Making memoir chapters compelling

If you’re writing a memoir, some parts of your life were probably exciting. Other parts, maybe, not so much. How can you craft all of that into a package worth reading?

The problem is that no one’s life is a Hollywood epic. Stuff happens; we do stuff. Some of it is fun. Some of it is touching. Some of it causes us to grow. Some of it is boring. The egg-salad sandwich you ate in 2006 is probably not worth describing . . . but it might be, if it led to food poisoning and you met your one true love from a hospital bed while farting uncontrollably.

The key is to take a cinematic approach. Each chapter has to move the story and the characters along, especially you. While you can’t change the facts of what happened (or at least, you shouldn’t), you can change what you include and how you describe it.

The chapter test

If you’re creating a chronological narrative, here’s a test to ask about each chapter.

  • What happened during this time period that was important to the overall story? For example, did you start a company? Lose your favorite aunt to cancer? Learn to play the piano on stage? Catch malaria? Pay particular attention to events that connect to what happens later.
  • What people — characters — appeared that were important in the rest of the story? These might be business partners, true friends, colleagues, lovers, or children.
  • What drove you to do what you did? Did you always want to be a standup comic? Did you need to prove to your father that you weren’t a failure? Did you worry your family would starve? Were you consumed by lust or addiction? Did you act because it was easier than being bored and lazy?
  • What did you learn? Imagine you at the end of the chapter, having a conversation with you at the beginning. What would you tell yourself? For example, complete trust in your business partners is a mistake, never invest your own money, having an affair is always more painful that you think it will be, always wear clean underwear, leading people is about inspiring them, or the things that matter are not the things that you imagine they are.
  • How did you grow? As a character, what changed about you? Did you become less reckless, get a taste for risk, realize you were a bully and change that, figure out how to love, develop a knack for inventing things?
  • What did it look/feel/sound/smell like? Sensory impressions are awesome. Was the sound as loud as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier? Was the garden so beautiful it felt like an impressionist painting? Did you actually feel your kneecap break in half? What color was your baby’s skin the moment she was born?
  • What events are worth telling? These are the set-pieces that you include just because they’re fun or interesting. Like when your boss caught your coworker stealing from the cash register, and almost caught you, too. Or when everybody hid the pitcher’s underwear so he had to pitch without any . . . and threw a no-hitter out of anger. Or when you were the first guy into the burning building and realized that you couldn’t really see out of your fireman’s helmet.

Not every chapter is going to have all of these elements. But it ought to have a lot of them. Unless you ask these questions, some of your chapters will read like a long list of log entries.

Fiction writers get to change things around to improve the story. You don’t — you can’t change who did what, the order things happened, or whether the ending was happy. But you can change what you include, how you describe it, and the way you connect it to your own personal growth. That makes a memoir worth telling, and worth reading.

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