How to effectively organize an autobiography/memoir
February 2, 2022 1:40 PM   Subscribe

How might I organize an autobiography/memoir that has chronological facts, events, and personal history alongside essays on non-time-specific topics?

In my family, I'm the genealogist, the family historian. I've researched long-gone ancestors and written short narratives about their lives so that living family members can learn about them without being bored to tears by mere facts. Unfortunately, genealogists often tend to ignore documenting their own history in the course of their research. I realized that I would give anything to have a journal, an autobiography, or a memoir from any one of my direct ancestors, so I want to make sure I leave something for my kids and whoever in the future may be interested in reading it. (I plan on simply self-publishing this. This is something for family, not for sale.)

As such, I've been working on a kinda-memoir-but-more-autobiography for a number of years. I'm using Scrivener to write and organize, but I find myself having a really tough time coming to a decision on how to structure the final product.

For instance, I initially envisioned the book being mostly chronological, broken up into sections (childhood, elementary school, middle school, etc.). But a chronological rundown of my life isn't really interesting enough. I have a number of pieces that would span over multiple sections (ie. "Music" - how my tastes changed, how it affected me, years where I made music, etc.) or that cover topics that aren't really time-specific but that I feel are important to the "picture of me" I want to leave behind. Trying to figure out how to combine autobiographical details about my teachers, classes in school, or major events in my life along with more general essays is something I can't quite wrap my head around.

So, I guess my three questions are:

1. Has anyone else faced this same organizational issue? How did you end up handling it?

2. I'd be willing to do a consultation with an expert to talk through possibilities. Any recommendations?

3. Are there any good books that deal with the organizational side of writing such a book? Every one I've looked at so far has been not-at-all helpful.
posted by laze to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Would reading another memoir to see how they did it be helpful at all? Because I immediately thought of Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee when I was reading this:

For instance, I initially envisioned the book being mostly chronological, broken up into sections (childhood, elementary school, middle school, etc.). But a chronological rundown of my life isn't really interesting enough. I have a number of pieces that would span over multiple sections (ie. "Music" - how my tastes changed, how it affected me, years where I made music, etc.) or that cover topics that aren't really time-specific but that I feel are important to the "picture of me" I want to leave behind.

This is almost exactly the approach Lee took, where instead of organizing it by chronological stages he organizes it by themes, for lack of a better word. There's still a sense of a chronological structure - it's clear he's just a toddler at the beginning and he's an older teen by the end - but in between all of the "Holiday" stories are together, all of the "domestic/family life" stories are together, and suchlike. It may be worth having a look to see how he did it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:53 PM on February 2, 2022

I guess I'd wonder if you could just have a Part I vs. Part II kind of thing, where the two (or more) parts could be any of the following: a chronology, an autobiographical sketch, a commonplace book, a set of essays on music, genealogy, etc. and how they've crosscut your life, biographical sketches of people you've known, 'chorographic' sketches of places you've lived, schools you've attended, etc. Memoirs are sometimes jumbled like that. Carolyn Kay Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman is broken up into "Stories," "Exiles" (biographical sketches of her parents, IIRC), and analytical essays. Kier-La Janisse's House of Psychotic Women has an autobiographical essay at the start of each chapter followed by related reviews of horror movies. Seems like it could be whatever you have available to work with.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:21 PM on February 2, 2022

Best answer: The two basic ways would be to have two major sections as Wobbuffet suggests (Section #1 - chronological time line chapters, Section #2 - thematic chapters, organized in some reasonably logical sequence), OR to have chronological chapters interleaved with thematic chapters in some reasonably logical way.

Just for example, you might have a chapter covering your ancestors & parents' lives, then a chronological chapter covering your life from birth up to age 5, then a chapter on your schooling (which fits in logically at that point because schooling starts at age 5), then a chapter covering age 5-12, then a chapter on your musical pursuits (because those began somewhat seriously around age 10-12), and so on through your life. You get both a chronological outline to help you keep things structured but also a deep dive into various topics that don't fit so easily into the basic timeline.

A variation on that you see in many books is to have "sidebar" type sections that tell a story, follow a little digression, illustrate a point, etc. That could be a way to fit some of the topics into the timeline - particularly if they are a bit shorter. Tables, illustrations, and such are a great way to organize information and many people don't think of using such tools in autobiography (but maybe they should).

Whichever exact way you choose, have a short paragraph explaining your organizational plan in your preface, and then also use a Table of Contents along with chapter headings, sub-heads, etc to make your organizational structure crystal clear to the reader.

Depending on how long you go, an index can be super-helpful to readers as well.

Finally I will say that one of my relatives used one of those schemes where you put a bunch of questions in a hat and then pull one out a day and answer it. Then she compiled it into her "biography."

Even though it covers a lot of topics, I just HATE to read it, because it is so unstructured. And because it is scattershot, even though it is long it leaves many areas and chronological parts of her life completely uncovered. (And actually it would be pretty decent if it also had a chronological outline, even a fairly brief one, to tie everything together and put it into context.)

Point is, literally any structure you come up with to organize your work will be better than just "here's a bunch of unorganized stuff".

Finally, look at published biographies for ideas about structure. They tend to use all the techniques outlined above (and perhaps a few more).
posted by flug at 7:48 PM on February 2, 2022

I have thought a lot about this (but not as any sort of writer or anything) and the thing I'd like to try if I could find just the right thing...

Would be like a good wiki where you could just throw in everything and have them linked together and then just use tags or indexes (automatic like) to do things like pull out all the links on Bobby, or everything that happened in 1983 or high school stories, or girlfriend stories and maybe even do one of those infographic.

If you got a bit clever with that it could possibly even be turned into a choose your own adventure type book or pages/stories could have (See Page X, Y).

I think I just might like a book that had like an introduction, table of contents, and a note to check the back for indexes, lists of charts.

(on preview... think I sorta think like flug)
posted by zengargoyle at 7:56 PM on February 2, 2022

This is actually a question I've been thinking for a while of asking Ask if anybody knew of software sorta designed for this purpose.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:01 PM on February 2, 2022

I haven’t written anything like that but I thought recently that I’d like my kids to know some things about me that I may not be around to answer, or that I should write down now so I don’t forget. Nothing that exciting or interesting but things like, what pregnancy was like (when I was expecting, doctors asked about my mother’s pregnancies but she’s dead so I thought that might be good for my kids to know). So I thought if I started writing something like that, I’d just think of it as “stuff I want my kids to know about me” and phrasing sections as sub heads under that title. If you want them to know about things that inspired you, make a working title for a chapter or a section “things that inspired me.” If you want them to know about events that shaped your life, make a section “events that shaped my life.” You can always come up with a snazzier title later, and it’ll be easier once you’ve put your ideas down. Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 8:32 AM on February 3, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I appreciate the feedback and it sounds like some of my original ideas on how I might organize the mix of chronological stories and longer themed-essays may work out.
posted by laze at 3:51 PM on February 4, 2022

Best answer: You might actually also try asking this question in the Scrivener forum. One of the cool things about Scrivener (as you probably already know) is that you can write smallish chunks of your work and then rearrange them - I bet it'd be possible, through tagging and other Scrivener features, to output the book in multiple ways. If you saved it as an epub or PDF using a few different organizational structures, your readers could have the interesting experience of choosing which way to read it, or even reading it more than once in different structures.

The folks on the forum might have some good tips along these lines - or even just their own thoughts about your question.
posted by kristi at 3:58 PM on February 6, 2022

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