Is it okay to ignore chronological order?

Word count: 597 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Today I answer a question from a reader who is struggling with writing a memoir. His major challenge appears to relate to chronological order. Read on to learn more….

A reader named Richard submitted the following question to the Publication Coach:

I want to write in an autobiographical way about growing up in the ’70s, living near London, and the various characters along the way. I have begun the writing — no editing yet you’ll be pleased to hear, thanks to your advice. The writing is in anecdotal style and fairly relaxed. My structure is that it all appears in sections rather than chronological order. I was trying to make it something that others of my age group (50+) would look at and identify with, and, perhaps, smile. Does this structure seem like a good idea to you or should I try to get events into the order in which they happened regardless of the subject?

This is a rich and interesting question — and one I wish more writers explored before they started writing! The good news — and likely the bad news as well — is there is no correct answer. Memoir/autobiography is a tricky genre — and no easier to produce because the events of your life happened to you! Bottom line: you can choose any format you like — but here’s the kicker: the book needs to be interesting and sensible to your readers.

I have two pieces of advice for you:

(1) Go to the library or your favourite bookstore and find at least a dozen other memoirs and read them. Make sure they illustrate a variety of approaches — some chronological and others thematic. Then, determine which one or two you like the best and deconstruct them. How, exactly, do the authors you like best tackle the question of structure? You can also explore some other questions unique to memoir. For example, unless the authors have kept long-term diaries (or have truly spectacular memories) it’s unlikely they’ll be able to remember all the details and characters involved in their lives. How does your favourite memoirist deal with this challenge? And, in turn, how does this affect the structure they have chosen? Finally, when you have a model you like and you understand how it works, then IMITATE it. The application of your own content to this model will make your book unique.

One book you might want to look at is Jules Feiffer’s recent memoir Backing Into Forward. I didn’t like the book myself — I found it too self-indulgent and petulant — but Feiffer does not go with chronology and his memoir presents an interesting structural model. See what you think of his approach. For a more traditional style, you might also want to check Ryan Knightnon’s memoir C’mon Papa. (I interviewed Knighton last week.) His book follows the chronological approach much more closely and is completely charming. I don’t so much attribute that to the chronology as to the fine writing. Bottom line: read a lot, find a model you like and copy it.

(2) Be sure to use mind mapping. I’m convinced this technique is useful to all writers — but perhaps particularly valuable to memoirists. Mind mapping will help you reveal and recall long-forgotten events and colour — such as funny incidents, names, and perhaps even whole personalities — you’d otherwise never remember. Note: One mindmap is not large enough for a project as big as a book. I’d be inclined to start with one “master” mindmap on a massive piece of paper (think: blank newsprint or butcher’s paper) spread across the dining-room table. Then I’d do other, smaller mindmaps before writing each day.

Thank you, Richard, for sending in your question to Ask the Pubcoach.

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