January 13, 2011

Finding the through line: From chaotic life to structured memoir

It seems as if everyone wants to be a memoirist these days, but many would-be memoirists have no idea how to turn life experience into something that someone who doesn’t know them will want to read. When I’m dealing with such a client, I often find it difficult to explain how memoir and life story can be structured. That’s when I turn to my favorite book on memoir, Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer.
Rainer uses wonderful metaphors to describe the techniques she advocates. One of my favorite—and one of the most useful—is the single slice embroidery method. This is actually a mixed metaphor. The single slice refers to the fact that the memoirist is going to choose one portion of his or her life to talk about—years spent living in France, for example. It’s like taking one slice out of the pie that is your life and writing about only that.
Here’s how she explains the embroidery part: “Imagine a piece of fabric on which a design has been created with colored embroidery thread. The embroidery thread runs through the cloth but comes to the surface only where the pattern is. With the embroidery thread technique, you select as your story only the particular hours, days, months or years that belong to the theme and dramatic line of your story.”
As an example, Rainer cites a memoir having to do with dogs. In it, the author wrote only about that period of her life in which she was most involved with dogs, and within that period, she wrote only about her encounters with dogs. Her husband, Rainer says, got scant mention.
This explanation, I think, can really help a would-be memoirist cut through all the irrelevant facts and write only about what contributes to his or her story’s theme.
Of course, to do this, you have to have a theme, and Rainer can help the writer there, too. The book has a series of exercises that help writers explore the “matter” of their lives to find the through line that gives it a shape. In one exercise, for example, she asks writers to list important life turning points. Then she asks them to back up and think of the time before one of the turning points and ask themselves a series of questions:
·         What did you desire in your life before this ending pivotal event?
·         When and how did this desire begin or intensify significantly?
·         Did you have a struggle in trying to fulfill this desire?
·         Did you learn anything from the struggle?
·         How did you change after the final pivotal event….  
A writer who faithfully does this exercise should end up with the outline of a story with a beginning, middle and end. Somewhere in there should be a crisis point that led to a change. Actually doing the writing should teach him or her a lot about transforming the raw material of life into a story.
Of course, if a writer decides to write about his or her whole life, but to do so with a theme in mind, then things get more complicated. I like Rainer’s idea that such a memoir needs to have conflict in it to keep the reader hooked. She suggests that writers ask themselves the following three questions as they search for a theme for their book.
·         What was the story the world you grew up in told you that you should become? What was the message you got from them about who you should be?
·         What was the story of who you should become that you told yourself?
·         What is the story life has told you of who you are?
There is, of course, lots more in Rainer’s book, and there are many more books on memoir out there. What I like about what Rainer has to offer is her clear explanations of structure coupled with exercises that help writers create structure. I borrow her methods often with my memoir clients.


  1. This is really interesting. "Finding" the theme and structure is always an issue. I've also had the experience of reading a memoir and asking the client "Why is there so little about X?" in the manuscript. It's probably common for memoir writers to have an early reader or two ask "Why isn't there more about the husband?" type questions. I'm wondering now what this dissatisfaction might be about -- context, setting, character roundness? Anyway, your post has already made me think harder about committing to structure in a memoir. I'll want to take a look at the book.

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  3. Very helpful. Now you have me wanting to read Rainer's book!