Reflections on Story Structure for Memoir Writers: Based on a NYT Book Review Best of 2014

by Matilda Butler on August 4, 2015

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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Irene August 6, 2015 at

Matilda, your post intrigues me. I am focusing on story structure in my own writing and want to add another possible structure to your list. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey documents a small set of steps that are common to myths around the world. These myths, actually should be thought of as stories that get repeated over and over, can teach a writer a great deal. Others have interpreted Campbell’s steps for writers and I think the 12 stages of a hero’s/heroine’s “inner” journey are most appropriate for memoir writers.

Thanks for your other ideas. I’m going to check out Offill’s book.

Matilda Butler August 6, 2015 at

Hi Irene:

Great comment. Joseph Campbell’s work is quite important for writers. Thanks for bringing up The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been used by numerous well-known filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola and George Lucas. Campbell’s ideas should be an inspiration to all writers.

Padma September 1, 2015 at

i like the Structure point very much. Thanks for explaining it so well.
I have been reading Denis Ledoux’s books on Memoir Writing. Find him good.

Matilda Butler September 1, 2015 at

Hi Padma: Thanks for your comment and I’m glad that you are finding Denis Ledoux’s book helpful.

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