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Writing Prompt LogoPost #216 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Matilda Butler


Much To Be Learned from Other Writers

I hope you immerse yourself in reading books…books of all kinds. If you are writing memoir, then of course you should read other memoirs. You need to read the finest ones. But not everyone thinks the same ones are the finest. In other words, not all books appeal equally to all readers. To be honest, there are several well-known memoirs that I have been unable to complete. I simply find them dull. Others, however, love those books.

If you have followed me for a while, then you know that I believe there is much to be learned in all kinds of books. Even memoirs that aren’t particularly good can teach lessons. You can ask yourself: What do I like in this book? What is off-putting? How would I handle the story differently if I were writing this book? Is the opening weak? What ideas do I have to make the opening stronger? Thinking about a memoir, questioning a memoir, even rewriting a few paragraphs of a memoir will make you a stronger writer.

And so it is with each genre. I have favorite authors over on the fiction side of writing, but I try to experiment with other writers so that I can see how they handle the craft. I read a book recently that I want to share with you because it represents an unusual story structure.

Once you know what your story is…that portion of your life that you will include in the memoir…you begin to consider how to present the story — what structure to give it. The dictionary defines structure as:

Something made up of a number of parts that are held or put together in a particular way.

The way in which parts are arranged or put together to form a whole.

The interrelation or arrangement of parts in a complex entity.

For our purposes, I like to say that story structure is:

An organization or system; a shell that holds your story; a constraint and enabler of your story.

And how will you tell the story? What structure will you use? Here are a few examples:

Chapters
Letters/Emails
Graphic (memoir, a combination of words and drawings)
Story poem
Photographic (memoir, primarily photos with brief descriptions)
Calendar (weekly, or monthly, or yearly)
Diary or Journal
Catalogue
Tarot cards

Back to the NYT Book Review Best of 2014

The idea for this post came from reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation [Yes, the title really is the abbreviation of Department.]

The New York Times Book Reviews named it as one of 10 Best Books of 2014. And with a recommendation like that, I thought I should take a look. It is the structure that is most interesting…at least to me. This is a story told in snatches. There are thoughts that seem to be completely random…mundane…not worthy of mention. You might imagine that some of these come from entries in a journal or diary. But the author has built a story with this structure — a story of a woman who wants to devote her life to art but who meets a man, gets married, has a child, suffers through her husband’s infidelity, etc. You put the story together based on snippets, thoughts, observations. In many cases, the author seems to trust that the reader will make the right connections.

It is not the story that makes the book worth reading. It is the way the story is told that makes it worth reading. And that’s not a bad concept to remember when writing a memoir. Your story may have common elements with other stories. It is the way that you tell the story that matters.

I’m not sure any other writer could have developed a story the way that Jill Offill did, around speculations in her life and in her thoughts. So I am definitely not implying that you should be encouraged to do the same thing. Instead, I want to open your imagination to how you might tell your life story, your memoir.

By now you probably wonder what in the world am I describing. Let me share the first few paragraphs in the Jill Offill’s book:

Antelopes have 10x vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of all of it.

Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.

The first time I traveled alone, I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak. But when it came I saw it was just a piece of raw meat cut into pieces. I tried to eat it, but it was too bloody. My throat refused to swallow. Finally, I spit it out into a napkin. There was still a great deal of meat on my plate. I was afraid the waiter would notice I wasn’t eating and laugh or yell at me. For a long time, I sat there, looking at it. Then I took a roll, hollowed it out, and secreted the meat inside it. I had a very small purse but I thought I could fit the roll in without being seen. I paid the bill, and walked out, expecting to be stopped, but no one stopped me.

I spent my afternoons in a city park, pretending to read Horace. At dusk, people streamed out of the Metro and into the street. In Paris, even the subways are required to be beautiful. They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.

You can see why I had a difficult time explaining the structure. And yet it works for her. I’m not suggesting that you will or won’t like it. I am suggesting that you read broadly and think deeply about the best building blocks for your own story.

Writing Prompt

To take advantage of today’s post, consider getting out a piece of paper and begin by writing with a brief synopsis of the story of your memoir. Then make a list of the different ways you might structure your story. Be wild when you write the list. It is meant to spark your imagination not to quickly tie you to one approach you need to use.

Have fun.

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Memoir Writers: Just for the Fun of It

by Matilda ButlerJuly 28, 2015
Memoir Writers: Just for the Fun of It

Do you have favorite jokes? Here are Matilda’s and she invites you to recall your own as a writing prompt.

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Memoirs at the Movies: Pamela Jane Opens Our Eyes to Story Structure

by Pamela JaneJuly 14, 2015
Memoirs at the Movies: Pamela Jane Opens Our Eyes to Story Structure

Pamela Jane brings us a fun article on her top 5 memoir movies. Read about the story structure of her chosen movies and write about your favorites.

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How Will You Use Today’s Extra Time?

by Matilda ButlerJune 30, 2015
How Will You Use Today’s Extra Time?

It’s official. Today you get extra time. Join WomensMemoirs for an honest look at time, reflection, mindfulness, and memoir writing.

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Happy Birthday, Kendra — From Your Memoir Friends

by Matilda ButlerJune 11, 2015
Happy Birthday, Kendra — From Your Memoir Friends

Come help me celebrate Kendra’s birthday today. Be sure to leave her a comment.

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Writing Prompt: Call and Response for Memoir Writers

by Matilda ButlerJune 2, 2015
Writing Prompt: Call and Response for Memoir Writers

If you belong to a writing group, or know of someone who does, consider this two-part writing prompt — a call and response. Or write on your own? Then use the individual writing prompt included.

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Memoir Writing Prompt: Looking Back at Alternative Futures

by Matilda ButlerMay 19, 2015
Memoir Writing Prompt: Looking Back at Alternative Futures

Fun memoir writing prompt that lets you talk to your younger self.

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