Memoir Lesson 1 Independent- Identifying the 4 Foundational Elements

In this lesson:

  • Preliminary Story Organization: Identifying 4 Foundational Aspects of Your Memoir

Your day’s task:

Welcome to the Write Your Memoir in 4 Months Program

You are in for an exciting, challenging, and creatively stimulating few months. Writing a memoir and joining this important literary genre along with many notable beautiful and notable works of creative nonfiction is one of the most personally satisfying things you will ever do– and also one of the hardest. Along the way you will learn a great deal about yourself and your relationship to tenacity and resilience.

What will make a difference in your ability to do this important work and see it through to the finish is the continuous support from your fellow writers in our Writers Lounge. Leaning on your peers will be sustaining and helpful during this time.

The support you get from your peers and along with these lessons on the construction and architecture of your memoir, and all of the organization, scheduling, and accountability together will ensure you’re held up from all sides. All that will be left is for you to write.

Whether you’ve waited for years to write your book, or you came to the idea and acted on it right away, by the end of these few short months, you will have a draft of your book.

What Is a Memoir?

A memoir is a recounting of a true experience you went through or a period of time of your life during which you were tested or challenged and emerged different, with clarity, insight, or transformed in some way.

In “The Naked Truth: How to Write a Memoir,” Blake Morrison writes:

“There’s an idea that a memoir is somehow easier to write than a novel, because it is based on real events rather than invented. But as Joyce Carol Oates has said, a memoir isn’t journalism or history, supplying ‘a verifiable, corroborative truth’, it is a literary text, consisting of words that have been ‘artfully arranged’.

We might read it in a different way from fiction, with authenticity more of a consideration than aesthetics. But the two are indivisible: the authenticity can’t exist without artistry. Truth in life doesn’t automatically morph into truth on the page. And living people don’t necessarily come to life in print. It takes creativity – hence the term ‘creative non-fiction’.

To my mind, memoir is a high literary art form because you are treading the real and the readable. Crafting real life experience into a narrative that is both authentic and artful is fine-point work. And work that is important because it invites conversation. Leslie Jameson, author of the excellent essay collection The Empathy Exams and memoir about her struggle with addiction, The Recovering, writes, ‘the confessional memoir ‘is often the opposite of solipsism: it creates dialogue. It elicits responses. It coaxes chorus like a brushfire.”’

The best memoirs are always transgressive. They are alternative history – voices you didn’t expect to hear; candour that breaches the norms of polite society; episodes that seem shocking till you recognize their truthfulness. They allow self assertion. But they aren’t selfish. They have a unique story to tell – a story that resonates with everyone else’s story. Even their anguish can be uplifting, making us aware that, as Charlotte Brontë said, ‘there are countless afflictions in the world, each perhaps rivalling – some surpassing – the private pain over which we are too prone exclusively to sorrow.’

– Blake Morrison

While your purpose for writing a memoir may be to share experiences you’ve endured, to memorialize a time or person or family structure, to invite change, your experiences are the glue between you and countless others who find meaning, healing, and catharsis in the experiences you share.

And Now, Let’s Begin …

Download Your Workbook

Preliminary Planning

One of the main reasons people hesitate to write their memoirs (or never write them at all) is the key elements of their story- the foundational points upon which books are built- remain in their heads, swirling around like ghosts in an attic. Not having a firm idea of these important aspects of the story means you may not feel a sense of control over your story, as if it’s yours but not yours within reach. That alone is what stops most people from writing.

What we’ll do in this lesson (and in its associated workbook) is begin by identifying and getting clear on the 4 foundational areas of your story.

Those key elements will give you the confidence, and creative foundation, upon which to begin building your memoir.

  1. Your Story Frame: Time & Sub-Genre
  2. The Problem to Triumph Arc
  3. What Themes You’re Interested in Exploring
  4. Setting & Key Characters

close up antique typewriter keys

1. What Is the Frame for Your Memoir?

A. Time

One distinguishing feature of the memoir is that unlike an autobiography, which is a soup-to-nuts account of someone’s life typically reserved for celebrities and public figures because people less want a narrative crafted out of their particulars and more simply the particulars, a memoir is a story designed out of a slice of lived experience shared with readers to invite them into the transformation you experienced. 

