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Stories To Tell is a full service book publishing company for independent authors. We provide editing, design, publishing, and marketing of fiction and non-fiction. We specialize in sophisticated, unique illustrated book design.

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Avoid Chronological Shackles While Writing Your Memoir

Biff Barnes

Rigid adherence to a chronological framework can be one of your greatest enemies when you are trying to write a memoir or family history that interests readers.

Courtesy of Roddy Keetch under Creative Commons

Imagine for a moment setting out with a chronological skeleton for your book. Mentally complete the chart below:


My Age


Things To Include


1st 5 years




































As you considered what to fill into the two blank columns what did you think about? Did you feel that the span of years per chapter was rather arbitrary? Did you think of lots of things to list in column four for some periods, but find that not much came to mind for others? Would you really have to work to fill in the blanks for some times in your life?

Using this sort of chronological approach to help organize your book often leads to chapters of equal length with time periods homogenized so that all seem to have an equal number of events and receive equal attention. Life, however, isn’t lived that way. Some times or events are pivotal. Understanding those turning points is the key to the story. Other segments of your life can be dealt with in a more summary fashion. Let’s face it, not everything that happens to us is all that interesting.

So, how does one avoid falling into a chronological trap?

One of the best ways is to ignore chronology completely when you begin writing. Rather than trying to plan the entire book, focus on the stories you remember most. Don’t think about writing a book, think about writing a good vignette. William Zinsser, in an article for The American Scholar titled How to Write a Memoir advised, “…think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.”

Write a few pages describing a memory you recall vividly in as much detail as you can. The next time you sit down at your desk repeat the process with another memory. This new memory doesn’t need to connect to the first in any way.  Put the finished products into a folder and move on to the next memory. Work at it for a few months.

When you have accumulated a substantial folder of stories, take a look at them. Can you see relationships among some of the vignettes? Start to group them accordingly. What is it they have in common? These relationships are where your book’s themes will begin to emerge.

One thing to consider as you record your vignettes is the point of view from which you will write. Certainly it will be your own. As novelist Gore Vidal observed when he wrote his own memoir, Palimpsest, “…a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.”

But there’s more to it than that. Will you write from the point of view of the younger you as you recall living through the remembered event? Or would you prefer to write from a more retrospective point of view, looking back on the event and reflecting on its meaning and importance. The choice will often make quite a difference in how you tell the story. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it is best to be consistent in terms of point of view from one story to the next.

What is really important is the voice you use to tell your stories. Don’t try to be literary. As Zinsser put it, “…don’t try to be a writer. … Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.”