Don’t Give It to Me Straight: A Non-linear Approach to Memoir

A large part of the memoir writer’s task is to decide what to leave out. After all, we’re talking about the span of a life, and we certainly can’t include everything. Our initial instincts with memoir tell us that a certain degree of chronology is in order. We’ll move from this point in time to this other point in time, and that will be our story. But what if that form doesn’t sufficiently contain the experience you’d like to relate to the reader? What if a straight march through time, no matter how focused and selective, just won’t create the emotional truth that you want to express?

Robin Hemley addresses this issue in his essay, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer,” when he discusses how he structured his memoir about his sister and her schizophrenia, Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness:

Trying to figure out the structure of this book was murder for me. If you’re writing a memoir, which I see as focused on a discreet part of one’s life, as opposed to autobiography, which deals with the entirety of one’s life thus far, you need to figure out a strategy for attack, a way of knowing what to focus on. For me, figuring out the structure told me what to write about and how to write about it.

What Hemley figured out was that he needed to tell three stories in the memoir: his sister’s, his, and his mother’s. He braids alternating chapters, relying on the art of fragmentation and juxtaposition to lead to connection. He describes his work as relying on a “silent commentary” between these fragments.

I like that way of describing what happens when you put the right things next to one another in a piece of memoir. Such a strategy invites us to think about how little we need to tell a reader if detail and voice and structure work together to create a precise emotional experience.

Charles Simic’s “Three Fragments” is an example. If you don’t know this brief essay, go find it forthwith. Notice how he goes about building a certain tone and mood in these three short sections, all lush with detail, all linking to a central hub. Their sum, a result of their artful juxtaposition and restraint, leaves us with a replica of the emotional and psychological experience that Simic mines from his memory.

Here’s a writing exercise designed to help you work with non-linear narration:

1. Come up with three moments that you can’t get out of your mind. One should be a moment that you experienced in the past. One should be a moment from the present. One should be an imagined moment from your future. Write a scene for each moment which will suggest, of course, a larger narrative—past, present, future.

2. Let each scene invite other scenes. Write three scenes each for the past narrative, the present one, and the one you’re imagining for your future.

3. Come up with three different ways of juxtaposing scenes from each narrative thread. See if each arrangement allows the individual scenes to speak to one another. See what new material rises from this “silent commentary.” Be alert for any new material that invites your attention.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring. And so it is when we write memoir. The artful “wandering” of non-linear narratives uses space, time, and juxtaposition to take them places the writer might never reach if he or she traveled in a straight line.


  1. Evelyn Krieger on January 24, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this very idea lately. Too often, when writing a personal essay, we’re tempted to serve up all the details on a silver platter. I really enjoy memoirs that let me fill in the author’s white spaces or knit together seemingly unrelated threads.

    • Lee Martin on January 26, 2017 at 11:59 am

      Evelyn, I like your knitting analogy. That’s exactly what this type of memoir asks us to do, to form the connections, to fill the gaps. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. Karla Freiheit on August 9, 2022 at 3:22 am

    As new graduate students in a visual art MFA program, we were assigned to present an artist talk/powerpoint to introduce ourselves to other students and various program faculty. I had done artist talks before–source presentations in particular. I thought I “should” present my work chronologically and gave my talk as such, even though, as I was putting the presentation together, it was difficult for me to make sense of my work. I had ignored my intuition to organize my work analogically. I learned my lesson and I will never again present my thoughts about my work and myself in a strictly linear fashion. Thank you for affirming my intuition as I embark on a non-linear approach to writing a memoir. I hope to find other resources along these same lines.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:46 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I wish you all the best with the memoir!

  3. Peter Nelson on January 29, 2023 at 11:39 am

    I learn a lot about writing by reading. I’m wondering if the author or other commenters here could suggest some good, published, examples – especially ones that were well-received by readers and critics, of memoir or autobiography employing non-linear structures. Thanks in advance.

    • Lee Martin on January 30, 2023 at 11:11 am

      Thanks for the question, Peter. Two that come to mind are “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy” by Amy Benson, and “Death and Other Inconveniences” by Sue William Silverman.

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