As you use the exercises outlined in our article “Gathering Life Story Ideas for Your Memoir” or those described in greater detail in the Stories To Tell Author’s Guide, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of memories you have triggered and the volume of stories you might include in your memoir. Relax. You can’t include everything that has happened in your life in your book, nor would you want to.
Helen Keller recognized the problem when she wrote The Story of My Life. Early in her memoir she tells her readers, “In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be most interesting and important.”
As you look at your life, ask yourself which episodes are “most interesting and important.” By thinking about the ideas you have generated in this way, you will recognize that some aspects of your life may seem more weighty than others. This knowledge will help you to decide what to include in your memoir and what to leave out.
One way to make your decisions is to imagine that you are a director in Hollywood who has been commissioned to make a movie of your life. Your film must be limited to only two hours of screen time, so you must identify only the most essential elements of the life it will portray. List twenty episodes from your life that you think are essential to include in the movie.
When you have decided on the episodes you want to be part of your memoir, you have some more decisions to make about which details you should include about each episode and how you will organize them.
A lot of great memoirs rely on the simple chronological approach of recounting events in the order in which they occurred. All it takes is to ask yourself, “What happened next?” However, a good memoir does not necessarily give equal time to each time in its subject’s life. More time in the memoir should be devoted to those episodes you identified as essential. For example, you might deal with all the childhood years through high school or even college in a single chapter. Conversely a full chapter might be devoted to a single critical year. You make choices that will fit a chronological organizational plan to the experiences of your life.
Many people review their essential episodes and choose to organize their memoir topically. Topical organization can take several different forms. Here are a few: turning points, focusing on situations or events that changed your life; themes, focusing on things like family life, friends, career, hobbies, travel, etc.; or, character traits, which works particularly well if you are writing a tribute book telling someone else’s story, like courage, intelligence, sense of humor, creativity, or persistence; cultural, spiritual or ethical values; accomplishments or obstacles overcome.
In making choices about what to include in your book keep in mind what novelist Gore Vidal once said, “...a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.” That remembrance can take many different forms.