Crafting the Right Structure for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction
I wrote a good portion of my memoir in a stream-of-consciousness outpouring, which was a satisfying way to externalize the vivid memories (so many memories!) I carried from childhood. At first, I sought only to tell a good story, which I still value above all else. However, aside from committed fans of James Joyce and Jack Kerouac, I knew my eventual readers would want (and perhaps need) some structure. Reading is a learned process, and the reader brings their expectations to the page based on cultural understandings of the structure before them: We read a free verse poem differently than a science fiction story, which we approach differently from flash fiction.
Form and content are interrelated and work together, whether you are writing a sonnet or an epic novel — ideally, the form of the piece acts as a kind of container, as well as the scaffolding of your work. From a psychological perspective, it was useful for me to write out my memories and reflections without trying to control their structure. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a proponent of writing it all out in the beginning, and editing later — I just took that mantra to the extreme with my first book.
What I wish I had known at the beginning of my writing process, is that within my overall structure of memoir, each chapter can and should have both form and a clear purpose. As I went through one of several major editing rounds — even prior to landing a publisher — I realized some of my chapters lacked focus.
Eventually, I wrapped up my structural edits by applying the following guidelines to each chapter:
- Every chapter should be able to stand alone — i.e., it tells a story or explores a theme, fully.
- At the same time, each chapter supports the thesis of my book — no random stories or ideas without an overarching purpose.
While attending to the chapters with these goals in mind, I also identified or created unifying themes within each chapter — and this is where it got really fun. These themes were represented by symbols, such as the creek that ran behind our house, or my Granny’s kitchen table. I looked for symbols that related to both the emotions and memories being explored in each chapter, and ensured there was one in each chapter. (This approach varies later on, as the memoir delves more into the social implications of more story.)
One of the last steps in my chapter-specific process was to create chapter titles, which was more of a challenge than I would have expected, However, this step provided yet another opportunity to create layers of meaning and tighten the structure of my work, so every piece worked together toward a unified whole.
I’m an unabashed lover of language, and I adore wordplay. I found chapter titles to be the perfect place to play on words and clichés, and achieve double meanings, like “Chapter 25: The Canary in the Coal Mine.” This phrase historically refers to the canaries used to detect carbon monoxide and other gases in coal mines — if the canary acted sick or died, it was a warning to coal miners to evacuate the mine. As my chapter title, it relates to coal mining, which I discuss in terms of extractive economies and their effect on Appalachia, but also to my personal life, and how my parents’ generation struggled in new and important ways that signaled a decline in Appalachia at large.
I began writing with no thoughts of the structure of chapters, or their significance within the larger narrative. But through a long and sometimes arduous editing process, I came to recognize the importance of the overall structure, and the subtle role chapters play in it. The words we write are enhanced by how we write them, and this is but one aspect of how writers can optimize their work. Happy writing!