Crafting the Right Structure for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction

The hidden power in your chapters

Bobi Conn

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Someone writing in a journal
Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

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…

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Bobi Conn

Author of In the Shadow of the Valley (memoir) and A Woman in Time (historical fiction). Order now! https://amzn.to/3Es7JzH