Beginnings and Endings for Your Memoir

I’ve been sharing excerpts from my new book The Memoir Workbook. Today we’re going to consider the starting and ending points for your memoir.

Your memoir obviously needs to start somewhere and end somewhere, and since you’re not writing an autobiography with the purpose of detailing your entire life, you need to spend time thinking about the time frame.

One writer suggests: “Start anywhere. Because no matter where you start, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be.” I disagree. From my experience in critiquing and editing hundreds of manuscripts, including memoir, if you start anywhere, you may wander off to Shangri-la and find yourself stuck in a snowdrift—not where you’d planned to go.

As with any journey, you need a specific starting point that will actually get you to your targeted destination.

Your memoir may cover three days of your life or it may cover thirty years. You could be writing a gripping story of the time you got trapped in a hotel during a tsunami or the year you spent living abroad. The duration is contingent on the particular story you aim to tell.

This is why it’s important to know your purpose in writing this particular memoir and your themes.

Since your memoir is going to pull from various anecdotes in your life to support your theme or topic, you want to determine what event in your life is best to springboard your story.

Let’s look at a few different methods:

  • You might start off your memoir with that key, powerful event in your life that sets the stage for your story, but from there, you may want to skip ahead in time (even years) to when that event starting impacting you in a specific way.

For instance, let’s say you experienced some traumatic event in your childhood—think of Maya Angelou’s incident at age eight (telling someone about the man who raped her, who then was murdered) that left her mute for years. You may decide to open your memoir with that event, playing it out like a movie scene so readers see what germinated the events to follow.

From there you might begin your actual memoir decades later, when you fall in love with the man you will marry. That “inciting incident”—as is called in novel structure—is what begins the bigger story that highlights your themes.

Maybe it’s when you marry that the submerged memories of your abuse start surfacing. Or you discover fears and roadblocks to happiness in your marriage because you haven’t dealt with that past pain.

  • Or you might start right in with your “inciting incident.” If your story is about how you got sucked into drug addiction, you might begin with the day you met that attractive man who took you to that party and got you so drunk, you didn’t realize you had been given meth or cocaine or some other drug. From there, things start going downhill.

Consider Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The memoir begins with her husband’s death, which launched the tumultuous and life-changing year that followed.

  • If your story is meant to show how far you’ve come in life in some specific way, you might start by showing your previous life or situation just before things change.

Consider The Pursuit of Happyness, which starts by showing Chris Gardner investing all his savings into buying machines to sell, which leads him to becoming broke and losing his wife. Though things look hopeless, he is determined to rise up and succeed, and shortly thereafter learns of a possible position as a stockbroker. The odds are against him, but even though he is homeless and taking care of his young son, he works hard and applies himself, then lands the coveted job.

You might start at the point that shows how bad things once were for you. From there, you would share the pivotal experiences in your life, the important people who aided in your transformation, what you learned, and how you applied certain principles to arrive at the place where you were victorious.

Think about your “moment of discovery” or an iconic incident that highlights your theme. This is the key moment when your specific story began. Think to that point in the past when your life started to shift.

Take a look at how Abigail Thomas begins with her moment of discovery:

Monday, April 24, at nine forty at night, our doorman Pedro called me on the intercom. “Your dog is in the elevator,” he said. The world had just changed forever, and I think I knew it even then.

Abigail learned that night that her husband, who had been out walking their dog, got hit by a car. Her story about her husband’s slow and difficult recovery from traumatic brain injury then begins.

The accident was her “inciting incident” for her story.

Endings

Talking about beginnings brings us to this pertinent question: Where will your memoir end?

Just as your memoir doesn’t start at your birth, it shouldn’t end at the end of your life. It may end at the moment you are in right now, but only if that is the natural “culmination” of your story.

What does that mean?

Think again of the purpose or themes of your memoir. Just as you had a moment of discovery, an inciting incident that set your story in motion, you also have a moment in which you have “arrived.”

That doesn’t mean you aren’t continuing to learn and grow from what you went through, but you should end your story at the place where the lessons have hit home. When you’ve taken those epiphanies you’ve gleaned from your experiences and now use them to light the way forward.

Whether you have taken visible action steps because of the lessons learned, or you’ve made new plans, or you’ve changed your outlook or beliefs—any or all of those might signal the perfect place to end your story.

The ending for your particular story may be obvious. It could be when you left your job for good (quit or retired or were fired). When you ran across the (literal or figurative) finish line and reached your goal.

Leaving Your Readers with a Strong Sense of Conclusion

It’s best, once the “goal” has been reached, to end the book and not go off on new tangents or other journeys. The reader has joined with you on this journey, and when you get to “the end,” there should be a sense of completion, reflection, and resolution. Just as with a great novel, the ending should satisfyingly “wrap up” the story and any loose ends.

You may want to skip ahead in time, perhaps many years, to conclude your story and wrap things up for your readers long after the “period” your memoir covers ended.

Norman Vaughan went to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd 1928-1930, but he ends his memoir by jumping ahead to 1957, when Byrd dies and he is at his commander’s graveside. He beautifully plays out this moment to give readers a feeling of completion and emotional satisfaction.

Byrd’s funeral was spectacular, with many VIPs in attendance. . . . The taps blown at the graveside brought tears to my eyes. I made no attempt to wipe them away, and I didn’t care if anyone else noticed. I was saying good-bye to a great man.

I stood at attention, listening to taps while vivid memories flashed through my mind. I thought of my first meeting with Byrd at Wonalancet, when he inspected the dogs . . . my carrying him by sled to Little America . . . our walks along the barrier in Antarctica . . . his phone calls and letters . . . his parting words when he left for his second expedition, back to Antarctica . . . In my mind I saw him again on the frozen continent as we hastened to board the battered City in the Bay of Whales after our year at the bottom of the world.

“It’s over, Norman,” he had said. The smile—I saw the smile again, too. “We did it.”

Yes, I thought. We did it. 

Note how Vaughan brings his title, With Byrd at the Bottom of the World, into play in the last lines of his memoir. That, too, helps give readers a feeling of completion, driving home the focus and purpose of the memoir.

Think about those lessons you learned by the end of your journey—how what you went through changed you.

Whatever structure you use, the starting point and ending point need to be firmly fixed in your mind so that your story takes place between the two moments.

You may flash back to earlier or later times, but those will be side dishes to your main story, helping support your themes.

Think about not just the events in that ending moment but also how this ending point might be a satisfying conclusion of your story. 

How Long Should My Memoir Be?

You may be wondering how to determine the ideal length for your memoir. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, most full-length books are between 60,000 and 80,000 words. If you write under 30,000 words, you are writing more of a short story than a book.

Maybe all you want to do is write a brief account—an article or story. That’s perfectly fine. If you have no interest in writing a book, or the idea of a big project is intimidating, don’t pressure yourself.

Tell the story you want to tell. If it’s long and deep, chances are it will evolve into a full-length book. Don’t worry about word or page count; that will only distract or aggravate you. Focus on the craft of storytelling.

If you or someone you know is interested in writing a memoir, consider getting The Memoir Workbook. It will help you brainstorm, organize, and write your unique story! Buy your print copy HERE on Amazon.

 

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