Feeling a little disorganized around the holidays? Imagine the way writers of memoirs must feel when faced with the task of giving shape and structure to the experiences that they’re trying to render on the page. I’ve had a request to talk about such things, so here goes.
When writing a memoir, we’re faced with issues of selectivity as we decide what to include and what to leave out. It seems to me that it’s a mistake to try to include everything from our lives; that’s what autobiographies are for. Memoirs are different animals. They work best when focused on a specific arc of time or when they’re organized around a particular consideration. Think of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life with its narrative beginning at the time immediately following his parents’ divorce and ending with his escape from his abusive stepfather and on his way to prep school in the east. Consider, too, the fact that Wolff later wrote another memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, which focused on his service in Vietnam. Each book has a clearly defined arc of time.
Then consider a book like Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost that takes as its center the story of a giant squid and uses it as a point of departure. The book is driven partly by multi-engined narratives, but also by lyric association, by lists, by imagination. At its center, the book is a meditation on issues of obsession, mystery, and mythmaking. Although the shape of the book is what some might consider loose, it’s precisely that shapelessness that brings into focus the colossal size of our lives. The book has the central metaphor of the giant squid to anchor us as we follow its leaps and turns.
Two very different approaches to memoir, each of them completely valid and appropriate for each writer’s intention. Wolff wants to tell us a story of a particular section of his life; Frank wants to tell us stories inside stories while letting the details lead him hither and thither but always with a particular consideration in mind. Each writer’s approach is organic to his aesthetic of what a memoir should be and what effect it should create for the reader.
The wonderful thing about creative nonfiction, even within the specific form of the memoir, is that there’s room for so many different aesthetics. We should never let someone else’s determine our own. Know what your own experience was—a logical progression from point A to point B, perhaps, or a mosaic of events, associations, meditations—and find the form and shape that will best allow your reader to have that same experience.