Fragmenting the Memoir: A Writing Activity

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.


  1. Deni Naffziger on October 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Lee — this was just what I needed to read. I’m working on a memoir of sorts and have chosen to use the stations of the cross (old Catholics die hard) as a way to organize it — 14 sections. It’s a less-than-conventional approach. The writing exercise you suggested is also one that I plan to play around with.

    • Lee Martin on October 4, 2016 at 10:29 am

      Hi, Deni! I love your plan for structuring the memoir. I hope it works well for you.

  2. Michelle on October 3, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    So helpful- I have been working through pieces of me but the imagery of the kaleidoscope just gave me a more constructive scaffolding!

    • Lee Martin on October 4, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Hi, Michelle! I’m glad you found my post helpful. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you all the best!

  3. Amanda Champion on October 4, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate your thoughts and suggestions that there is more than one way to put together a memoir. I’m working on my thesis and using a non-traditional form where I intersperse long essays with short vignettes. Not sure exactly where it’s going, but I like it. Happy writing!

    • Lee Martin on October 4, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      Hi, Amanda! Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you all the best with your thesis. I wonder what the effect will be of your structural choice. I wonder how the material demands it.

  4. David on October 28, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    Good advice. I have been working with a memoir of sorts of my own and the fragmentation approach you suggest seems to be the best I’ve considered so far. Not quite sure how many outlines I’ve started and trashed because the linearity of the outline misses the heart of the issue. Time, as experienced, is linear, but it doesn’t have to be that way with writing about the past. Breaking pieces of time into their own element and then rearranging them to create your own, new puzzle box picture is a good idea. Thanks.

    • Lee Martin on October 29, 2020 at 11:19 am

      You’re right, David. Time doesn’t have to be linear when writing about the past. I wish you all the best as you create your new puzzle box picture. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to post this comment.

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