More on Story Structure for Memoir Writers

by Matilda Butler on November 3, 2015

Writing Prompt LogoPost #221 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Matilda Butler


The Sticky Problem of Making Sense Out of Your Memoir Vignettes

Congratulations. You have finally decided (and you mean it this time) to write your memoir. This is the book you have always imagined you’d write. You have some vacation time and think you can make good progress on your memoir and gain enough momentum to keep going. Or maybe you have retired and see that you have time to now write about your life.

That’s great. Many of the women I coach are excited early in the process. But then it dawns on them that they have to select what they are going to write about. Even when you have the what — a story you want to tell, you still need to fine-tune what will be included and what will be left out. I’m not talking about the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Even when you have a specific focus (covering a few years, tracing an illness across a lifetime, visiting countries in Europe one summer, life lessons learned), there is still the issue of which stories to include and how to shape them so that they create a picture for the reader. You don’t want a hodgepodge. You seek clarity in vision and understanding.

A Visual for Thinking about Story Structure

2015-blog-plumeriaWhile in Hawaii this spring, I was walking toward the car from a favorite restaurant in Kona town. There is a small park, overlooking the ocean, that I passed by. I looked down and saw a rather amazing sight.

The park, like many places on the Big Island, showcases plumeria trees with their sweet smelling white, pale pink, and dark pink blossoms. I have become quite interested in the trees while trying to figure out why some lose their leaves and then blossoms come out before the leaves return while others seem to have rich green leaves at all times with blossoms peeking out from the ends of the branches. I asked around and a neighbor told me that the evergreen plumeria is from Singapore and the deciduous plumeria is local. They look similar when both are dressed in their leaves and blossoms until you look closely at the them. The trees with the pointed leaves are from Singapore.

memoir writing and story structureI’ve been known to stop and pick up blossoms, sometimes tucking one behind my ear. The citrusy sweet scent lingers for a long time and soon surrounds me.

memoir writing and plumeriaTheir shape, sturdiness, and scent mean that plumeria blossoms are often turned into leis. On my drive along the coast, there is a plumeria orchard specifically used to produce leis. I’ve even bought them for friends when they visit…such a perfect way to introduce someone to the specialness of the island.

So while I’ve picked, and smelled, and worn plumeria, I’d never seen them used to create art. Art? Yes, that’s what I’d call this plumeria turtle created by a visitor to the park.

Plumeria turtle

Plumeria, Turtles, and Memoir

What does all of this have to do with memoir writing and story structure?

As you can see from the photos, plumeria blossoms are plentiful, just like the memories and stories we have of our lives. But if we present the equivalent of a tree full of randomly distributed memoir vignettes, the recipient may not be able to determine our point. While the whole can be appreciated, it doesn’t show much insight and reflection.

This means you will need to discard a number of stories in order to shape the story that you want to tell. Look at the turtle above. Just a few of the blossoms are used. And those selected ones are presented with a specific structure — a honu (or turtle). [By the way, the honu has a number of meanings in the Hawaiian culture--wisdom, good luck, protection, and navigation. So when I consider the honu as structure, I like to think about its various meanings and how stories could be organized around each of the meanings, if I were to use the honu as the structure for a memoir. When you think about your structure, you might consider if it has additional meanings that might help you have an even richer story.]

Working in either direction lets you arrive at your destination. You can decide on your story structure and then choose the stories that help you craft that structure. Or, you can select the stories that will convey the message you want to share and then determine a good structure for presenting them.

But either way, you do have to be selective. If you have taken writing classes, then you have probably written a number of memoir vignettes. And it is always tempting to try to use as many as possible. Or maybe you haven’t started but want to make sure that you include all the special moments in your life. It isn’t possible. The reader will be confused.

Clarity in message is important, and not necessarily easy to do. You might want to try the memoir writing prompt below and see if it helps get you on the right path.

Memoir Writing Prompt

Take a piece of paper or sit at your computer and:

–1. Write a paragraph that says specifically what the message is that you want readers to get. This is not easy and may take you a while to do. It’s worth it. Take the time that you need but get started on it right now. Then as you fall asleep at night let your mind turn to the statement you wrote and question it. The mind likes to work on problems during the night and you may have a clearer vision in the morning.

–2. With a paragraph describing what you want to write and what will be its message, make a list of no more than 10 vignettes that convey the story behind the message. Let this be your initial start with your memoir. By restricting yourself to 10, you are already looking at the significance of each of the mini-stories. You are considering what needs to be told.

You will refine your message. You will change the number of vignettes and even which ones belong in your memoir. But following the two prompts above will be a start on understanding the story you want to tell.

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