper. At that point, when the complete narrative is lying in front of me like a cadaver on an examining table, (a simile I recently used in my client's story; he is a surgeon after all), I can focus on the structure.

This is a big thing, and in preparation for it, I have been reading samples of memoirs, seeing where they begin, what the author has emphasized, and how she (or he) deals with the chronology of events. (An anthology works well for those who want a quick view. Modern American Memoirs, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley is a good one, as is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser.)

Right from the get-go, I feel a little constrained here, because my project is essentially an autobiography, and not a memoir. In its current version, I have used a straight chronological format, from birth to retirement. Now, however, I need to distill out the meaningful events in each period, and tie them together in a way that moves the narrative along and creates, at the end, a thematic and structural whole. Perhaps, rather than move along a straight timeline, the themes that are emerging will dictate a different structure.

Two writers have given me some useful models to try out. One is Mary Carroll Moore, award-winning author and master writing teacher who uses a storyboard technique adapted from filmmaking to plot the action in the story, and keep the settings and character development running in a logical fashion. Her YouTube videos are a great introduction to this method, and she shows us how to use it in a linear fashion as well as what she calls the "W" structure.

Another insightful guide is, again, William Zinsser, long time writer, editor and teacher. In Writing About Your Life, Zinsser addresses all the technical challenges of writing a memoir, things like selection (what you leave out is as important as what you leave in), condensation, focus, voice and tone. This book is not simply a how-to guide, though. What makes it so compelling and effective is that the author takes you on a memoir of his own, stopping after each section of his story to reflect on the tools he used and the decisions he made in that particular piece.

As I approach the daunting task of revising the first draft, I take heart from Zinsser's two main premises:  First: Beware of "about." Beware of deciding ahead of time how the memoir is organized and what it will say. Second: Think small. Don't look for "important" events but rather the small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in memory. What you remember about the past, Zinsser reminds us, is, after all, where the larger truth lies.

So, on to my task.


  1. The goal is to extract order out of chaos - meaning out of noise.
    Clear, succinct, and engaging prose in your own writing on your project.

  2. Very interesting post -- and congratulations on your progress -- 90,000 words!

  3. Thanks Amanda for the recognition. it does seem a benchmark of sorts.

    And thanks to Anonymous for the intriguing comment! I often look at reality as the tension between order and chaos, entropy and growth. To apply this analogy to a memoir, or to any piece of creative writing, is very insightful...and helpful.

  4. I think it is a big challenge that you are facing because a autobiography must be loaded with the softy emotions that were experienced by the character and as they were driving to go the way they determine his/her life. There must be an engine and a direction on the life of each person and as time passes with the experience and maturity or may consolidate or take a 360 degree turn, find that engine and direction is what nourishes your interest in reading. Knowing your great sensitivity and ability to understand and live the softy emotions of the people with whom you connect I have no doubt that the end result of your book will be very realistic and very interesting. I'm anxious to see your work completed.
    … I hope I was explicit in that it is not my native language