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!

So meaningful to me

butterfliesYou know, it’s hard to figure out what to share here, and I know self promotion is rampant and I am as tired of it as you are, but sometimes I get emails from people who have found my book, #Replacement Child, and I am so moved I want to tell you all about it. Just this morning, I got this email from a woman in Ireland who found my book referenced online. This kind of email is why I wrote the book, and why I am glad I did.

Hi judy,
I have just ordered your book and can’t wait to read it.
For some reason last night when I lay in bed, I started to get upset about childhood issues. I decided to look up a child that comes after death of a sibling. Wow! One click on google and I realise something at the age of 36! I was a replacement child. I always knew my position in the family in that I came after death of a brother. But now suddenly I have an actual position that is recognised! I felt huge relief is all I can say but also amazement at how I did not realise that’s what I was , a replacement child! Feel a bit stupid too. I ordered your book and I am looking forward to reading it. I don’t feel so alone now.   I am married with kids but have always felt alone and different. Why am I telling you this?! Why email you?! I don’t know. You are a stranger who knows what I am feeling somewhat and after last night revelation I had to tell someone 🙂! Thank you,
B. in Ireland

I wrote back and asked her if I could share this, and she wrote:

Thanks for your reply. Yes of course you may use my mail for your blog. I actually feel found judy. It’s actually the single most exciting thing I feel to have happened for me. Struggling all my life with guilt of being on this earth in place of my brother. I don’t blame anyone, I always said, it’s just life , no ones fault. But the pain and unworthy feeling all my life has been crushing. Grateful to you and others for being there on Google , thank you from the bottom of my heart. When others verbalise another’s secret pain it is so liberating. Happy beyond words. Excited for a new chapter in life . Bless you X 

Dad: Re-Visited on #Father’s Day

Dad beach 1953012I can see my dad bent over his watchmaker’s bench, jeweler’s monocle in his right eye, squinting the left shut while he scrutinized a diamond. Dad didn’t have much hair from the time I could remember, but in this crouch there was always one wayward black-gray strand dangling in front of the monocle.

He proudly displayed his framed Gemologist certificate behind the diamond showcase in his small shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a kid, I could never figure out why that piece of paper, earned after a short course in identifying the quality of diamonds and other gems, meant so much to him. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was the only graduation certificate he ever received. Another reason he insisted I get a college education.

My dad and I operated like far-flung planets in the same solar system; my mom and my sister our shared moons, but never sharing the same orbit. I worshipped him as a child. At first because he could pick me up over the waves at Bradley Beach, protecting me from their washing machine swirl, the sand-caked bathing suit, gulps of ocean and salt-stung eyes, if I stayed close enough for him to grab me and lift me at just the right moment when the wave peaked its highest.

Staying close was not always easy. He would wade ahead of me in the surf until I got up the courage to run after him and cling to an arm or leg. Off the beach, he was home for only a couple of hours each night before bedtime, just one full day each week on Sunday. He never left his shop in someone else’s hands. “That was just asking for trouble,” he said.

Sunday was his bowling league, and I would beg to be taken along to watch or play pinball in the arcade area. I remember him being reluctant, giving me a fist full of quarters to keep me occupied while he competed with his team. He was pretty good too, and taught me how to hit a split for a spare.

He was always reading a couple of books at a time. Usually the newest popular fiction by his favorite authors: James Michener, Herman Wouk or Leon Uris. When he was propped up in bed, book leaning on his tummy and his black reading glasses balanced on his nose, I knew not to interrupt. Sometimes his bedside radio played softly.

Dad was the one who went out into the unknown world, encountering strangers daily, slaying the dragon of commerce with a very small sword. I was right to think him brave, even if I didn’t know why.

He was fifty when his shop went under, I suspect because of his generosity in extending credit and cutting prices when someone “needed” an engagement ring or a gift for Mother’s Day. Just 10 then, I remember he and Mom telling us the news, assuring us that everything would be fine. And, it was fine. Dad got a job with a jewelry chain and probably had the most productive years of his life. He won prizes for his incredible salesmanship, beating his own goals year after year. After his death, I found a letter from one of those bosses, folded into a tiny square of yellowed stationary and tucked into a strong box under his bed, praising his skill and expertise. It made me think of that Gemologist certificate, lost long ago.

I tried to stay close over the years, hoping he would always lift me over dangerous waves. It wasn’t until I wrote my memoir, Replacement Child, that I understood the illusive chasm between us. That the memory of my sister, killed in a plane crash when she was seven, was never far from his mind. What could be more of a reminder than a daughter who looked, and for all I know sounded, similar to his lost girl?

I learned a great deal about Dad from writing through his ordeal following that horrendous accident, pieced together from often-told stories, news articles and family notes. The hurt at being his “replaced” daughter faded and I came to understand just how brave a man he really was.

Off to the #IPPY!

It is actually surreal. Last year at this time I was recovering from major surgery and reading the news of books being awarded the IPPY in New York City just prior to the Book Expo. My book had just come out, and I had missed some opportunities to promote it because of illness. Winning an award was the farthest thing from my mind. But, how cool would it be to be with all those writers in a room celebrating an accomplishment like that?

I can’t help thinking back to when I was deep in the quagmire of finding my way through writing Replacement Child. Struggling with the voice for the story, the structure that would tell it best, the paralyzing responsibility to tell it right. A memoir does that to you. It’s deeper than a story. It’s your story. Often, your family’s story.

