Setting Memoir Parameters

Tiger sleeps in a cat cave on the couch

Now that I have your attention with that cutie-face, I want to pick your brain.

I’ve got a problem I haven’t yet figured out. What keeps me from finishing my memoir is that the arc of my story takes place over too long a period of time. It’s about my relationship with my father, and that is a lifetime relationship, of course, because it continues even after his death a year and a half ago. But even if I put a cap on it with his death, it still covers a lot of ground.

The other day I read Sherrey Meyer’s post Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have and realized that I should write a post about my problem–just in case anybody has any advice. So advise away.

I know that there is great benefit in finding a defining year or particular experience because the more discrete the chunk of real life a memoir needs to cover the easier it is to write. Excusez-moi if this sounds insulting to writers with a project that fits that description, but those are the stories that perhaps beg to be written. My story doesn’t beg; it mocks me.

But how to find a discrete story where the protagonist takes decades to learn something? Or some things?

My son used to have a picture book called Leo the Late Bloomer, and although my son was meant to relate to it, in truth I related to it. I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways.

In the case of my memoir story, an additional reason it took me so long was that there was certain key information that I didn’t learn until 2008. More new information continued to come to me through 2015.

Checking out my half shelf of writing technique books, I soon discovered that most of the books don’t deal with this problem. But then I noticed a book I have mostly ignored (because I didn’t read it for class): Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer. (Who wouldn’t like that bit about “& Selling” added to the title?!)  A chapter called “Setting Your Parameters” caught my eye. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. Figure out HOW to set my parameters.

Balzer argues that the place to begin the memoir is at the moment of discovery. I like the way my book opens with an incident that sets up the initial mystery in my life. It’s a somewhat shocking event, at least to the mind of an 11-year-old. And it created the mindset by which I lived in ignorance for many many years. Is it a moment of discovery? For me, it felt that way. It was the discovery that a big secret existed in my family–and that the secret carried great emotional power for my father.

My full first draft has now been read by four people. Three of them were a group package, so to speak, so I lump them together because they could have influenced each other. I will call them group B. The other reader was my Stanford mentor/tutor. I will call her group A. Both groups are memoir “experts” who teach and write memoir. The advice of group A and group B completely contradicted each other. I mean completely. They want me to revise the book in opposite directions.  Actually, I did revise to somewhat follow the advice of Group A before sending the manuscript to Group B. And everything I did for Group A, Group B didn’t like. They argued for the way I had originally been planning my story before I even started the program at Stanford.

Neither group addressed the problem with the big humongous fruit tree of life I’ve had to pick from for the book.

So I’m reeling from the contradictory advice, but that is all just spinning on the surface because the underlying problem is how to handle the parameter setting.

Or is it? I’m getting confused. Maybe I’m imagining the parameter setting as a problem since neither group even mentioned the problem. Maybe the real problem is one I can’t identify–a problem that caused two completely different readings. Maybe my tale just sucks.

The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that). Maybe I should start with that moment of discovery and proceed in chronological order and tell the story in a more classic storytelling structure.

Whatcha think, peeps? More whine wine?


Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to my Jewish readers! A good week to everyone.


Filed under #AmWriting, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing Talk

44 responses to “Setting Memoir Parameters

  1. Thanks for the wine, although a bit early in the day for me, Luanne. 🙂
    I was going to say at first that you have a natural “hook” in having a discovery. I am not a memoir writer or expert, but starting with the discovery and then proceeding chronologically seems less confusing and more straight forward story telling. I don’t see though why you couldn’t at some point, perhaps interject a present day comment. Perhaps? It might break the unfolding of the story though.

    • Hah, well, you have to think expansively and remember that it’s always after 5PM somewhere! Most people don’t like being confused when they read or to have to work too hard either (because then it’s like work or school), so I think you are right about the straightforward storytelling. Mary Karr interjects the present day in a couple of places in The Liar’s Club, but I’m not sure it works (as much as I think her book is a masterpiece).

  2. I have no advice for you but I want to read the book! A family secret? For many years? Damn! That’s a hook if I ever heard one.

