Memoir-writing beyond its definition

Last month I wrote about how the definition of memoir, characterized by a single incident during a part of one’s life (not an entire life), can hold writers back from writing their memoir. As a writer, maybe you can’t see one outstanding incident to create memoir; there are many experiences that happened to you. And maybe you can’t see a theme highlighted in your writing.

Multiple experiences or even a chronology of events can also be memoir.

 “I was once eager to find complicated significance in what I now see as simplicity.” I pulled this quote from an essay I wrote in an anthology The Magic of Memoir. You don’t have to have complicated, deep-rooted significance to your story in order to call it a memoir. Simplicity in theme can be found in the most notable experiences of your life, the relatableness in a theme, or even in a chronological narrative.

Stroking my memoir-in-progress manuscript to find more shine to the meaning of my words and more brightness to a theme, I fought with trying to see it because I assumed my meaning, buried under the three decades of experiences I was writing about, had to be complicated. For me, one seemingly benign experience of discovering baby bunnies in the crook of a grass’s curb hidden under a birch tree and the bunnies removal was actually an inciting incident that set the theme. A birch tree and the displacement of bunnies became metaphors for my memoir of “discovering connections and finding home.”

Consider the essay, “Honoring the Seams: The Memoir-in-Pieces,” Beth Kephart asks, “What if we allow our writing to reflect the fragmented nature of life itself? What if we rely on white space and seams, celebrate explicit contradictions, make more room for the tangent and the metaphor and the sideways glance?” Kephart gives examples of a few of her favorite memoirs that are “built of pieces.” One example is Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread. “ . . . a poeticized true story in which all the unnecessary things are absent from the pages. There are no forced transitions between 122 small chapters, but there is a continuity of chronology,” that begins with her birth and takes us through to her high school graduation. Each of Livingston’s chapters (some only a paragraph long) she says are “distinctive snapshot” that together relate a life. “Memoir-in-Pieces” can give a memoirist reason to step out of the traditional definition of memoir.

So how can you find your memoir aside from its strict definition?

Consider this common writing exercise referred by many writers as “life lining.” As I have learned from this practice, life lining showed me the seeds that fed the growth of many of my stories, essays and even memoir. 

Draw a line and mark an X on one end. This represents your birth. Draw an X on the other end to mark present time. Fill the timeline with X’s, chronological events and experiences that have “rocked your world,” says Megan Stielstra, personal essayist and author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Then take a look at the space between each X. Write about the moments of time, the time markers between two points of experiences. What did the experiences teach you? Did you change? How did you know you needed to change to get to the next experience? Then consider what those experiences are about. Are they about fear, for example. What is it about fear that might have changed you? How did you see yourself then in fear, and how do you see yourself now? Are you still fearful?

Then ask yourself what happened in your mind and in your heart at those times versus how you look at them now. Pull back the lens of your life in a panoramic view, a narrative distancing, to study your timeline of events—as Virginia Woolf said, the “I” now versus the “I” then. It is the distance between where you’re writing from and the moment you are writing about it. 

The only thing that may jump out at you is what a complicated life you have! But amid your life’s twists and turns, ups and downs, there is a simplistic theme, a relatable story, a memoir-in-pieces, a common thread sewn into the fabric of your experiences. Your life line is more than just a series of X’s. It is a narrative worthy of memoir.

Whether you want to tell your story in a thematic structure, or similar to how Livingston told hers—where fragments are not connected into a traditional narrative—don’t let the strict definition of memoir hold you back. Use life lining to flush out themes among your experiences or to develop snapshots of chronology to structure your memoir or even to write a personal essay.

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