For lots more information and tips on memoir writing, go to Wendy's other site Memoir Writing for Geniuses.
UNDERSTANDING LITERARY STRUCTURE
When thinking about the difference between memoir and fiction (I write both), I decided it was this: With a memoir, you already have all of the information. It’s a matter of taking this data and structuring it in a way that makes sense for a work of literature. Instead of starting with nothing (as in fiction) and creating art from a blank canvas, I liken memoir writing to the way Michelangelo created the famous sculpture David. According to the artist, David was always there; Michelangelo simply freed him. The artist had a huge chunk of marble and he carved away until he liberated his subject. That is memoir: whittling away the excess. And fiction? Well, basically you just make crap up.
To me, this is by far the biggest challenge in memoir: not only deciding what to whittle away and what to include, but also figuring out a logical way to tell your story. If you don’t have a solid structure, all you have is a book with a disconnected series of events. This happened, then this, and by the way, I also lived through this. Without structure, you don’t give your reader a reason to keep turning the pages.
In fiction, coming up with structure is practically intuitive. A writer decides to create a novel about expatriate life in Paris or about a district attorney solving a murder for which he is the prime suspect or about an underground club where men get together and fight each other for sport. A novelist knows what her story is about before she even starts. But with memoir, coming up with the story you have to tell is more complicated. After all, you have a lifetime full of memories and lots of good stories, but here is the important part: What is your memoir about?
In week one, I had you do an exercise to get you started. But now, you need to start getting down to the nuts and bolts of structuring your book. How are you going to connect an unrelated series of events in a way that makes your reader constantly ask himself, “What happens next?”
Personally, I hate coming up with a book’s structure, so I apologize in advance for putting you through this grueling exercise. But trust me, this is for your own good. For years I preferred to just write and let inspiration strike me. As I wrote, the stories began to flow. But in the end, I found I had often spent years coming up with lots of great stories with lovely prose and well-crafted characters only to realize that my book didn’t work as a whole. After years of continually making this mistake, I’ve finally learned that it saves a great deal of time to have a good sense of my overall story before I begin writing. This doesn’t mean knowing concretely what each chapter will consist of. But it does mean having a solid outline of the book’s story and theme, the beginning and ending, and some of the more dramatic twists in the book. As I write, I get a better sense of the book’s structure, but beginning to write without knowing how your book is going to end is a fatal error.
When I wrote my travel memoir, I wrote as I traveled. The great thing about this was that I didn’t have to rely on memory. I had conversations practically word for word. I didn’t have to try and recall the smell of a Costa Rican prison or the color of a Colombian sunset. I wrote it as I lived it (or several days or weeks afterward). On the downside, I had no idea how my book was going to end, and it showed in the completed first draft. A young agent took me on anyway. She fell in love with the voice of my narrator (remember the importance of voice!!!) but told me that the structure was a disaster. If I would be willing to restructure the book, she thought she would be able to sell it. Her comment was, “It was as if you didn’t know how the book was going to end when you started writing it.” Only later did I admit to her how right she was.
It took me eight months to rewrite the book, creating a story with a logical series of events that built to a dramatic climax. Then again, I didn’t have the advantage of a Media Bistro class. Back then, it was trial and error. What I want to do is save you eight months. Developing a structure for your memoir is not fun, but not only will it make writing your memoir so much easier, it’s also critical if you want to sell your book on the basis of a proposal. Editors read your sample chapters and then your outline (your description of what happens in each chapter), making sure you plan to tell your story in a logical sequence.
Fortunately, you are not the first person in the world who has had to come up with dramatic structure. A Greek man named Aristotle has already done the job for you, identifying the important components that a literary work should consist of. It’s really not that hard, and it’s probably something you studied in high school literature classes. A book has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have rising conflict that culminates in the book’s climax, which you resolve in the denouement. Okay, but what does this all mean? Let me break this down for you.
