I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about memoirs that don’t tell their stories in traditional narratives. Maybe they shake up chronology. Maybe they fragment it. Maybe they let it spin off into patterns of association. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call these lyric memoirs, though I suppose we could just as easily call them mosaic memoirs, or collage memoirs, or segmented memoirs. There are many ways to tell a story other than the traditional causal chain of events that drives a more traditionally structured memoir.
My preference, when it comes to these types of memoirs, is for there to be something about the nature of the content that necessitates the form. For example, the obsessive mythologizing of an adolescent love that requires a fragmented form to express that obsession in Amy Benson’s “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy.” There should always be an integrity of form and content.
But sometimes I think the more lyric approach can open up sensitive material in a way that facing that same material head-on may be intimidating to writers. This is to say that fragmentation can reduce the sense of obligation a memoirist feels to tell a story about something difficult. Fragmentation can lead to a feeling of play that can be extremely productive when it comes to writing memoir.
We could try it now if you’d like. Here’s a writing activity meant to fragment chronology:
1. Start with a major event in your life: the death of someone close to you, the time you moved when you were young, an illness you struggle with, a regret that you have.
2. Think of that event as the pinpoint center of the object box of a kaleidoscope before you turn it. Turn it now. See what pieces—or to be more exact, what particular moments, come into view. In other words, reduce that central event to a series of moments located both before, during, and after the event itself.
3. Take a few of these smaller moments and write a section for each.
4. Then play around with the arrangement.
5. See what comes up that maybe wouldn’t if you’d attacked the larger subject head-on.
6. Think about where this is heading.
7. See if there’s something about the material that justifies this fragmented approach. If there’s not, see what would happen if you went back to a more traditional chronology, only now with a series of precise moments to dramatize and to link together in a causal chain.
As I said, there may be more than one way to tell a story, but you have to think about the right way to tell the story that you have to tell—to tell it in only the way that you can. Fragmenting the story can sometimes clarify the form. It can also allow you to daydream particular moments that are important to the larger story. Don’t let your material overwhelm you. Jump in where you can and let it take you where it wants to go.