Writing Memoir: Timelines

Memoir writing is one of the most common types of stories my students attempt. Hey, write what you know, right? Good memoirs demonstrate a command of the timeline.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss memoir timelines and which events should form them.

Time Travel

Most writers begin a memoir in chronological order. But by beginning at the beginning, your story may lack the grab power to hook readers. In personal essays, writers should write a draft, but then search for the actual lead—which could be buried on page two.

I advise students to draft chronologically if that feels most comfortable. Yet as revision begins, one of the first rewrites I recommend is to find a paragraph or page that not only hooks the reader but also hints at the entire story’s overarching meaning, theme or metaphor.

The starting point may not be chronological and will require the dreaded back story. But as with fiction, you’ll want to start just before the real action begins (in media res). After you tempt readers with an opening dripping with subtle meaning and promise, you’ll return to a set-up of sorts, which may require you to enter and leave a back story.

Back to Cold Mashed Potatoes

Back story entrances and exits are most often smoothest if you use concrete sensory detail. My silly yet effective Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule will help you insert back story without confusing readers or taking over the real time story. If you as a character in real time, are about to eat yummy hot mashies, the back story interrupts as your fork heads for your mouth.

The fork is suspended while you go to back story. Let the back story have something to do with the real time scene. (example: She thought about how she’d loved her grandma’s mashed potatoes, growing up.) Then readers can connect the two time shifts.

One of the reasons I use mashed potatoes is that hardy anyone likes to eat them cold. To the reader, the mashed potatoes are going to cool off quickly if the writer spends too long in the back story. That is, readers will “forget” what the character in the real time scene is doing. The longer you stay in back story, the more your readers are susceptible to diving down a back story rabbit hole (to mix metaphors!)

Readers must always know when and where they are.

Time Zig Zags

If you step outside the chronology to introduce your memoir, reader confusion becomes a real danger. Readers must always know where and when they are. One of the keys to these time jumps is to keep the set-ups brief. Most readers will sacrifice information (the set-up) for action. As long as you tell them when and where they are in clear transitions, readers can follow a story that contains time jumps.

Keep the details brief by letting go of the need to tell your readers your entire life story as your write about one aspect of your life. If your early childhood is of little consequence, a few sentences will likely suffice. If your present life is beside the point, you can use the mature reader looking back without chronicling every day of your existence.

I’ve read memoirs that begin with a person’s conception. Unless you write a story about your birth, you can safely leave out conception. Even then, most readers will assume that you were conceived and born. Instead of filling pages with info or scenes that readers can safely assume, concentrate your efforts on the timeline that matters to the story. By streamlining your memoir timeline, you’ll help readers understand exactly what you’re trying to say.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Memoir: Timelines

  1. Love these guidelines on memoir writing.
    I’ve been presenting writing information to Seniors in Senior Centers. I concentrate on shorter remembrances, rather than long articles covering days, months, and years.
    And — I also interest them in passing on humorous incidences about their life.
    I subscribe to your wonderful blogs.
    Thank you, Linda.

  2. Robert,
    Thank you so much for helping seniors write about their lives, especially the humorous bits. I think it helps them believe their lives are meaningful and worthwhile, and also gives their descendants invaluable stories they might otherwise never know. Keep up the great work!
    Keep Writing,

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