Plot in Memoir

When I first heard Martha Alderson in an NAMW Teleseminar talking about plot in memoir writing, I was confused. How could a memoir have a plot? Wasn’t that for mystery or romance fiction? I checked her website and blog and forgot about it until recently, when I was trying to figure out how to structure my memoir.

What was unique about my story, in our family at least, was that we lived in a rooming house for the first 9 years of my life. I was the first born and the roomers were my extended family until we moved to the suburbs. A huge area of downtown – 20 square blocks - was my backyard. At first I wondered if I should just concentrate on the Charles Street stories and try to publish that part on its own.

Then I went back and had another look at the concept of plot. If I only did the Charles Street stories, there wasn’t much plot. “Girl grows up: first 9 years in downtown rooming house.” I examined all the readings and plotting tools Martha has on her blog especially The Plot Planner and the Scene Planner. I read all her tips about plot and memoir. I thought long and hard about the boundaries of my story and how much of my life story I wanted to tell.

The Plot Planner helped me to define the time frame and helped me realize that the Charles Street Stories were only The Beginning of my story. Moving to the suburbs was only the end of The Beginning ¼ of my book. The Crisis came later, in The Middle, and the Climax and Resolution, in The End.

I had to keep my eye on this ball and make sure the stories I include follow the plot of my character development and growth to adulthood. Otherwise, my story will just be a rambling mess of little stories that will fail to engage the reader, even my own children.
Photo: My house on Charles Street, 2009

Braiding and Backstory

Prior to taking a bash at a first draft of my memoir, I spent some time thinking about braiding and backstory as they applied to my writing.

The concept of ‘braiding’ your story line was mentioned in an article by Heather Sellers in the July/August 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest. I kept wondering what my story lines were besides little stories I had written of my childhood. Did I have separate story lines? When I started writing my memoir stories, I remember I was confused about whether I was writing one or three books: my story, my mother’s story and my father’s story. Since I was into genealogy and busy trying to trace my family history and compile a family tree, I had a lot of information and didn’t know how I was going to use it. Braiding helped me to think about these three strands as braids, a weaving of the three stories. I just needed to identify the scenes in each strand of the braid that best told my story in a way that came across to the reader as fresh and engaging.

Backstory is another writing concept that spoke to me as I struggled with my braids. I realized that my parents’ stories were my backstory and if I wanted to tell all three I could only do this very selectively using parts but not all of my parents’ stories. All the genealogy and background could go in a family history but not in my memoir. I needed to include only what is needed in a particular scene to reveal important information about the main character(s) and their history. My parents’ history is my backstory, my grandparents’ history is my parents’ backstory and so on. This seems so obvious now that I’ve sorted it out. Thinking these concepts through has led me to another one: plot. And how do you use plot in memoir writing?

"Butt in the Chair"

Today I begin my fourth consecutive day of putting my “butt in the chair” to draft my memoir. After 3 years of writing stories, taking courses, worrying about other people reading my work, I have finally decided to settle down and write a garbage draft of my book, warts and all.
After so much procrastinating, I have shifted to a new resolve: just get it out. As Martha Alderson says: “Can’t finesse that which isn’t written”. Besides the first draft is only a first draft. The job is by no means over; in fact it may be just beginning.

The hardest part for me about getting down to it is blocking out distractions in my life and making my book the number one priority. It required giving my husband a clear heads-up: “I will be writing my book in August”. I had to clear my schedule of any frivolous activities: the chiropractor is ok but no unnecessary shopping. Meeting with my writing group is ok but not socializing with my friends unless it’s “after work hours” or on the weekend. Helping out my kids during a crisis is ok but lengthly chatting and hanging out is not.

Getting into a daily routine was another challenge. I like to arise slowly and putter around before getting down to work. I like to sleep in and work at night. For this month I am trying to follow a plan to get up early, work in the mornings until around 1 pm then read or do something mindless like gardening in the afternoon when I can let my mind drift and let things percolate.

So far I have written and sorted out stories in the beginning ¼ of my book. Sixty pages double spaced, about 12,000 words. Not bad for a start.