My friend recently embarked on a memoir project. She had begun writing, but was not sure how to focus her story. In fact, she didn’t realize that she had some choices to make. Despite the plethora of memoir titles, basically two types of memoir exist: chronological and topical. Of course, endless variations exist within these two categories.
So how do you decide what kind of memoir you want to write? You might find it useful to think about your purpose in taking on this possibly (most likely!) time-consuming task. What do you hope to communicate? Who is your intended audience? Do you want to document significant life events to help your descendants better understand where they came from and what makes your family unique? You may want to help your children, grandchildren, or other loved ones feel more connected to your family. Do you have your own, or ancestors’ stories of immigration? Job loss? Overcoming adversity?
Perhaps you want to record for posterity information about your ancestors, where they were born, and how their choices have influenced on your family. Do you have family stories that have made an impact on your life and feel strongly that they should be passed on?
Regardless of what has motivated you to consider the step of writing a memoir, it is helpful to decide which format you want to use to best tell your story.
A chronological memoir means pretty much what it sounds like; a series of branching events (a story structure such as the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies uses) that have occurred in your life that take you from birth (generally) to where you are today. Within this chronological framework, multiple personal, local, national, world events, or changes in life circumstances can become inspiration for the stories you include. Details of your life such as birth, schooling, marriage, children, and different places you have lived can all be included in chronological order. In many memoirs, however, the story does not lend itself to sticking to a strict chronology. This leads us to the topical memoir option.
While topical memoirs may include details of your growing up years, the reason to include these biographical details is to flesh out the topic you are writing about. Choosing a focus requires an understanding of the thrust of your memoir.
It is helpful (although certainly not a requirement) to have an idea of what your theme is before you begin writing your story. You may need to begin writing before you can understand your “most important thing.” The act of documenting your stories can become a discovery process, helping you learn what you really care about and want to share.
The scope of your project is limited only by the topic you, as the writer, choose to share. In a topical memoir, the theme of the book, the “topic” is the driving force in the organization of your story. In this type of memoir chronology matters much less than how you offer supporting information to convey your story.
Perhaps you had one significant experience you want to reflect on. A life-changing trip? A job that has been transformative in your life? Surviving a significant loss? A specific family member who led an extraordinary life? Do you want your most consequential decisions documented for the edification of whoever you have in mind?
You may have experiences that have given you expertise in a specific field—education, research, building a business, taking on a cause. Have you volunteered with an organization that is making a difference in the lives of others?
You will still need to decide what is most important if you hope to move forward with your memoir. In avoiding a decision about how you want to structure your story, you can still write your memoir, but the result may be disappointing.
You might have more than one memoir inside you. Great, but start with one. If you have time, energy, and enthusiasm to write another one, then go for it!
When thinking about the type of memoir you want to write, you may encounter more questions than answers. You are the one who gets to decide which stories you will tell. However, seeking feedback from others can help point you in the right direction if you’re uncertain about what are the most important parts of your story to share, and how best to get the information across.
Getting it done
Regardless of your motivation or how you structure your story, without a plan your good intentions are likely to remain aspirational. Seek out accountability partners, ask for professional help, or simply start telling people what you want to do. Voicing your intention can make the difference in whether you actually get something written. Unless you get started, the day will come when you understand that you missed the opportunity to share something others may find of great value. The choice is yours.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors. She has conducted numerous interviews for the Library of Congress Veterans Oral History project. Her multiple workshops have been presented at area and regional conferences. A freelance writer and editor she has been published in local, regional, national, and international publications. Her latest book is her topical memoir, My Liturgy of Easy Walks. www.marjorieturner.com