  3. Like Kate, I want to read your memoir. I think chronological is the best approach. I would say “find the thread,” which is what I did in The Goodbye Baby-Adoptee Diaries. Also, the best memoirs I’ve read have a theme that acts as the thread. In your case, perhaps the family secret. Not that everything in the story will pertain to that, but you can illustrate how that shaped your decisions and self-perception. In my case, being an adoptee (beginning at age five) led to my interpretation of everything that happened afterwards.
    I was lucky in that I could harvest 40 years of journals to discover exactly how. Too much “advice” from experts can ultimately be not so helpful. It is YOUR story. Pretend you’re with a best friend and you’re just telling the story. A metaphorical sleep-over?

    • Thank you so much, Elaine! My story has a couple of similarities to an adoption story. The secret is one of the themes, as well as the emotions that are tied to secrets: shame, guilt, anger, fear, etc. Haha, I love that idea of a metaphorical sleepover! I will keep that in mind as I reshape the structure.

  4. While not a reader of memoir per se, I do read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a personal preference, but I prefer the hook and then chronological order. For fiction, time shifting can be done well for literary effect, but when it comes to real life events, I find myself flipping back and forth to remind myself of chronology and it can be frustrating.

    • Michelle, I am starting to think you are right. That was probably how I perceived things to begin with. Then I was persuaded that the story was really in my search for the answers to the mysteries of the secret as an adult. The problem is that leads to a lot of “Luanne sitting at the computer.” Pretty boring when what makes it all important are “the strange incidents in the life of Luanne relating to her dad.”

  5. Funny. I was just thinking about you and your memoir the other day. Can’t remember the context but the upshot being “I wonder how Luanne’s memoir is going?” It’s hard to give advice w/out having read the book but in my mind it’s all about the story and the hook. You hook me in in the first few pages and I’m likely to persist. If there’s a secret involved, that’s a pretty darn good start. But I think defining the parameters may also solve part of the “problem”. Just a thought.

    • Inquiring minds want to know why you were thinking about that. Are you planning yours??? If so, I can’t wait! Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. I think the hook is important. I hope my first chapter is a good hook. I feel like it is, but then the insecurity comes in from thinking that I’m too close to the story, you know?

  6. Ah parameters and structure. The best advice I’ve received is to scope one’s memoir like a screenplay with Act I as the setup, Act II the obstacles and Act III the climax and resolution. Good luck!

    • Carol, that sounds like the plan that sends memoir straight from book to movie :). I like that haha! I keep trying to see if my story lends itself to 3 parts, but I’m just not sure. It almost feels like THEN and RECENTLY. But I will keep the 3 parts in mind–in fact, I just did that again the other day!

  7. I’m not an expert in memoir but the way you described having the hook as a prologue and then using the present day with flashbacks sounds good to me – you then frame it in a shorter period of time but with the luxury of exploring the past through that frame.

    • I’ve fool around so much with that, on the advice of an excellent expert, because it is so appealing. I like the idea of a more “creative” approach to structure. But now I’m not sure that it can work for my story. Although if I start when I am 11 and go chronologically, I can use a couple of flashbacks to earlier times . . . ?

  8. I think you have to write your own truth, Luanne, however you see it, hear it, feel it. Your story will be powerful if you are able to capture your life with honesty.Everyone writes differently, and every reader reacts differently. If you are able to inspire your readers to think, then you are the winner.
    P.S. I wrote my memoirs with old pictures from my earlier life. Each picture triggered a memory that I could write about. You have such a treasury of pictures and stories from TFK that they could be a memoir on their own.

  9. Like the others here, I’m not a memoir writer, Luanne. But I agree with Sheila – write your own truth. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that you should really be writing this book for yourself and no one else – write it like no one is ever going to read it and it will really come from your heart without the added stress of ‘what are people going to think’ and ‘have I written this the right way’? Because it’s YOUR story and there is no right way. Looking back now (and of course I can’t find an exact example at the moment) some of the best memoirs I’ve read start at a defining point which is the ‘now’ or the exact time when a revelation or truth came to the writer. “Something happened a long time ago and now I am here and this is how I got here” (without revealing what the secret is just yet).
    I have a defining point in my life that came from a late night phone call from my mother 20 years ago. If I ever write my memoir it will start at that point because almost everything that didn’t make sense in my life began to fall into place at that moment.
    Best of luck!

