autobiography, memoir, quest, themes, letters, framework, true stories, life stories
Life Stories Part 1 - Choosing a Framework
Since winning that Olympic gold medal in origami, fans have been begging you to write your life story. How will you go about it? Will it be an autobiography in which you give a chronological account up to a particular point or will it be a memoir in which you focus on a certain period or event and then reflect on your experiences? (See Annette Gendler’s article for differences between autobiography and memoir).
Choosing the right structure or framework for your life story is important because it determines the type of material you gather and how you put it together. Here are some alternatives to consider.
Chronological Account – This involves starting with your birth and childhood and then following the story through to the present time. A variation of this form begins with a key event that drops the reader straight into the action (e.g. winning that gold medal) and then goes back to the beginning and details how you got to that point. The advantage of a chronological account is that it gives a reasonably complete picture of a person. However, unless every part of your life is fascinating (and maybe it is), you risk losing readers during the less interesting sections. For that reason, it’s probably more suitable for famous people or those who want to self-publish their family history.
Inciting Incident – This type of book focuses mainly on a critical event that changed the person’s life in some way. For example, Joni Eareckson’s book Joni starts at the point where she dives into Chesapeake Bay as a 17-year-old and breaks her neck. While some background is given, most of the book focuses on the aftermath of the accident and how she coped with her new life as a quadriplegic.
Quest – In these books, the author describes some sort of a quest he or she has undertaken. It could be a search for life’s meaning, a challenge the author has taken up, or an attempt to check off as many bucket-list items as possible. Examples would be Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs.
Thematic – In this type of book, anecdotes are organised around various topics. Comedienne Miranda Hart used themed chapters for her book Is It Just Me? (e.g. work, holidays, relationships), while Judith Lucy used alphabetised themes in The Lucy Family Alphabet (G is for Gladwrap).
Letters or diaries – In Dear Fatty, Dawn French recounts her story through hypothetical letters to significant people in her life. While often funny, there are also poignant moments, such as a letter telling her father that she’s cross with him for committing suicide when she was nineteen. A similar format could be used with hypothetical diary extracts. Think Bridget Jones's Diary, only real.
Can you think of any others? Which of these would best suit your story? What autobiographies or memoirs have had an impact on you and why? I’d be interested in your thoughts.