One Way to Structure a Memoir

The miserable winter weather we’re having here in Ohio has reminded me of the snowy night in 1965, when my parents and I had to make the five-hour drive from our suburban Chicago home to the downstate hospital where my grandmother was dying. We’d left our farm and our extended family behind in order for my mother to take a teaching position in Oak Forest, Illinois, a move she later confided to me that she thought unnecessary, a move that had been solely my father’s idea. I’m not sure we ever felt like we belonged in Chicagoland. On that February night, in 1965, we had to make our way back home. That became one of the moments I wanted to include in my first memoir, From Our House.

I structured that memoir with a narrative arc that used geography as an organizing principle. The narrative broke down nicely into three distinct sections: my early childhood on our farm in southeastern Illinois and the event that led to our leaving for Oak Forest; our years in Oak Forest and our poor attempts to fit in before deciding to move back downstate; our return to southeastern Illinois and the life we finally accepted there. Beginning, middle, end.

Beneath that narrative arc, though, was the complicated story of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands, the anger he brought into our home and the difficulties between us, and our eventual reconciliation.

Memoirs are not only about what happened; they’re also about the complications between people and how they rub up against one another. I decided to let each chapter of From Our House feature a single event that provided a turning point in my family’s story. The chapter that opens with the drive we made on that snowy night uses my grandmother’s death for its narrative center, but it also uses that event as a catalyst for a shift in my relationship with my father. The event, then, is working on the level of plot as well as characterization.

I was nine years old in February, 1965, and once we arrived at the hospital downstate and found out that my father’s mother, my Grandma Martin, had passed, we stayed with and my aunt and uncle while funeral arrangements were made. On the morning of the funeral, I found myself stricken with an inexpressible sadness. I refused to get out of bed. My uncle tried to coax me, but still I refused. Finally, my father came into the room, and I braced myself for his anger, which was the custom between us. He surprised me by lying down on the bed with me. The pressure of a plot event often causes someone to act out of character.  That person, then, becomes more alive to us, more complicated. The newness that we see in him or her demands our response.

While my father and I were lying on the bed, a rooster on my uncle’s farm began to crow even though it was well past daybreak:

“Hear that?” my father said. “Mr. Rooster’s all mixed up. He must have slept through the dawn. He must have been an old lazy bones. Now he’s too late.”

I heard my father’s voice break, and it startled me. I pulled my head out from under my pillow and saw him lying on his back, his eyes closed, his hooks clasped on top of his stomach. “When I died,” he had said, as we had left my grandma’s wake, “everyone will come just to see if they bury me with these hooks.” It was, perhaps, the first time I understood that my father, so much older than my friends’ fathers, might die while I was young. And though he was the man who whipped me, he was my father, and freedom from him would carry with it an everlasting guilt, a regret that we hadn’t found a way to love each other more.

It was impossible for me to snuggle in close to him, because of his hooks, but I moved as close as I could and felt the heat from his body.

“We have to go,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer. In a while, he would ask me if I was ready, and we would rise and go to the funeral home. But for the moment, we lay there, the two of us alone, while the rooster crowed again and my father said, “Good morning,” as if we were just then waking to a new day.

When we write a memoir, we might want to first think about what’s unresolved. For me, it was my father’s accident and how that affected our relationship. Then we might identify a particular time period in which this unresolved thing was most relevant. I knew my memoir would begin with my father’s accident and anger and end with his baptism when I was sixteen years old. Once we have that basic framework, we can start recalling the events that brought about turning points in the relationship most central to the book.

Two arcs, then: one of plot and one of characterization. In memoir, what happens always presses up against the people involved. We reveal ourselves and others through our responses to the events of our lives. Sometimes the events are large as was the case with my grandmother’s death, but sometimes within those large moments we find the smaller moments that still resonate even though years have passed. I wouldn’t get out of bed. My father lay down beside me and allowed himself to be vulnerable. I had to respond.


  1. Bren McClain on January 27, 2014 at 10:50 am

    The beauty of your words, Lee. Thank you for that — and your wisdom.

    • Lee Martin on January 27, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks, Bren. I hope you’re warm and toasty today and that the words are flying from your fingertips.

  2. sarah corbett morgan on January 27, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Such good advice, Lee, and such a poignant and beautiful passage from your memoir. It _is_ those “out of character” moments that pack such a powerful punch.

    I really like the idea of framing the beginning and end of a memoir, then searching within that timeframe to find the meat. Otherwise, we can (I do, anyway) get lost in all the life we’ve lived. I’m saving this one for my files.

    • Lee Martin on January 27, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Tina, sometimes it helps us get past that feeling of navel-gazing, if we just imagine that we’re having a conversation with ourselves, just telling our story plainly, simply, directly. While we’re doing that, we’re also aware of when we need to make room for the other people in the memoir. In other words, we need to know when to cast our vision outward. We become a participant in a scene of memory and then we come back to the writer at his or her desk–that persona that questions, interprets, responds emotionally and intellectually. I’ve always thought of that advance and retreat as being crucial to the art of writing a memoir, and narrative arcs help us accomplish that. Good luck.

  3. Tina Neyer on January 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Lee, interesting to read this perspective on memoir as I muttle through a manuscript I’m revisiting after 4 years of shelving it. The struggle for me it in accomplishing the mystery of telling the story without feeling and sounding narcissitic. Perhaps if I define the arcs within the manuscript I can then cultivate the stories which have something to do with me, but so much more than just myself. Thank you.

  4. Kathleen Stone on January 30, 2014 at 10:12 am

    I recently encountered your work at Bennington’s MFA program where one of the graduating students read an excerpt of your work during a lecture, at the residency just ended. I was moved then, as I am now, by your writing. I signed up for, and am delighted to be receiving, your blog posts with practical guideposts. Thank you.

  5. Geri Whitten on January 30, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Wow – love this explanation of structure. Emotional – never reconciled with my father – provided my freedom but the guilt lingers after 40 years. Always, always appreciate wht you write. Snow day in Atlanta.

    • Lee Martin on January 30, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Hi, Geri! Glad you found my thoughts about structure useful. The things unresolved in our lives can at least be managed when we give them shape. I was reading in the paper today about the horrible gridlock in Atlanta yesterday due to the snow. Stay safe and warm!

  6. Brita Dore on September 23, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Thank you so much I found your thoughts about structure very helpful and thought provoking. Namaste Brita.

    • Lee Martin on September 23, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Hi, Brita,

      Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad you found the post helpful and I wish you all the best with your work.

  7. Mary J. Doss on June 25, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    This is very useful information to help construct a memoir. I will use the information you provide a means to write my own story. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise.

    • Lee Martin on June 25, 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you for reading my blog, Mary, and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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