By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Every piece of writing needs a structure – a container to frame it and connective tissue to hold it together. In memoir there are many kinds of structures. Last month I described narrative arc, in which a story follows a chronological chain of events. This month, we’ll sample the plethora of other possible forms.
Essays organize around a central idea rather than a narrative arc. A personal essay blends exposition with short narrative anecdotes from your life that relate to your central theme. For example, in “A Weasel is Wild,”* essayist Annie Dillard begins with a one-minute transformative encounter with a weasel to frame and explore the question, “What is wild?” She moves back and forth between the weasel encounter and her expository musings about wildness, posing questions in the reader’s mind and building her ideas, so that by the end, we, too, have traveled through both the weasel’s and the author’s minds.
Sometimes narrative essay can stretch into a full-length book, as in Sandra Steingraber’s
Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. Steingraber blends narration of her nine months of pregnancy, which frames her story, with a chilling scientific look at the many toxins present in our environment that can threaten a developing fetus. The book reads like a combination novel and informational essay, with the personal experience accounts balancing and humanizing the scientific data.
Another approach to memoir is the mosaic form**, a collage of vignettes organized around a theme. Often each vignette has a small narrative arc contained within it. Although a book-length collection of these stories or essays doesn’t necessarily come to a main climax, the mosaic segments together create a picture of one aspect of the author’s life.
In Dorothy Allison’s memoir, Two or Three Things I know for Sure, the author uses short, snapshot-style stories to portray the women in her family while growing up in South Carolina. She includes actual black and white snapshots to help illustrate her stories. Each vignette can stand alone, but together they form a rich picture of her childhood in the south.
One of the most original mosaic memoirs I’ve encountered is Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir. Sutin uses his quirky collection of antique postcards to trigger equally quirky stories and mini-essays about his life. The vignettes begin with his early childhood and move forward through time, exploring his expanding consciousness of the world through everyday occurrences and thoughts. A picture of one of the black and white postcards accompanies each piece.
Memoir can even take the form of poetry, as in Joan Fiset’s Now the Day is Over, a collection of prose poems that reveal the haunted world of a child growing up with an alcoholic father. As with the mosaic forms described above, each poem stands alone – individual snapshots of moments in time – but together the spare yet dense pieces weave a haunting story of a sensitive child who observes her world with a tender eye.
All the structures I’ve described above are fluid, with new forms constantly evolving as writers blend and bend the forms to fit the story they wish to tell. In my final example, Leap, memoirist Terry Tempest Williams organizes an entire book around a triptych painting – Hieronymus Bosch’s “El Jardin de las Delicias” (The Garden of Earthly Delights). The painting forms the spine of this author’s personal exploration of life through the lens of religion. The text travels through multiple time frames, with childhood flashbacks of her Mormon upbringing and a current life crisis brought on by the vision of this work of art. She carries us along in a seamless blend of narrative storytelling with mosaic intrusions and meditative essay in a poetic voice!
Finding your own form
Your work may fit neatly into one of these categories, or you may find it works best to combine one or more of the forms. I encourage you to allow each piece of writing to find its own organic structure. The possibilities are as diverse as the writers writing them. Often a form will suggest itself as you write, although sometimes you have to go hunting for it. Here are some ideas to help you find your own structure:
Read through your pages so far and look for an image or theme that repeats itself. Use that as a freewriting prompt (10-15 minutes). See if an idea for a structure emerges.
Try one of these freewriting prompts (10-15 minutes) with your story in mind:
- The window I’m looking through …
- The frame around my story …
As you are going to sleep one night, ask your night mind, “What is the organic structure of this story?” Place a notebook and pen by your bed and as soon as you wake in the morning, freewrite for 10 minutes.***
As you discover your structure and form, you may find that editing your work becomes easier, because you’ll be able to tell what fits and what doesn’t in your story. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun. Structure is a great way to play with creative process.
* From Teaching a Stone to Talk, a collection of nature essays by Annie Dillard
** For an in-depth look at mosaic vs. narrative story structures, see Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure. While the text refers to fiction writing, I’ve found it instructive for memoir as well.
*** I was given this exercise by author Terry Tempest Williams in a workshop. It has been highly effective for my writing. Pay attention to clues that may come in dreams, too.
This is VoiceCatcher’s fifth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.