    • I sort of agree with you, Dianne ;). I guess where I differ from what you’re saying is that there are an infinite number of ways the story can be told by altering structure, style, what goes in and what stays out, etc. And each one of those is a decision that affects how good I end up thinking the book turns out. I want it to be the best it can be, and I have not yet found a way to make it that way :(. Also, my favorite memoirs tend to start with a big event (Liar’s Club, Glass Castle, etc.) that plunges the reader into the narrative of the person’s life. I almost think it’s a fictionizing (different in my mind from fictionalization because I mean making it seem more like fiction) of the real story and therefore doesn’t allow for those rhetorical devices that fiction can use to make it seem more like something that really happened. Does that make ANY sense at all?
      Will you please start that memoir about your mother’s phone ASAP?!!!!

  10. I want to be … lured in. I think luring is something all books need to do, but to uncover a secret, especially. I would say the secret reveal would be better placed in the last third of the book.

  11. How would you tell the story over lunch with a friend? The secret would definitely peak my interest. Sometimes experts aren’t much help 🙂 You’re the expert of your story.

    • I do agree with you that I’m the expert of my story. Nobody else in reading the manuscript is going to know anything outside of what is written there. So how can that person, expert though she is at mentoring, know if there are other things that belong in the story, for instance?

    • I so agree with Adrienne. You know how sometimes we ask for advice on whatever and then we just do what we feel and think is best. Or how someone might say this is what i think but in the end you have to do what feels right. Sometimes, it’s better to follow our heart or our gut feeling rather than our head. Getting advice is a head thing, which is a good thing but now that you’ve integrated it and it’s somewhere floating around your head all you have to do is trust. I really, really like what Adrienne says about telling your story to a friend over lunch. Who’s that friend, anyway?
      Good luck, Luanne..The fun part is about to begin!

  12. Yah, you had me with the cat, Luanne! I’m useless to you here, but thanks for posing the question because I’m enjoying reading the answers! Even though my work is in a different genre, I’m struggling a little with how much time it should cover. Love that your first draft is done and your story is on paper. The rest of the challenges are all solvable problems !

  13. When reading memoirs, for the most part I prefer that they jump around. That makes them less boring and makes me feel more like I am remembering things myself — so I really put myself into it more.

    • I think you are in a minority on this, judging by what people in the past have told me and what I am seeing here, as well. I think people feel more comfortable reading a fairly chronological tale. Funny because I just started reading The Girl on the Train, which starts out in 2013 and then goes back to 2012. When I tried to do that in my memoir both groups A and B clobbered me. I do like somewhat experimental styles, though, so I am like you in appreciating stories like that!

  14. What you describe here — “The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that).” — appeals to me. I’ve read a couple of novels that used that technique so well (one better than the other). The most recent was The Animals by Christian Kiefer. It’s a difficult technique, but very effective (for me, anyway). In the case of the two novels (the other was Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny), the pacing was important. I couldn’t be left hanging too much between chapters as the past and present slowly came together. But this technique–going back and forth–made it difficult to put the books down for any length of time. Anyway, I don’t think that the conflicting evaluations you got from Groups A and B mean that anything is wrong with your memoir. I do often think there is a conflict between what readers like to read and writers like to write, and that’s making writing very difficult. Aside from an editor, I can’t imagine having anyone else read my work until I put it out there and it’s too late to change, in part because of the possibility of conflicting evaluations.

    • My own thought about why it isn’t working to do this is because the story is not fiction, so I can’t make the chunks the right sizes. I have to go with what actually happened. And there is too much weight also on me sitting at the computer researching. WOW, THAT IS AN EXCITING STORY. hahahaha That said, a book I did really like that featured a lot of “research time” was The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon. But I think some people would find her book a bit boring. I like it because of the subject matter and because I like research!

  15. My head is spinning because I don’t do that kind of thinking about what I write. I just write, and my stories take the form they demand. I’m not saying that they are successful or even interesting, just that the form seems inevitable.

    Also, it sounds to like Group A and Group B have their own axes to grind — or procrustean beds.

    I don’t know if this is helpful. I’m just sorry that you have had to go through this frustration and uncertainty.

    • You might be right that readers come from their own perspectives which include their own biases. So do all readers, though, not just critics. I think I’ve learned a lot from all the readers I’ve had, but now it’s probably time to pull things together all by lil lonesome so I can get others’ voices out of my head.