Let’s divide your book into three acts, like the Greeks liked to do. The first act is the introduction. In the beginning, you tell me what your book is about. You are setting up the story you have to tell. Who is your main character (in the case of a memoir, it’s you, but don’t forget it’s the narrator you, the you as a character), what is your story, where will this all take place? And finally (and most importantly) what is the book’s key conflict? (Remember that in week one, I had you define your story in terms of a conflict to be resolved.)
Ah, the magic word, conflict. All stories consist of conflict. It doesn’t have to be big, who’s-out-to-kill-me conflict, but without conflict, you don’t have a book. Conflict is what gives your reader a reason to turn the pages. In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck starts out his journey in an attempt to flee his drunk abusive father who keeps Huck imprisoned in a cabin. And then what happens? Misadventure after misadventure. In Jane Austen novels, the protagonist is in search of her perfect partner and meets lots of less likely candidates along the way.
Conflict can be small yet effective. Tell me about your childhood. But describe it in terms of how you wanted to overcome the small town where you were raised. Tell me about your cooking class in France. But structure it in terms of how the crème broule always kept you from fully expressing yourself as a chef. Tell me about your goal of reading all of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but also mention how this interfered with your home life. Or tell me the story of your arrival in Morocco but what demons you were escaping in getting there.
The reader is on your side. They are rooting for you. But you have to give them something to root for. Whenever I get stuck, I always ask myself what my narrator wants. The minute my narrator wants something, there is automatically conflict. Wendy wants something she doesn’t have and is going to try and get it. What obstacles stand in her way? This is the basic structure of your book.
Overcoming obstacles is more or less the gist of act two. You’ve set up your book’s principal conflict in the introduction. In the middle, you show how your narrator has to deal with it. Ideally, you up the stakes. If you are writing a childhood memoir about being trapped in a small town, the second portion of your book deals with all of the terrible things that happen to your protagonist there. If you’re writing about a chef attempting to create the perfect crème broule, you talk not only about her failures in so doing, but also why this is so important to her. Did the mother who abandoned her always serve her instant pudding? Why is it you want to read all of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica? Did your father always prefer your brother because he was the one with the good grades?
In act two, you come up with obstacles that keep your narrator from achieving his or her goal. By the end of act two, what your protagonist long hoped for now seems an impossibility. This is the climax. You have finally bought a plane ticket out of your town, but just as you’re ready to leave, the father you never knew shows up on your doorstep. Your narrator hopes to make crème broule for her mother, but there is a mad cow epidemic and no milk is to be found. You plan to impress your father with your newfound knowledge of the encyclopedia but you arrive to discover that he is mourning the death of your brother.
But this is memoir, you insist! I can’t simply make conflict up. Believe me, I’m not asking you to. I have never met anyone who’s led a problem-free life. Your task here is to go back in time and replay these obstacles. Your narrator is the earlier, more innocent you who has to go about solving these problems (which hopefully you have already fixed in real life).
Act II does not merely consist of problem after problem. It grows tiring for the reader to hear nothing but bad news. Instead, you face a problem and solve it, face another and solve it, and then are faced with the big Godzilla problem as you near the end of Act II.
I’ll use my yet-to-be-completed childhood memoir as an example. My main conflict is that I come from a nomadic family and we are constantly moving to a new place. In chapter one, I set up the problem of seeking acceptance (my theme). The book starts in Peru, where I am a gringa in an all-Spanish kindergarten. By the end of the chapter, I’ve learned Spanish and finally feel at home. Then my parents move again. Suddenly, I’m living in a station wagon in the hills of Tennessee getting free lunch at school. Books become my best friends, and through them I realize that poverty doesn’t have to mean being a redneck. I may be poor, but at least I’m educated. Then my family moves again, and I have a new challenge: I’ve spent so much time reading books that in South Carolina, I have become the class geek and everyone makes fun of me. You get the picture.
When it comes to big, overarching conflict (the end of act two) it always helps to put in a twist. The easiest way to do this is to give your narrator what he or she has spent an entire book searching for only to discover that it wasn’t what she wanted all along. In the case of my childhood memoir, I’ve led my reader to think that acceptance was what I needed to be happy, and although I finally do shed my geek persona in Montana (I’ve learned how to go to parties, make out with guys, and not let on that I know what a gerund is), acceptance feels empty. And in Montana, it has come at the cost of wearing fringe. Now what?
