Questionable: How Do You Start a Memoir?

Carol asked:
I have my MIL’s memoir draft. My question – Would it be a good opening for the memoir to have a “scene” of somewhat dramatic moment in her life? Then go from there. Make it a story of her story?

No.  Also no, and please no.  (I don’t quite understand “make it a story of her story” so I’m ignoring that for now.) Those flash forward teasers (on any narrative, not just memoir) are basically the author saying, “I know this is a really boring beginning, so I’m going to give you this to hook you, and then you’re going to have to slog through the rest.” 

The question I need you to answer before I can tell you how to start this memoir is “How are you structuring this?”

If you’re using chronological order, always the easiest, you start at the beginning and go on to the end.  The beginning is boring?  Skip it and make the beginning where the good stuff starts.

If you’re using patterned structure, then sort your scenes into the pattern (say “Family,” “Career,” etc.) and build the sections to a climax. And start where the good stuff starts.

If you’re using a frame structure, start with the frame, then go to the narrative, then go back to the frame.  You can also drop pieces of the frame into the narrative as you go. And start where the good stuff starts.

That last one may be your solution.  For example (only as an example, not a suggestion): you start with a fascinating conversation you’re having now with your mother-in-law, two smart women in dialogue. Then you segue into her life.  And at the end, you go back to the conversation. The conversation contains the theme of the memoir, the reason why the memoir is more than just “this is the life of one woman.”  The memoir itself illustrates that theme.  

But the best advice is, skip the boring parts and start where her life becomes interesting. God help you if her life is not interesting; there’s nothing you can do.  

One note on memoirs in general: The problem with memoirs, much like movie biographies, is that often there is no main thesis, they’re just the events in a person’s life, and real life is chaotic and often meaningless until we give it meaning. Even then, people rarely grab onto one idea and hold it at the center of their lives forever.  So memoirs are intrinsically sloppy narratively, and the most important thing to do is figure out a structure that tidies it up.  If you can find a throughline in the person’s life, that’s great, but more likely you’re going to have to find a pattern, anything that gives the reader the feeling that there’s a shape to the narrative and not just “and then this happened.”  

Basically, memoirs are a bitch to write unless the central character has had such a fabulous life that the fabulousness overwhelms the lack of focus in the narrative, which is almost impossible.  Betty White’s memoir tanked, that’s how hard memoirs are to write.

16 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Start a Memoir?

  1. I make joke chapters of my autobiography such as, “I left my jacket at home and now I’m cold” because life is mundane followed by peaks and troughs.

    Memoirs and the like, need to hit the highs and lows to keep the reader invested.

    Gerry Conlon of the Guilford Four started “In the name of the Father” with his birth and how the doctor told his mum to put him on Guinness to strengthen him up. It’s a book with a lot of painful middle events but he didn’t skimp on the beginning. It’s also not a tome detailing everything about his life. It’s a slim book that packs a huge punch.

    1. Penny Marshall’s memoir is called “My Mother Was Nuts.” If I was going to write a memoir, that would at least be a chapter.

      1. I have often wondered if there is something in the mother/daughter relationship that sends a lot of women crazy. Maybe it’s all the pictures of mothers and daughters in cute matching outfits that predisposes women to think “This is a mini-me and I can do a more exciting life with this life and it will be fabulous for us both”. And the reality is not a mini-me daughter but one who is almost a clone of the sister-in-law who drives you nuts.

        1. For my mother and me, it was two different generations, two different world views, two different tribes. She spent most of my childhood telling me to not to walk so heavy, not to laugh so loud, not to call attention to myself, not to make waves. She was trying to prepare me to live safely in her world and I was clawing at the door to get out of her world and never go back, which, thank god, I did. I think she resented me because I broke every rule she had and got everything she’d ever wanted. Her generation’s idea of womanhood did a number on her. She never had a chance. She’s going to be 94 next week, so she’s not going to change now.

          1. Your mother obviously has excellent longevity genes. So far you are doing all right, and your prospects are good, going by your mother. That is a great gift from your maternal ancestors.

  2. Thank you, Jenny. I have been thinking how to start the memoir or biography, as she has passed on. She wrote her memoir and left it for me to publish.

    I met with an agent and an editor, (at a writer’s conference), asked a lot of questions about Canadian Indigenous publishing, etc.

    The agent gave me two names who represent indigenous authors. As we were talking, she also suggested a Canadian indigenous writer who would or could be helpful to me.
    I, then met an author who writes/edits both memoir and novels. I gave her two pages of my mother in law’s memoir. She loved the voice and said much which could be “unpacked” in the couple of paragraphs. There is a lot of humor. And…her love life was very interesting! I came away from both meetings with hope that it could be done with assistance.

