Organizing the Memoir

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.


  1. Joanne Glenn on December 29, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Lee, thanks for this post. I especially liked the two contrasting examples you used…and how to think about one’s own experience to shape the memoir such that the reader has the same experience. So simple, yet so profound.

  2. Melissa Cronin on December 30, 2014 at 12:24 am

    Thanks, Lee! As a memoirist, I understand the struggle choosing between what to keep and what to discard. I often find that parts of my memoir, which include some of my best writing (or what I believe to be my best writing), are the parts that don’t move the story forward, and, disappointingly, need to be discarded.

    • Lee Martin on December 30, 2014 at 11:33 am

      Melissa, it’s always painful to take things out, particularly if you love those sections, but, as you well know, sometimes it’s the only thing to do.

  3. Janice Gary on December 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Love this, Lee. Just what I needed as I finish a first draft that is making its discomfort with a chronological approach known ( in the most stubborn of ways). Organizing and shaping a life into literature is like putting together a puzzle. You’ve got all the pieces in the box and more. The one thing you don’t have at first is that picture on the box. A central organizing metaphor can be that guide and when I wander from that, the pieces refuse to fit right. Thanks for the clue of looking to the shape my experience has taken to find a way to put these pieces together – and which pieces belong to this particular puzzle. I have a feeling I’ll have to shake this all apart and begin again.

    • Lee Martin on December 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

      Janice, you’re so right with what you say about a central organizing metaphor, particularly if the memoir refuses to be told in chronological fashion. Good luck with structuring your book, and thanks for taking the time to leave this comment.

  4. Britton Swingler on December 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks Lee. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on January 4, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Thanks for reading, Britton. Happy New Year to you.

  5. Kitty Hall-Thurnheer on December 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    I just found your blog, and what a treat after the (stressful) holidays. My hope for the New Year is YOU at a Sun workshop in Rowe on the first weekend of June.
    Hope you’re well.

    • Lee Martin on January 4, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Thanks so much, Kitty! Happy New Year to you.

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