  16. Luanne, I do like books which alternate from a big situation that sets the mood or tone of the person’s memoir to what the results in their life created. Since you have a particular cataclysmic focal point in mind, I can see and appreciate your thinking it should be the beginning. Although secrets could be hinted at, yet left for the reader to discover later in reading.
    I also think one chapter in a time period would not be enough. Your suggestion of a few past, then a few present doesn’t seem to work either, in my mind it becomes confusing. You mentioned “too much work for the reader” and I agree.
    Chronological order, with insights and references to the family secret, may be best. Parts of the secret leaked out in the plot, may also work to the best effect, to keep the reader on a path leading to adding the puzzle pieces together in a climax.
    This is probably confusing but gives you a few “cons” to one way. Initial release of family secret and alternating back and forth time periods doesn’t work in my mind.
    Then another way, a “pro” or positive solution to set parameters of your memoir by flowing in the chronological order of your life. This choice uses parts of the whole, to allow pieces to fall into place in the end. 🙂

  17. Hi Luanne:
    I can tell you that I’ve also had beta readers contradict each other about one of my books. Most beta readers are simply that: readers. They like what they like, but they are not professional reviewers or editors.

    Not having read the manuscript, I cannot advise specifically.
    So here’s some general reaction instead:
    To heavily paraphrase Chekov: If there’s a secret introduced in act 1, it must be revealed by act 3. I’d go even further: If the secret is that important to the story, all your storytelling must have a connection to/must build up to revealing that secret, no matter how subtly.
    To my great surprise, some readers didn’t read the Prologue of my first book at all! They said they dived “straight into the story” instead.
    Don’t delete any draft; keep them. You may need to put some material back into a later draft.
    Take a big break from the manuscript sometimes, read someone else’s book, then come back to yours. You’ll read it with new eyes.
    Finally, there are editors who will do a script evaluation for you at a very affordable price. Worth every penny you pay because they are pros. I know one, if you need, and there are others too.

  18. Well, this is a conundrum. I wish I could help you with this one. I wrote my memoirs in short stories and put it in an anthology, which made it much easier. I will share with you what I did with my women’s fiction novel (the one in Kindle Scout). So you know, I based my novel on real life incidents in my life regarding the first 20 years of my marriage. I did something like you’ve suggested here. I started at the climax of the story and put it in a prologue. Then, on the first chapter, I started it 19 years before what happens in the prologue and go in chronological order from there. I get to the climax in the middle of the novel (back to the scene in the prologue), and then I show all hell breaking loose, until things come together at the end with a resolution. You can read the first 5,000 words on how I did the beginning on my Kindle Scout page, if you think it will help you any. Good luck.

    I must say, you have intrigued me about reading your memoir with knowing there is a family secret to be revealed. I look forward to it.

  19. This is such a hard question. My memoir used the “huge incident as first chapter” approach. I felt strongly to do it this way because the whole question was how that incident (my dad dying in difficult circumstances) affected the rest of my childhood. So the reader needed to know it right off the bat, and, of course, it was the hook. I did not do it as a prologue because I don’t’ like prologues. I then went back to my parents’s story that lead up to this night, telling it chronologically. I alternated that with first person chapters from my adult perspective. Although several chapters from the memoir were published, I never finished the memoir (it needs a few more adult chapters which require I travel out west to write) so this is entirely theoretical advice!

    • Your approach makes a ton of sense for your story. My story doesn’t have one incident like that, or if there is, it’s buried in ancient history long before I was born–and those are the things I’ve tried to ferret out. When do you plan to finish your memoir?!

  20. Not sure I have any answers but really enjoying this post. I too am working on a memoir (father/daughter, big secret). I decided to write mine leading up to the big reveal, so that the reader grasps what the child experienced without knowing the background story. I’ve been writing and rewriting this story for years, so it definitely haunts me. Like you, I learned new information over the past few years that has inspired a new approach. I guess the focus depends on the intended message.

  21. Thanks for clicking on my site. I did take a course in memoir writing but that was some years ago. In my memoir Kodakmoments, I decided to pick an event or short time period in my life that I had photos for. Then I tried writing a short episode with somewhat of a beginning , middle. and end.
    I also keep a diary of what happens every day, this is just that, not story arc as it is not a story just a diary. My final memoir, or blogoir as somebody called it “55Yearstogether” is a sequential memoir of events in the live of my wife Marge and I, from when we met in college in 1958 until she died in 2015. I have bookshelves of old letters, personal writings, etc. So the message varies with the website, as sometimes does the writing style. I wrote one 55Years post without verbs, a constrained style a’la “the train to nowhere”. to Hell with consistency I am not trying to sell anything, so am free to improvise. Keep up your posts.

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