Using Story Arcs in Writing a Memoir
As a ghostwriter, I’m constantly asked, “Where do I begin the story of my life? So much
has happened to me, I don’t know where to start.” This seems to be the mystery most people face who want to write a memoir. If they could solve that problem, the whole narrative of their life would tumble out onto the page in a semblance of order. In a way, I agree with that assessment. Beginnings of a book are difficult. Do you begin when you were a child? As an adult? Or with a life-changing event? As problematic as the opening of your a personal story is I believe if you master the function of how story arcs work, the structure of your memoir will begin to fall into a discernable shape.
I’m not going to give you the standard advice you can find in any number of articles on the Internet. I’m not going to tell you to write your earliest memories or a list of scenes, or anything like that. I’m not going to give you ten ideas for writing the best memoir. Others have plowed those fields, and I have no intention of toiling where so many others have already planted. In this article, we’re going to examine how memories fit into a specific arc.
William Zinsser famously said that “Writers are the custodians of memory.” I don’t think there is a truer or simpler explanation of what you are setting out to do in writing your personal story. This is what makes writing a memoir such a daunting task. Memorists curate their memories, choose and select events for thematic effect, and develop their book with a discernable arc that gives the reader the vicarious experience they crave.
A piece of cake, right?
Beginning a Memoir
Where you start depends on the type of personal story you’re writing. If a family history will suffice, the best way is to proceed is simply to start at the beginning. How far back you go depends on what family memories you’re trying to preserve. Do you want to tell about grandpa and grandma and what they went through to come to America, to build a business, or to fall in love? Most people compiling a family history have few aspirations of seeking a wider audience. They want to pass along the memories of their family, of their sacrifices and accomplishments, of their losses and loves, to the grandchildren. They don’t want those who have come before, who have paved whatever path the family has taken, to be forgotten.
Narrative arcs aren’t as important to a family history. What’s important to these stories is to record the names of the ancestors, to write down who they were and what they did. Personal stories allow us to not let the history of a family slip away into the mists of time. Once the memories are gone, they can only be recovered with great difficulty, if at all.
But if what you’re setting out to write a commercially viable book, one you hope will reach a wider audience? What if you have a story that you believe will inspire and help many others? Using narrative story arcs will be critical to your book’s success. Narrative arcs are not difficult to understand, and neither are they troublesome to use. As a personal memoir ghostwriter, I believe they lend a form to our experiences that when considered as a whole cloth, an entire life of doing and being can rattle any sane person who is trying to sort out what’s important from what’s trivial and unnecessary to record. So I suggest that if you want to know where to begin your story, evaluate carefully where your story has taken you.
How to get started down the journey to writing your story is a separate issue from what should be the opening scene of the book. The latter is contingent on understanding the former. So by honestly assessing where you are at today, you will tap into the early experiences that are central to your story. That may sound counterintuitive, so stay with me.
Where Has Your Journey Taken You?
Memoirists are foremost the custodians of memories. We care for them, preserve them, and curate then in the sense that we decide what’s important to pass along so readers can vicariously enjoy and learn from our lives. The selection process, what to include, what to leave out, and where to start depends on the journey you’ve taken is one of the important decisions an experienced personal memoir ghostwriter can provide. Begin by asking yourself the following question: Where you are today emotionally as the result of your journey?
Are you sober?
Are you wealthy after years of building a business?
Have you survived a difficult family upbringing?
What sickness have you overcome despite the death sentence predicated by the medical professionals?
Have you overcome addiction to food, drugs, sex, or work?
Have you escaped an abusive relationship?
Have you lived largely, then lost it all?
Do you have rags to riches tale?
What family dysfunction did you have to overcome to become the person you are today?
Have you accomplished something notable against great odds?
Have you traveled to the wildest places and experienced the craziest things?
Have you set out on an adventure and discovered something about yourself?
Did you build a great business or enterprise and then lose it all?
Have you experienced a spiritual awakening?
Have you lived through some horrible experience such as years behind bars after being wrongly accused, etc.?
The list of questions only grows as we consider them because the variety of experiences we can write about are as varied as is humanity. And the memoir as a literary form will bend around those experiences. That’s what makes the memoir such a flexible vehicle for self-expression. You can shape it to your life. Most of the experiences expressed in the list of questions above produce the most commonly used arc in contemporary memoirs: the Positive Change Arc. In a PCA, the main character of the story goes through an emotional and physical transition, and through overcoming obstacles enters into a state of emotional, financial, and physical well-being.
