Are You Struggling with Your #Memoir Structure?

When should you start thinking about the structure of your memoir? Will an outline help? What are some tips to help you organize the memories of your lifetime into a coherent story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page?

How do you start thinking about the structure of your memoir?

You already have all the information for your memoir, after all it’s your life! Now, it’s a matter of structuring and including the pieces that will best tell your story in a logical way. Otherwise you may have a jumble of wonderful chapters and scenes that are disconnected. It comes down to what to leave in and what to leave out.

What’s the Story?

The big question to ask yourself is—what is your memoir about? It’s not enough to know it’s about your life and your memories. How to connect the stories of your lifetime, which may seem unrelated, in a way that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. Essentially, keep them turning the page.

Find Your Own Method

Everyone has their own writing method. Mine was to write a scene from memory that had to do with the larger story of my memoir—the plane crash and aftermath that changed the course of my life. I didn’t write an outline, but I applaud those who do. It may save you a good deal of time if you know the theme of your memoir, where you want to start and where you intend to end.  Even if you change course later on, this will give you a compass. I might have written Replacement Child in less than the four years it took me if I had more of an idea of where I was headed. That said, I’m not sure it was possible in my case. The writing of the book was such a journey of discovery for me.  When I began, for instance, I had not even heard of the term “replacement child” let alone applied it to myself. So, this is a long way around of telling you that it will be a very personal decision how to tackle the writing of your story.

The Virtues of an Outline

I will tell you that if you are hoping to sell your book, an outline is almost essential. Agents and publishers want to see sample chapters and then an outline of the whole book. If you bite the bullet early on and do an outline, you’ll be saving yourself a good deal of angst when you get that request from an interested agent or publisher that they want an outline tomorrow! Been there!

The Three Act Structure

I have heard it said that you can simplify your story into the three-act structure ala Aristotle. This may work for some of you, but I believe it’s a difficult fit for memoir. I won’t belabor the detail of that structure here—you can find many references to it on the web or various books about story structure. Or, you can simplify it further by just thinking about your memoir in terms of a beginning, a middle and an end.  If you know roughly what will be included in those three parts of your memoir, you’ll have a giant head start.

Visual Aids May Help

To show you just what a struggle it was for me to find my own structure for Replacement Child, take a look at the photos I took when I shuffled the index cards describing my chapters and re-arranged them on bulletin boards that lined my hallways.

Piecing it together
Piecing it together

After this attempt, and feeling that I had to have the ENTIRE chapter at my fingertips to find the story structure, I took over my porch with the full hard copy chapters.

reorderOur house turned into a giant book outline for a time while I obsessed about structure. I realize I could have done this on my computer with various software programs, but I had to have it in my hands for some reason. I’m the same way with proofreading my work, always revising in hard copy before I return to my computer.

I would love to hear about some of your methods of organization as you go about creating your memoir. There may be as many techniques as there are writers!

OMG! #Replacement Child is NY Times Best Seller!

Just heard that Replacement Child is a NY Times Best Seller! Thank you Seal Press! Thank you anyone who has read Replacement Child. Of course, thank you Al, Florence, Linda and Donna.#NYTimesBestseller @SealPress

Surreal day – Replacement Child is #1 on Amazon in overall memoir category

Amazon Best Sellers- Best Memoirs_Page_1

What is Your Memoir “Voice” — and How Do You Find It?


When I began photowriting my memoir, Replacement Child, I struggled to find the right voice for the story. I experimented with a child’s voice; then explored it through my mother’s eyes, my sister’s and most revealing to me, my father’s viewpoint. At the time, I felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting precious time. But, looking back, none of that writing was wasted, even though most never found its way into the final version of the book. All of it was necessary to help me discover the style that I felt best relayed my story.

If you think of voice as it pertains to other art forms, it’s what sets the artist apart from others. So that, for example, you can identify a Monet from a Picasso, even if the subject matter may be the same. Likewise, you can read the first page of The Glass Castle and hear that Jeannette Wall’s voice is completely different than Mary Karr’s in The Liar’s Club. Both books are about tragic childhoods, but each has a completely different personality of its own. It may take you some experiments with your writing to find the voice that works best to unify the structural elements of your story.

Voice is difficult to describe, and I remember being befuddled by references to “finding my voice” as a new writer. An author’s voice is her style of writing that is made up of the patterns and cadences of sentences, her habits in punctuation and the kind of language used. It should make the book unique and interesting, and be integral to the story without distracting the reader. Especially in memoir, voice should be a tool to convey the emotion around the events.

I firmly believe that everyone has their own unique writing voice that can be unearthed through practice and dogged re-writing. Laraine Herring says in her book, Writing Begins with the Breath, that we are all schooled not to write authentically, but to mimic others, to hide our authentic voice because we are afraid of being vulnerable. To the question, how do you know “when you are, well, you?” she says:

“You practice your writing. You allow yourself to move deeper      and deeper into the heart of your pieces. You stand beside yourself, detached yet present, as you journey deep inside. You test yourself, as you bring forth poem after poem and story after story from within you. You honestly assess your work. Ask yourself these questions:

    • Is this the truth? (Not the literal truth, but the truth of that work).
    • What have I left out?
    • Why have I left that out?
    • What would happen if I added that which I left out back in?
    • Where have I written around the story?
    • Have I addressed the question of the story, or have I avoided it?”