If you want to resolve the conflict in your book, you do it here. You decide that you don’t need to leave your small town after all, that what you were really searching for was your father’s approval. You hug your mother and finally realize that pudding in a box can mean affection too. You learn that the first volume of the encyclopedia had taught you the most important lesson of all: A is for acceptance, for coming to terms with the cards you have been dealt.
In the case of my childhood memoir, I realize that I wasn’t the problem. It was the places we moved to. After all, my parents had chosen all of our locations. I’d just been along for the ride. But now I’m seventeen and freshly graduated from high school. For the first time in my life, I get to determine my own path. I choose Los Angeles for myself, and life begins for real.
In the conclusion of your book, you show how your character has changed. You don’t have to wrap up every single loose end and make for a saccharine-sweet ending, but you do need to show how your character has dealt with his principal conflict and the new place that this has taken him as a result.
I should briefly mention that following a three-act structure doesn’t necessarily mean telling things in chronological order. “Memento” is a film that is told backward. The first scene of the movie is the last thing that occurs: the main character kills a man. A less talented filmmaker might have seen this as the climax and something to put toward the end of the film, but Christopher Nolan makes this his beginning. How to build suspense from there? Now the conflict becomes the question of why this occurred? The narrator himself, who cannot create new memories and is pretty much lost in his own life, isn’t quite sure why he killed this man. The movie continually goes back in time, which slowly gives us the clues to show why this murder is justified, a happy ending of sorts. Even in this completely original screenplay structure, we still find three acts.
One more quick example is the film “La Vie en Rose.” (Sorry about the film examples. It’s just that movies are shorter than books, which makes spotting structure so much easier.) The movie continually jumps back and forth in time. Why did director/screenwriter Olivier Dahan choose to tell Edith Piaf’s life this way instead of going from birth to death? Because he wanted to make the movie fit into a three-act structure. Ending with Edith Piaf’s death does not make for a fulfilling conclusion. She dies, the end. Instead, he tells the story of a little girl hoping to escape poverty with her amazing ability to sing. We know Edith Piaf dies in real life, and this scene does occur in the movie, but it doesn’t happen at the end. What is the last scene of the film? Edith at her best moment, happily singing.
HOW TO AVOID BEING PREDICTABLE
The biggest problem in following a three-act structure is that it often leads to predictable books if writers aren’t careful. You set up a conflict (you want to scale mount Everest), you create obstacles (snowstorms, frostbite, and drunken Sherpas), and in act three, the conclusion: you finally scale Mt. Everest. Boring!!
To avoid being predictable, you pull a literary sleight of hand. (Again, I’m definitely not saying that you make things up here, but that you think about the truth of your book and how to fit it into a literary structure. It’s there, I promise, but it’s going to take some time for you to discover it. To me, this is the biggest challenge in writing a memoir.) I’ve already introduced the concepts of story and theme. This is where they really become important. Your story is about your quest to the top of the Himalayas. Let’s say that your theme is a desire to escape material trappings—you’ve left a great job as a software developer in Silicon Valley to pursue something that matters to you spiritually. In order to avoid being predictable, at the end of Act II the story is fulfilled, but your theme (your internal quest) still hasn’t been realized. In other words, you reach the top of Mt. Everest, only to realize that it had been nothing more than a superficial quest, that it had required lots of REI equipment and a few emergency calls on the satellite phone, that if it hadn’t been for your $750 Patagonia climate-resistant sleeping bag, you surely would have perished. Your desire to escape materialism has turned out to be the most materialistic journey of your life.