For the sake of example, I’m going to take the first situation. If a person inquires about my ghostwriting services, I usually ask where they are today—emotionally. Let’s say, for example, that this person is sober after twenty years of alcohol or drug addiction. I would ask them to describe to me a family situation. What lie did they believe about themselves in their earliest memory? What misconceptions did the person develop during their childhood that may have driven them to addiction? What misconception did they have to overcome about themselves, their family, their surroundings to finally reach their healthiest state of mind? The answers to these questions are not on the tip of anyone’s tongue. It takes an effort to explore the early family experiences to develop specific scenes that might give us a clue to their early emotional state.
The craft of memoir is about looking back on one’s life through the looking glass of memories. Memories change over time. And what we think about our early experiences changes too. What may have been an innocuous event when you were five becomes a transformative moment that still haunts you when you’re fifty-five. The maturity of age gives us the power of hindsight, and as they say, hindsight is always 20-20.
Build your understanding of the normal world you grew up in through exploring memories. This will lead us to an event that can launch your story. One of the things I do during this time, working with clients, is to help them understand the cause and effect in their lives. What led them to become the person they became in their early life. This is your normal world.
Every Memoir Has a Normal World
The normal world in many cases is not at all healthy. But to the person growing up in it, steeped in its rituals and oddities, no matter how chaotic or destructive, it’s the only world the author knows. It’s the situation as it stands today as the story begins at the very beginning.
The addict will have to escape their world. The business person will seek to change their world through innovation and hard work. The explorer will have to redefine their world through arduous adventures. We can go on to the stories of the investor, the traveler, the entrepreneur, the abused spouse, the impoverished son or daughter, the dauntless inventor—and the list grows ever longer of those who seek to change their world or the world around them.
What are the roots of your story arc? Have you examined it? If you need help with exploring these memories and would like more information on my ghostwriting services, reach out to me.
Your Story Begins at the Moment of Change
In these few questions, we have hours of memories to sift through. As the client talks, I’m searching for connections, for cause and effect, and for an opening. These memories of aloneness, of alienation, of happy times, or whatever family dynamic nurtured the client’s self-abasement in addiction may not be the opening to the book we are looking for. But by understanding the emotional state from the earliest time that created the status quo in the client’s life, we are laying the groundwork for the Moment of Change.
Are the root causes of every malady in the family of origin? I don’t know. I’m not a therapist. But I can tell you that even in the most gentle homes with the most nurturing and attentive parents, children have grown up with some sense of self that is warped, alienated; or they have developed a misconception about their parent’s true intentions. Most of us, if we don’t find unconditional love from our parents will find it somewhere. Is this the only source of addiction? Hardly? But this is territory that needs exploration.
Did the person feel loved? Did the person feel unwanted? What happened? How did the client perceive this lack of love? Explore these questions, and you have the nature of the journey one must undertake, and you edge closer to the scene that will hook your readers.
Examples of Opening Scenes That Hook Readers
In The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir of a dysfunctional family, Rex, her father is a reckless and irresponsible alcoholic who drags his family all over the country, from job to job, keeping the family in a state of chaos. He manages to keep the family together through outrageous lies, none more spectacular than the one concerning the glass castle. Every time the family seems to lose faith in Rex and his wild antics, he takes one or two of the kids outside, and scratches an outline in the dirt of the house he’s planning for all of them. And after he builds it, they will all live there in happiness and bliss. He calls the promised home, a glass castle. He even has a set of architectural plans he carries with him. He’s just looking for the opportunity, the right place, the right moment and he will begin to build. It is a fantasy, yes. But it is also a lie that creates misconceptions in the children’s minds. It’s the author’s and her siblings’ normal everyday world. The author doesn’t see through it until she’s in high school. When she finally has had enough of the lies, she conspires with her sister to escape to New York and make their own life in the real world.
The opening of her book is dramatic. It takes place years after all her childhood events, and she is a successful writer. One evening she’s driving in New York with her husband on her way to an event when she spots her homeless mother rooting through a trash can. She has a built a new normal world through hard work and determination. Homelessness and want are not part of it. After spotting her mother in such an embarrassing situation, this episode shunts Jeannette right back into her past, like a time-shift. She has to deal with her past. She can’t let it go. This launches us back to the beginning because we want to know her story. How did her mother come to such straightened means that she’d rummage through a trash can to find a meal? What kind of world did the author come from?
The opening scene, what writers call “the hook,” that engages the reader’s intentions from the opening, is built on a solid foundation of an understanding of the world the author escaped. Or the world the author wants to change.
In Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, founder, and CEO of Nike, Inc., the story opens with Knight jogging down a Portland back road. He has graduated from the University of Oregon where he ran track and has a newly minted MBA from Stanford, where his final project was to propose a new business opportunity—his idea was to import running shoes from Japan. He loves running. He loves business. He has a fantastic family who has supported him through his entire education and athletic life. There’s not one whiff of dysfunction in his family relations. He has everything going for him, but he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. While jogging, he ruminates on the business opportunity he examined in grad school. The Japanese manufacturers have become a disruptive force in the American economy, importing cheaper electronics, and then autos. He theorizes that running shoes will be next. He decides in a flash, that’s what he’s going to do—go to Japan and find a shoe factory. This decision launches him out of his comfort zone of into an eighteen-year odyssey of struggle, near catastrophe after catastrophe until Nike goes public and makes him and his close associates rich. His company disrupted the athletic shoe business. And the opening that hooked us was that Moment of Change when he decided to push forward into that journey of change.
While jogging, he ruminates on the business opportunity he examined in grad school. The Japanese manufacturers have become a disruptive force in the American economy, importing cheaper electronics, and then autos. He theorizes that running shoes will be next. He decides in a flash, that’s what he’s going to do—go to Japan and find a shoe factory. This decision launches him out of his comfort zone of into an eighteen-year odyssey of struggle, near catastrophe after catastrophe, until Nike goes public and makes him and his close associates rich. His company disrupted the athletic shoe business. And the opening that hooked us was that Moment of Change when he decided to push forward into that journey of change.
In some memoirs, the change is forced on the author.
In Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion: A memoir of a life rescued through tragedy, we see a young woman forced by her parent’s tragic accident into reconsidering her life choices. She comes from a wealthy home, a girl with every advantage, but when the book opens, she’s in a beauty spa in San Diego, luxuriating in the pampering pleasures of her easy wealth. She’s dropped out of college; she’s given up on acting; and she’s settled into the empty life of the kept woman, the coddled mistress of a high-profile attorney. At twenty-three she stands on the verge of throwing her promising future under the bus of sordidness, and she knows it. But she’s powerless to break out of her pampered shell. Her whole life with her paramour is based on a lie. A lie she’s told herself over and over until she believes it’s right. Her normal world is the world of decency turned upside down. It’s based on a lie. At the center of the typical normal world of those who are caught in addiction or abusive relationships is a lie that results in the author’s misconception of their very own reality. Only something tragic will launch them out of their comfort zone into the world of truth.
The book opens with a telephone call from the New Jersey with the alarming news her mother and father have been in a horrific accident. She must come home immediately from her indulgent life and face the reality of the death of her parents. This forces her to examine her life, and how she fell into her affair. She escapes her life of living a lie and chooses to live authentically in the world of truth. This is a classic positive change arc.
I could add example after example. But to summarize, I believe the initial work of writing a memoir is to lay out clearly the normal world the author has lived in. It may take time to discover the truth, but you must articulate the lie that has sifted into author’s life that allows one to live inauthentically.
Stories of Innovation
But what if the story isn’t about dysfunction but innovation. Then the normal world is the world outside the author’s world that needs to change. And it is only through the author’s bold action to bring new ways of living and working that the normal world for everyone is changed. Think of a young, skinny farmer boy outside of Detroit who was determined to invent things to make the common man’s life easier. When Henry Ford walked away from his father’s farm to look for a job in the city, one of the world’s greatest inventors was on the loose. He hoofed it into town with a vision. He wanted to make life easier for the farmer, the laborer, the men and women who had to break their back just to survive.
From the very beginning as a teenage engineering prodigy, his aim was focused on creating a horseless carriage. One the common man could afford. He changed the history of the middle class in American in ways that are not difficult to comprehend.That was his aim from the beginning, and he made it happen. What an arc his story has, from penniless tinkerer to the most successful automotive engineer in history. As a personal memoir ghostwriter, I would enjoy writing the memoirs of an automotive genius.
Story arcs are everywhere, in all of our stories, in all of the best books we the read and love. Using them effectively will make your story more exciting and readable.
Free Offer: If you’ve read this far, you are serious about writing a high-quality memoir. I would like to offer you a free evaluation of your memoir manuscript. I normally charge $500 for this service. It doesn’t matter how much of your story you’ve completed. I’d like to reward your tenacity and passion for learning about memoir writing, and I’d like to help you shape your story into a compelling reading experience. Email me directly and put FREE EVALUATION–STORY ARCS in the subject line. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In Part 3, I will deal with transitions that must take place to make the story arc complete and satisfying.
John DeSimone is a personal memoir ghostwriter. Whether you have a business memoir, personal story, a story of transformation or spirituality, he would love to speak with you regarding your project. He can be reached at email@example.com