 

Honored and Excited to Win an IPPY Award!

I am so excited that Replacement Child – a memoir, has won a bronze IPPY (Independent Publishers Book Award) in the category of Autobiography/Memoir/Family Legacy.

My congratulations to all the award winning authors!

You can see the full list here.

Discovering Your Mother Through Writing #Memoir

Recently, I had a discussion with my friend Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, about how writing our memoirs had given us both new perspectives on our relationships with our mothers. Ours were very different journeys, but what resonated in our discussion was how the writing brought clarity, understanding and forgiveness. We thought we would try to capture that conversation here in honor of Mother’s Day.

 

OR LINK to the video

Getting to Know My Mother

MomFav     0069_1Some of us get to know our mothers better after they have passed from this life, through writing about them. It can be one of the benefits of writing a memoir, that we gain a unique insight from mining our life experience through a writerly lens.

Writing, by necessity, makes us take notice of the details surrounding an event or a meaningful moment in our lives. Sometimes the writing helps us see the significance in a conversation, or the scar left by a parent’s action or inaction. This was certainly the case as I wrote the chapters for my memoir Replacement Child. The writing especially let me understand how losing her eldest daughter affected my mother’s life.

By writing the scenes of my mother’s true-life nightmare in the aftermath of a plane crashing into her home, I gained an understanding of the depth of her grief and the struggle she had to go on with her life. And old friend of hers told me of a phone conversation shortly after the accident, in which my mother confided that she just wanted to walk into the ocean. As I wrote about her strength in caring for my surviving sister, through years of surgery and rehabilitation, and then her hopefulness in having another child, I knew more about her intrinsic character than I ever did during her lifetime. And, when I realized how my mother and I both suffered from my father’s indifference, I was relieved to learn the secret of my mother’s affair with a family friend. Glad that she had found someone to show her that kind of love for however long it lasted.

Researching my book, I found myself awed by the evidence of my mother’s strength. As a child, I had no insight into what it took for her to give herself over to loving another child (me), with her new knowledge that the child could be snatched from her without warning; that the world was an arbitrary and dangerous place. Writing about my mother, I gradually realized that the pain of losing a child never goes away. It became a new way of being for her. But, although her pain may have defined her, it never stopped her from giving her love fully, deeply, and completely.

If she were alive today, she would be a wonderful role model for parents who have lost children and go on to have others. Still, she is such a model, if I tell it right.

Still Here For Me

I haven’t written for quite awhile due to illness, which is such a waste of time! Right now I am still not sure my writing here will be coherent since I am still on pain meds, but it’s better than imagining the next worst thing that could happen–which I am prone to do. Maybe it’s my writerly self. Give your character an obstacle, they say, then try to imagine the very worst thing that could happen to them after that–then even worse. In the last 7 months my imagination couldn’t have held a candle to reality–but now things are better every day. My trip down this particular rabbit hole has pinholes of light that are getting brighter.

Since this blog pertains to my book Replacement Child, and the story of my family, I’ll tell you how the past several months have made me think differently about that story, and especially about my sister Linda. You may or may not know that a good part of my memoir has to do with my sister Linda’s survival of a plane crash and subsequent fire. She had a surgery each year from the time of the crash, at age 2 1/2, until she stopped at 18. “This is it,” she said. “Take me or leave me as I am.” I was the little sister left safely at home when she went to the hospital each year. Left to imagine and wonder what they were doing to my big sister in those great white halls with the funny smells. She always had a smile and, when possible, a hug for me when I went to see her. “Hey Jude!” She would sing out when I came in holding my mother’s hand.

Now that I am on the other side of having four surgeries in the past seven months, on top of two others a couple of years ago, I know what those visits cost her. And what each surgical procedure stole from her young life. My mother must have planned the timing of my visits precisely so that I wasn’t privy to the worst of my sister’s suffering. Strangely, it seemed to me in this last year that I would go through many of the procedures that Linda had endured, to a much lesser degree. She always warned me that she was prone to adhesions, and I may be as well. And that seems to be a major problem for me. Apparently we both have weak veins, necessitating multiple tries to get an IV started or blood drawn. As she did, I had to have a PICC line put in at one point, then a central line for my last bout.  I wished every day that she were still here in this life to talk to about it all, but sadly she is not.

I prayed she would come to me at several pivotal points in my treatments, but it wasn’t until I wasn’t paying attention, as I lay in the OR before surgery, that I felt her fully there with me. I immediately relaxed, my fear tremors abated. It was a calm I hadn’t felt in a very long time.By the time the anesthesiologist said, “Ok, now I’m giving you something to relax you,” I was already there. I closed my eyes and thanked Linda for her reassurance that this would turn out well. I know many people will not believe that my sister was there with me, and that’s fine. But I know she is the only one that could have calmed me that way.

In a way, I feel closer to my sister than I ever was when she was alive, and I am grateful for the deeper understanding and the knowledge that we are still connected.

Are You Waiting for Someone to Die to Write Your #Memoir?

That’s my topic on my guest blog at The Memoir Project.

Thanks to Marion Roach for hosting me!

 

 

Reading and Discussion of my #Memoir #Replacement Child, November 12 at #JCC New Haven

Come join me tomorrow, November 12 at 11 am at the JCC New Haven for a reading and discussion of Replacement Child – a memoir. Hope you can make it!
JCC New Haven event flyer