    I am not indigenous, but, being in the family for over 40+ years, makes me eligible. It is a complicated world. The government keeps changing the politically correct name/s and everything is further complicated by residential school history and reconciliation and missing women, and the many hurts perpetrated over Canadian history. And how much indigenous blood counts as being indigenous. It’s complicated.

    I was once was told that I could not publish anything with an indigenous theme, which annoyed me and implied there was no value in my history as her daughter-in-law as I had no “indigenous” blood. And, to put husband’s name as writer, and does he have enough blood. He left the north for warmer climes and me. It’s complicated.

    I like the frame structure and go to the narrative. It will work as she has written the memoir to high points in her life. She was a woman who did many “firsts” in the business and political world in the high arctic. She also wrote an weekly opinion column for 30 years. EG: She was the first honorary chief in the Northwest Territories in the 70s.

    And, then, there is her sister who doesn’t want the relationship with a priest known. He left the priesthood, with the blessing of then pope, to marry a lovely and very kind woman. (Not mil.) She wrote about it. I found correspondence – that needs unpacking!

    There is something in the pages, but life is both chaotic and mundane. The success will be in making it interesting. I need to pick a lane.

    1. “I was once was told that I could not publish anything with an indigenous theme… ”

      This is like saying that only autobiographies are valid because no one else knows you well enough. Another indigenous person does not necessarily know your MIL’s truth. They know their own truth as an indigenous person but not necessarily hers.

    2. Carol, have you ever read “I Am Woman” by Lee Maracle? The tagline is A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism (she uses Native term not indigenous).

      It’s not a memoir exactly, but for me it’s an important book because she gives voice to experiences we need to hear more about (imo). She says it’s about her personal struggle when her struggle was still ongoing. And her intention was to help empower other women to take heart in their own struggle (this a very pared down gist from her preface).

      She structures the book with poetry, stories, and essays and you may find some helpful ideas re format there. Plus, it’s just a great book and her honesty and generosity in sharing is lovely.

      But it may also help with some of your other questions re tackling the Indigenous perspectives.

      From your description, it seems like your m-i-l had some interesting experiences but as a Canadian with an understanding of the cultural issues you’re touching on, I can appreciate how the task of pulling it together could be a challenge on one hand. Yet it also seems like such a privilege on another, especially that she entrusted you with bringing it to life. Good luck with it:)

      1. We use the term Native or First Nations. The term “aboriginal” is not to be used as one little grandmother said, “I am an original not an abnormal original.” Love what she said.

        Husband looked at me in horror when I said I was told I couldn’t publish in my own name and needed his name on the book too.

        I will look for her book. Thank you.

    3. Political landmines that seem to have more to do with making the government look good and not only protecting the image of Canada but the mythology of the “Noble Savage who is too pure to make it in the White Man’s World” than making any real change.

      Her story sounds fascinating and deserves to be out there. There’s got to be someone who sees “daughter-in-law” before they seen “white woman” and will publish this with you.

      What part of the NWT is she from?

    4. OmiGoddess, I need to read this!!!! DON’T give up.

      I follow quite a few Indigenous artists and writers in twitter and they have helped me understand so much more about colonization. There are resources for you. And this is your quest, to tell your mother-in-law’s story as she wanted it told BY YOU.

      The BIGGEST thing is that more stories need to be told to inform people of the range of Indigenous experiences. It builds an empathy bridge. Keep us updated!

  3. I loved Michelle Obama’s memoir because she had a clearly defined theme, “Becoming”. All she tells us in her book is part of the idea that we are constantly in the process of developing further, that we never stop growing, learning, changing.

  4. I know that I have read stories written as memoirs and enjoyed them. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keys, ultimately made into the movie “Charly” with Cliff Robertson. Heinlein’s “Podkayne of Mars.” “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

    Still and all, not my favorite format. I think of it as the “Dear Diary” school of literature, sort of the opposite of the “Show Don’t Tell” format.

  5. I absolutely despise the prologues/flash forwards for exactly the reason Jenny mentions. If I’m trying to decide if I want a book, I skip reading the prologue because that is usually not the story…at least not until 3/4 of the way in when they finally get back to that situation. HATE IT.

  6. Yes, I started to read a novel about a character in her 30s, then in chapter 2 we went back to her 20s. I was excited to read a historical where the protagonist was closer to my age, and then a switcheroo happened. I took it back to the library without reading any more.

Comments are closed.