Leading with Lodestones

How to organize a lifetime full of memories is a frequent stumbling block for an author trying to write a memoir. You likely have a wealth of stories that you know will entertain a reader. Even if you are more disciplined and want to organize the stories around a theme, such as autism, setting the stories in the right order may become an increasing challenge as you write. For example, you do think that semi-criminal episode at age eight is telling, but you aren’t sure any readers are going to care about the antics of an eight-year-old.

The limitation most memoirists face is that they do not think in any other order except chronological. I discovered this problem with a writer recently during an initial phone call to learn more about her manuscript. As we kept talking, she started telling me about some terrific stories that her subject experienced when he was an adult. So far, though, she had only written up to when he was in high school, and she was starting to doubt that readers would want to plow through all the child-related material.

She had the right idea. The beginning of a memoir has to grab the reader by the lapels and say, “You have to read this book.” That must be your first consideration in terms of organizing the material. If you proceed chronologically, you are placing material that least interests an adult—child's play, in essence—first. As a reader I may never get to those intriguing adult stories.

Instead, start by writing out your most powerful stories. These are the ones you feels most passionately about. Now you can organize your memoir around your strongest chapters. Start with when, say, you were were living in a dumpster as the first chapter. After that you might jump back to age eight with the idea of telling the reader how you ended up in that dumpster. After a chapter of that, you can jump ahead to a second interesting adult story. And so on.  Chronology is employed, yes, but the function of the childhood material is to fill out our knowledge of what happened in adulthood.

Why does this method work? If you lead off a book with material you know is unique and fresh, you’ll find that your other material, which may be more ordinary, takes on a different aspect because it is supporting the unique material. Put another way, your unique material creates a prism through which the more ordinary material can be viewed. Theme—those interesting stories—now governs chronology in your organizational approach.

Exercise: Try taking a later chapter in the memoir and placing it up front. Write down a summary of what happens in that chapter. With that summary in mind, now read through the childhood material. Do you see early-developmental issues that would support that new first chapter? Pick out only that material for the following chapter, and leave the other eight-year-old anecdotes aside for later use—to support another adult idea.

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
—Herman Melville

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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