Okay, suddenly your book isn’t predictable. But how do you resolve this conflict? Perhaps you decide that being a software engineer isn’t so bad after all. You go back to your job but with changes to your daily life. You no longer drive a Mercedes to work and you give a percentage of your salary to charity. Or maybe you go to work for an IT company that is creating programs to advance environmental awareness. Or you quit software engineering altogether and start up an ashram in India. The end of your story depends on what happened in real life. But although this is memoir, it is also literature, and your ending needs to be satisfying to your reader. If you aren’t able to come up with a logical structure for your book, you need to rethink the story you want to tell. (There are dozens of ways I could have chosen to structure my childhood memoir. The theme of seeking acceptance was the one that made the most sense to me. On the other hand, I could have told the story of how my childhood experiences turned me into a writer. This would be an equally true, but entirely different memoir, and I would have selected different anecdotes to make my point.)
Not long ago I sat in on a screenwriting class taught by a friend and learned something I think is very valuable to writing memoir. He was talking about screenplay structure and mentioned the terms, desire and need. These aren’t tough concepts, but what struck me was how he proposed using them within a screenplay. A protagonist has a desire and a need. The desire represents the external conflict, what your protagonists is actively trying to achieve, what she wants. The need is something deeper and (here is the important part) something your protagonist doesn’t even realize she is lacking. My teacher friend’s example was the film “Central Station,” which centers around Dora, a bitter woman who earns her living writing letters for illiterate customers in Rio de Janeiro. One of her clients is a woman who writes to a man she had a relationship with to tell him about his son, but when this woman is killed, Dora is left with a nagging sense of responsibility for the parentless nine-year-old boy.
What does Dora want at this point? To find the boy’s father, which entails embarking on a journey to the northeast region of Brazil with the child. This is her desire. But what she doesn’t realize is her internal search: Dora is a solitary woman who has never married and has never had children. What she actually needs is to form a connection with other human beings. By the end of the movie, she is a completely different person who actually cares about the customers whose letters she writes.
This is why you can’t write a memoir you haven’t yet finished living. Only the person you are now realizes the need that your earlier, more innocent narrator possesses at the beginning of your book. Your narrator is only conscious of his want. The person you are now understands his bigger need.
Earlier you, current you? If this is starting to feel a little schizophrenic, good news: you’re well on your way to becoming a writer!
A FEW WORDS IN DEFENSE OF A THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
“But I don’t need a formula to write my book!” you insist! Fine. I told you in class one that rule breaking is okay by me. But if you’re going to break the rules, I think you need to understand why they exist in the first place and then consciously break the ones that don’t serve your purposes. If you become a rebel without understanding what you’re protesting, all you have is chaos. Being a maverick is about discovering established norms you feel are wrong and questioning them. It’s not about breaking the rules just for the sake of distinguishing yourself from the herd.
Besides, three-act structure is pretty basic: problem, more obstacles, resolution. You can find three-act structure in Dickens, Hemingway, Twain, and nearly every other Western writer I can think of. (James Joyce is a notable exception. Then again, I’m not afraid to admit I don’t understand Joyce.) It’s not that these writers consciously went about coming up with three acts. It’s that when a book works, it usually follows this pattern. The three-act structure has been around for more than two thousand years and has become a part of our Western psychological makeup.
TRUTH AS IT RELATES TO MEMOIR
It’s tough to take events of your life and fit them into a literary structure. So how faithful do you need to be to events as they actually occurred? Every writer will give you a different opinion on the subject, everything from “You can’t change a single word of dialogue,” to “Truth is relative anyway. Sometimes I just make stuff up.”
My view on this is to be honest to yourself and to the aims of your memoir. I do take some literary license, but never in a big way (I don’t make up characters or situations) and I mention any changes I’ve made in the prologue of my book. I feel that as long as you’re up front about the changes, you are still being completely honest. To give you an example: In Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals, in real life I went to Honduras twice but I combined these two trips into one to make for a more concise read. In the memoir I’m working on now, which is about seven years of living in a Mexican barrio, my one big cheat is chronology. For one thing, I can’t remember the exact order of events, and at times when I can, the order doesn’t quite work within my literary structure. I’ve decided that within this seven-year period, it’s acceptable for me to shift events around a bit. Of course, I’ll be honest about this cheat in the book’s introductory pages.