Eat, Pray, Love details Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey to find herself after she goes through her divorce. The Year of Magical Thinking takes us through Joan Didion’s life during and immediately following her husband’s death and daughter’s illness and serves as a meditation on her coming through her grief.

While the memoirist’s childhood may come in for anecdotal effect during the course of the book, perhaps to speak to a parent or friend’s involvement in their life or to say something about their particular personality or character, or provide insight into the speaker’s persona, the story’s time frame will be a selection of the speaker’s life, told in order to arrive at meaning, clarity, and revelation.

B. The Purpose Framework of Your Memoir: Sub-genre

stack of books against brick wallA memoir is designed to walk the reader through a slice of your life from which you gained intrinsic knowledge, illustrated by a narrative you design to bring the reader into your experiences and the world you occupied as you went through them.

In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she recounts her experiences on the Pacific West Coast Trail as she grieved her mother’s passing; Elizabeth Alexander (The Light of the World: A Memoir) and Joan Didion (A Year of Magical Thinking) explore the deep grief from losing a husband and reconciling their lives in the aftermath. Tina Fey in Bossy Pants recounts episodes of her life in chapters that read like essays and that all add up to sharing scenes of her life, struggles, and triumphs that very humanly show how she arrived to be where she is today. Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild and Into Thin Air) and Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle) recount difficult experiences that challenged their humanity and from which they emerged changed.

There are numerous sub-genres for memoir, and it can feel grounding to find your place in the canon as a starting point so you feel a stronger sense of foundation:

Coming of age
Trial to triumph
Living with a difficult situation/overcoming a difficult situation
Spiritual quest
Travel or Adventure
Political activism
Recounting a time or relationship from the past: a portrait

Perhaps you have thought about your purpose for writing your memoir and how it would manifest into one of these categories, or perhaps now is the first time you’re considering the frame of how you would present your story, but this is the perfect time for you to wrap your head around two key issues:

a) What kind of memoir you will write given your subject matter and your relationship to it

b) What your goals for writing the memoir are.

Writing a memoir is an all-body experience that will challenge and illuminate you in innumerable ways. It will be exhilarating, enervating, and everything in-between. It will potentially cause tension with friends or family who may make an appearance in the book. It will bring to light personal aspects of your life you may not have even known yourself.

Having a firm grip on why you want to write this book and what you want for it to achieve as a work of literature will make the work to come noble, purposeful, and far more manageable.

Identifying your sub-genre or the purpose of the memoir you’re writing early on helps you wrap your head around its essential tone, purpose, and structure. Such an awareness, or alliance, then enables you to make specific choices about how to handle the sub-genre you’ve chosen.

[Further, practically speaking, knowing your book’s sub-genre will not only help you write it in line with that genre’s parameters, but it will also help you when it’s time to market and sell it to the right people. But that’s another conversation for a different day that we’ll have in about four months].

If You’re Now Feeling Not So Sure about Which Type of Book to Write, Head to the Shelf!

Memoir writing is both challenging and rewarding, but ultimately, it should lead you to some sense of catharsis, community and soul connection with others who will also derive meaning from your story. You have felt that in the books you have read, and they very likely are part of the reason you yourself wish to write a memoir.

Knowing how you wish to approach your material is very helpful, so if you’re not quite sure which frame would go around your story, head to your bookshelf to see which books you’ve gravitated to over the years that may have given you sustenance or creative inspiration.

Which books’ sub-genre frameworks would most closely align with yours? Which books did you read that you would like to emulate in form and function?

railway tracks

2. How Your Book Travels: The Arc

If your memoir is designed to share something that happened to you or that you experienced and now you’re on the other side of that experience with a different sense of clarity or have evolved in some way, your story “arc” is this: you (as the protagonist) experience a situation or go through a trial, you spend time and effort getting through that situation, and finally you emerge, transformed, enlightened or informed at the end.

