Many writers come to their memoirs with so much information, back story, and details about their lives that the prospect of narrowing down their scope or even knowing where to begin can feel daunting and elusive.
When it’s your own story, it’s tough to be objective, so it’s important to determine as early as possible whether you have a chronologically-driven or thematically-driven narrative. The first is simpler to execute. Your story unfolds on a timeline, and you need to be careful not to forget to remind the reader where they are in the story, or they’ll feel untethered. The latter requires you to never lose sight of the theme of any given chapter, always making sure that it’s in the backdrop, even if it’s not driving the narrative. In a theme-driven narrative, you can also jump around in time, an effective strategy for authors who are handling big time periods (like entire lives) in their memoir.
If you’re struggling with the scope of your memoir, here are some things to consider:
1. Where does your book start and where does it end? Do you have a clear handle on the point in time where you enter your story, and the scene that concludes your book? If not, this is key to getting started. You can’t fill in the middle until you know where the book ends.
2. Are you lacking inspiration? Consider creating a visual sequencing of your chapters. Lots of writers tap into a deep, pre-verbal space when working with images. If you’re feeling lost or stuck, grab some old magazines and start collaging your chapters. Let the words come later; allow the images be an inspiration for you once you start writing.
3. Do you wonder if you have too much? If you’ve considered this, you probably do. Ask yourself if your memoir might be two books. Break your memoir into a coming-of-age story and a later-life story. Many memoirs take place over the course of one year; if you’re trying to cover a whole lifetime, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise when your scope feels too big.
4. Have you allowed yourself to do a brain dump? A brain dump can be process writing, stream-of-consciousness, free-writing, morning pages, bullet points—whatever works for you. Focus on what you want your book to convey. What is the takeaway for the reader? What is the primary subject matter, theme(s), or driver behind what you want to write? Understanding what you want your reader to get from your book can sometimes help you figure out that some of what you thought you needed to write about might in fact need to be left out.
Scope is the first thing new memoirists need to have a handle on. It’s possible to write an entire book without paying attention to scope, but the impact on your reader will be an experience that feels messy and uncontained. Writing memoir requires focus, intention, and presence, and all three of these things shine through when you’re in control of your book’s scope.