In her new book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr offers aspiring writers two pages on structure.
"I start with a flash forward that shows what's at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in a straightforward, linear time," she writes, continuing: "Young writers often ask me to help them order information in a story. But there's a proven method you can try. Imagine sitting down to tell it to a pal at lunch. You'd have no problem figuring out what goes where."
I'd like to raise a quiet hand in defense of structure. Indeed, it has always seemed to me that structure defines memoir -- elevates it above mere autobiography, distinguishes it from journalism and essay, rescues it from narcissism. Structure releases the larger, universal story inside the particular this-happened-to-me. It signals an author's willingness to think not just about events, but about themes.
Consider H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald's deeply moving account of grief, which wrestles with the topic not in A to Z fashion, but by slipping back and forth into time and into the lives of those obsessed with the flight (and then return) of hawks. Over and again it weaves--swooping in and out of events and ideas, the present day and the past. We read as much to know what happened as we do to know how, in Macdonald's exquisite hands, the story will fold and bend.
Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index likewise teaches about the power of innovative structure. This is another story of grief--this time, a father's suicide. It is a book arranged, quite brilliantly, according to index, by which I mean:
attempt to imagine 1-4
bare-bones account, 5-6
immediate aftermath, 734
anger about, 35
No free flow of chronology here. Many iterations of one scene. A desire to fictionalize constrained by a need for honesty. This is Wickersham's story. But she makes it our story by taking risks, by delivering structural novelities that crack apart her grief.
The warm and graceful Bettyville by George Hodgman offers another kind of proof--not just of why kindness matters inside memoirs, but of the inherent promise of considered structure. Hodgman's memoir shows what happens when a man looking across present time at his elderly mother (and his care for her) also looks back at the life he lived as that mother's young, then troubled, son. Hodgman's flashbacking structure sets his story free--advances and enables it, embeds it with moving themes.
Michael Ondaatje. Terry Tempest Williams. Susanna Kaysen. Patti Smith (oh, you're going to love her forthcoming M Train). Brian Turner. Stephane LaCava. Gary Shteyngart. Edward Hirsch. Anna Badkhen. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. The list of structure-emboldened memoirists runs long and deep, and for them, I am grateful. Through them I learn. Reading them I become not just an outsider looking in on a life put on display, but a person deepened in my understanding of what life sometimes gives, and what, too, life takes.
Of course, there are times in my memoir classroom at the University of Pennsylvania, when I am challenged about structure (among other matters, like my devotion to pure, untwisted truth). When a guy, let's call him A, says: I rather like my life stories straight. I'm a fan of A to Z. I think I'll write my memoir that way. I think I'll see what you'll do.
And because I love A, because I see that twinkle in his eye, because it is his job to challenge me, I say:
A: There are only a handful of people in the world who can write their life stories in chronological fashion and still deliver memoir, which (I stress again) is not the same as autobiography. One of those people is Mary Karr herself, whose first memoir, The Liars' Club, transcends its chronology thanks to Karr's verbal verve and big-hearted telling.
Only a handful of people, A, I say. And his eyes twinkle back at me.
In the end, last semester, thankfully, A. broke his promise to himself and worked beyond chronology. He learned something more about his own story that way. And we learned more about us.
Beth Kephart is the author of the award-winning Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Avery) and the winner of the 2015 Beltran Family Teaching Award.