[This journey (or “narrative arc”) takes you through what looks very much like an eyebrow over five dramatic stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.]

Because your whole book hinges on you and your transformation, once you know:

a) What the problem/area of insight is

b) How you healed/fixed the problem or came out onto the other side changed in some way

you will have a significant aspect of your story in your pocket!

*Note: most memoirs fall into this arc; exceptions would be family history or portraits, which serve more as illustrations of a slice of life. In this case, the dramatic action may happen on a micro scale and your personal revelations and transformations may be subtle.

3. What’s The Essential Idea (Theme)?

The large-scale issue of your story is what will bridge readers to your experience and create a human bond. One of the key reasons people read memoirs is to bring that bond with another human being so intimately into their life. The details of the story are what make the story vivid and compelling, but it’s the human theme your story illustrates that is what establishes a link between reader and writer.

The love you have for your child no matter what they do, man’s inhumanity to man, overcoming adversity against all odds, why some people make all the wrong choices when it comes to love, why racism continues to be a scourge that holds people hostage, etc. are all meaningful and important themes.

close up of crumpled lined paperA Word on Setting Thematic Intentions

It helps to wrap your head around the largeness of the project if you know what greater universal theme you’re speaking to with your story.

But (why must there be a but??) you’ll want to not cling too tightly to this theme as once you get into the writing, your unconscious mind may have different plans for your book and take your theme into a new direction.

For example, you may embark on the writing thinking your story is about finding yourself after leaving home as a teenager, but it may end up being about the bond of friendship with a sibling,  something you only discover after two months of writing.

Why is knowing your theme important?

What you write will support your theme; in the larger sense your story will carry on as it happened, but how you amplify the theme, speak to its development, and see it through to a satisfying finish will depend on how you treat it throughout. You can only know how to do this once you identify what it is and what you want to do to speak to it, so someone who has never experienced what you have, has a completely different life experience, and whose worldview may be radically departed from yours can still meet you at that fundamental human level and bond with you until the book’s end and beyond.

person cupping lightbulb containing string of fairy lights

Establishing some thematic parameters at the outside will give your book a very solid energy and focus, so you know what issue you intend to explore, carry it with you as a guiding principle for the work, and allow the development of it to bloom open as you create the narrative world of your book.


4. Setting & Key Characters

A. Setting

Knowing where your story will take place will give you the opportunity to firmly (if psychically) plant your feet there even if you haven’t set foot in the place in years. That grounding element is key for you to begin feeling a connection to the space so you can translate it for the page.

The sooner you have physical elements to hold on to and engage with, so you can see, hear, smell, and even taste the setting of your book, the sooner you can enter that space and develop a relationship with it in order to make it feel as real as it does for you to your reader.

When we go into detail on how to create your settings for your novel later in the program, we address numerous areas of setting:

  • How to make your setting serve the story
  • How to hide identifying aspects of a setting
  • What strategies you can use to change mood, tone, and even make your setting feel dynamic like a character

In this early planning stage, however, you only need to consider your main broader setting, possibly a few secondary settings, and that will give you enough ground to stand on and from which to leap.

B. Key Characters

You may have a full roster of personnel who will make appearances in this book, but for now, you’ll want to know who the major players are, so you can have a concrete visual of how you’ll begin representing them in the book.

Who is pivotal to this story and your evolution within it? How are they important? What is their relationship to you?

To-Do: Fill out your Memoir Planning Workbook

Use the downloadable workbook to write out your answers. Take your time and over the next two days, any time you have further revelation about one of the four areas, write it down.

The more concrete information you have to go on, the easier it will be for you to begin your novel with confidence.

Readings & Resources

NY Editors: How to Write a Memoir People Care About

Jerry Jenkins: How to Write a Powerful Memoir in 5 Simple Steps

You’re off to a fantastic start to telling your story. 

Next: Lesson 2- Becoming Part of the 1% →

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