I know that all of the writers that I will be meeting tonight at the IPPY celebration have gone through the same angst with their own books, and it will be a little like meeting long lost relatives. I can’t wait!

 

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?”

 

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.

My Sister’s Voice

The following is the text of my essay that recently appeared in The Southampton Review. You can order this fantastic literary journal at thesouthamptonreview.com. It looks much prettier in the publication!

My Sister’s Voice

     In the end I only wanted to hear my sister’s voice one more time.

They’d found a cancerous tumor lodged in her airway. I was grateful I had spoken to her on the phone just before they intubated her; the tube down her throat bringing life saving air to her lungs but not allowing her to speak. Linda was in Florida and I in Connecticut, but the fear in her voice cut across the miles. “If I get through this one, I swear I will stop smoking,” she told me in gasps of breath. It was something I had begged her to do for many years. She was never ready to give up “one of my few pleasures.” Now, she was ready and I was afraid it was too late.

I was at a concert with my son when I got the news that she had been intubated and was in intensive care. Bob Dylan was playing at a baseball stadium in a neighboring town. The place was packed with fans who knew all his lyrics, serving up a continuous background chorus to Dylan’s rasping “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm”. It was a sweltering summer evening in Connecticut with no wind and stick-to-the skin humidity. The kind of night that demanded cold beer. I had just headed to the concession stand as my cell phone rang. Stopped short on the concrete steps as people pushed past me to get their fries and hot dogs. The noise around me forced me into a corner to hear, covering my exposed ear and pushing the cell phone squarely against the other. Still, the information didn’t seem to make the leap. Some kind of insurmountable chasm from phone to ear to brain.

When Linda’s daughter had called me the day before from Florida, we thought her trouble breathing was a reaction to a new medication. I was not greatly alarmed, thinking this was just another chapter in my sister’s long history of health issues. All my life I had watched in awe as she overcame each one, and I was certain she would come through this one too. My mother had once proclaimed her our “little soldier” and Linda had never forfeited a battle.

Linda was two, and I was not yet born, when a plane crashed into my family’s home. She survived the explosion and resulting fire that killed our older sister, Donna.

Critically burned, Linda was not expected to live. Nuns at the Catholic hospital prayed at her bedside, saying she was very close to God, a notion meant to comfort my parents, but one that only frightened them. My father matched the St. Christopher medal on Linda’s pillow with a Star of David. He told me he was ready to take a miracle from any God who would listen. I believe my sister survived, however, through her sheer force of will.

As a child, I was a witness to Linda enduring surgery after surgery to put her poor body back together. Right after the accident, I knew that doctors had to enable her breathing through the burned and narrowed airway. The same compromised airway that she later fed with smoke and nicotine.

When I was six, I waited at the top of the stairs in our split-level home, wearing a white nurse’s costume, complete with a blue Florence Nightingale cape. I watched my sister’s face, her cheeks wet, as paramedics turned her, in her full body cast, trying to angle her to fit through the narrow front door. She caught my eye and we both smiled, each recognizing the other’s fear, our mutual protective instinct helping us through the moment. That winter I pulled snow off the roof outside her window to build her a snowman, complete with raisin eyes, a carrot tip for a nose, and a sock for a hat. I placed it back on the roof where she could see it from her bed; watch the raisins slip, the carrot finally drop and the sock slosh onto the wet slate as the weather warmed. The melting meant we were growing closer to the time when Linda would be freed from the prison-like cast.

At eighteen, one surgeon offered to repair her facial scars. She would squint as she looked in the mirror, imagining what she could look like—and if we might finally look like sisters. The promise of her new face captivated us both. She dreamed, and I dreamed with her. She might not need two hours each day to put on her makeup, applying the pink and green tints, the heavy foundation, the setting powder. I marveled each time at the transformation. How her Bette Davis eyes were accentuated, and the red-brown scars took a back seat to her ready smile. Linda gave me a sharp hug that day before she left for the hospital.

But it wasn’t to be. The scar tissue was too deep, and the risk of facial paralysis was too great. After that disappointment, she announced that she had had enough reconstruction—the world would have to accept her as she was.

“Take it or leave it, this is me, “ she said, always with a smile.

“Intubated” sounded so careful, like putting her in safekeeping, inserting the breathing tube as they had after the accident when she was two. This time, though, the smoke would win out.

A few days after that Dylan concert, as I sat with her in the hospital, she wrote on a pad to me:         “Did you get all the information you need? Are you okay with what is going to happen?” Still looking out for her little sister, helping me accept her imminent death and understanding what the doctors had told us; the chemo had no effect, there was nothing more to do. I shook my head, first “yes,” then “no.” My words stuck in my throat.

I was just finishing the edits on my memoir. She had helped me with the story by filling in details that only she was privy to, secrets my mother had concealed from me, as well as Linda’s own emotional journey. When I delivered the manuscript to her I told her I would take out anything she disliked. She didn’t change a word. “This is your story,” she told me. Later, I would find the beginnings of her own story on her computer.

We had joked that when the book came out, we would go on Oprah together. I had finally realized that my story, about growing up in the shadow of the sister who died, was also very much about Linda and our childhood together. In the hospital she wrote me a last note, urging me to “push” to publish the book to tell our story.

I feel her pushing me still. And I clearly hear her voice.

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!