In grad school I had a professor who used to refer to memoir as “Me-Moir,” pointing out the egotistical nature of the genre. We all had a good laugh whenever she said it, although most of us had probably dabbled in writing memoir. I certainly had. My first real attempt at writing was a hundred and eighty page memoir I wrote when I was twenty-three. Whenever I get nostalgic I pull it out and flip through the pages. It’s definitely one of the most narcissistic pieces of crap I’ve ever read.
I remember when I finished the first draft. I slid it over to my girlfriend at the time and asked her for notes. Of course, I really didn’t want feedback. I just wanted her to tell me how great it was. She’d recently graduated with a degree in writing and literature and had been working as an editor. After she’d finished reading it she told me I should change the structure so it read more like a novel. She probably would have gone on to tell me a lot more useful information, but I stalked off yelling over my shoulder, “I’m the writer. What do you know?”
Still, she had revealed one of the most important aspects of writing a memoir. Even though memoir is based on real-events you still need to structure those events so that they create a good story with an overall arch. Simply moving from the time when you crashed your bike at age seven to the tidbit about you being scared of French kissing in sixth grade doesn’t really make for a full story. These antidotes may entertain family and friends over a couple of cold ones, but they need to be meticulously structured in order to engage a reader you don’t know.
For example, let’s say we have three memories we think would be great for a short, creative nonfiction piece because they all have to do with alcohol abuse.
One: Going to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting while intoxicated.
Two: Losing a long-time girlfriend because you lied about crashing her car.
Three: Watching a guy take a dump in the county jail holding tank.
We could write about each of these memories separately but none of them are really full stories. Although getting kicked out of a MADD meeting is funny we didn’t suddenly change our ways. While the girlfriend story is heart-felt we didn’t really blame it on the booze until years later. And, even though we did have an epiphany while that guy was taking a dump the rest of that story is a bit boring.
Still, since all three of these memories revolve around the same theme and narrator we should be able to bring these pieces together as one solid story. Even though they happened years apart by using structure we can make them into a tale that has arch and developed characters.
The County Jail story happened the most recent, and after thinking about it we can see that it will work as a good frame because it will allow our narrator to reflect on the past. Losing the girlfriend because of alcohol abuse is the obvious heart of the story and will not only give us space to build the characters’ relationship through scene and dialogue, but will also give us a good climax when it is revealed that she has finally figured out the narrator was the one who crashed the car. While the MADD meeting seemed at first to go with the other two and definitely had a connection to them, after thinking about it, we can tell that it will distract from the main story (the relationship between the two main characters) and so we make a conscious decision to leave that information out.
In the end, our story is about a man sitting in a drunk tank trying to decide how he got there. From this frame we flash back to his relationship with a girl and how alcohol eventually led to them breaking up. After the climatic moment we go back to the frame where our narrator, in the drunk tank, becomes self-aware of the problem and we have resolution.
Structure is often disregarded when writing memoir because some people believe that moving events out of chronological order will change their nonfiction into a fabrication. But as you can see we began with three separate memoires and used structure to relate them in a way that has arch while preserving the reality of the events. Not only will our finished story have more developed characters that our reader can care about, but we will also have told the story in a way where the reader can see the evolution of our narrator.
If I had known more about structure when I wrote my first memoir, it might have come out drastically different. Actually, if I had listened to my girlfriend at the time she would have told me exactly what I’m telling you now. Memoir writing isn’t about long narratives where you make yourself feel important for what you’ve done in the past. It’s a place to take real-events and construct them in a way that others can relate to so that your story has an impact.
Nathan Feuerberg writes short stories, novels, and plays. He received a Bachelor of Arts from The American University of Rome, an MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh, and an MFA from The University of New Orleans. His fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and his plays have been performed in England, France, and Italy. Currently, he is working on a new short story collection entitled Snap. He resides in San Miguel de Allende.