Way back in 2006 a professor asked our master’s class how we would design a two-semester class in world history. We had 5 minutes to diagram our approach on the whiteboard. The experienced teachers sketched out their plans with confidence. All I could think of was my 1962 high school world history class: start the first semester with early agriculture and the second semester with fifteenth-century European voyages to the Americas. Why? the professor asked me, as he drew a thematic approach: food, games, music, family life, and so on.
Now, as I start to write a memoir that looks back more than seventy years, I can’t help but consider the novel historical approaches I learned in graduate school. If I embrace David Christian’s Big History, for example, I could “trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule,” like the Mikado’s Grand Pooh-Bah. Or I could start with infancy and map my gradually expanding world over time like McNeil’s The Human Web. But I find I’m attracted to the thematic approach. I’ve started to make a list of themes: wanderlust, music, religion, education, family, books, love, loss, solitude, joy.
The list keeps changing as I seek the threads that matter most—to me, to my family, to anyone who might share these times we’ve lived in. Of course I’m doing research as I go. Graduate school habits never die.
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is practical. He recommends that you start a thematic memoir by writing your chapters in any order as long as each chapter has a beginning and an end. Then print them out and spread them on the floor and decide on the order. Even though it is your own story, he suggests that many people will find common ground in your narrative. I was most excited about writing the chapter on religion, so I finished it first and now I’m almost through drafting a chapter on travel. Recently I found an essay I had written on my early 1950’s childhood, the time before the Tehran years, and added it to the folder.
My research includes other people’s memoirs as well as books on writing. In May Sarton’s journal Plant Dreaming Deep, I found references to two other memoirs. Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae starts out as a theme-based autobiography about her childhood in Edinburgh with sections such as “Bread” and “The Doorbell,” to reflect a child’s memories but then leads into a chronological account of her adult life.
On the other hand, Coming into the End Zone by Doris Grumbach annoyed me early on. Advice to memoir-writers: don’t start out with a list of things you hate. No need to be old and crotchety. Grumbach dislikes photography, new books, the change of seasons, and any kind of speed, including planes, escalators, computers, and “the publisher of instant books.” Do we have anything in common? I don’t think I can finish it.
I would rather get to know Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), who combines a memoir about his own writing career with positive suggestions for writers. My big take-away from King is to trust your own words and never forget the importance of trimming that first draft from a rambling flow of words to one-on-one communication with the reader.
Who is the reader? First I’d like to tell my family about some twists and turns of life which they may not have heard around the dinner table. In addition, I invite everyone else into that ongoing conversation which drew me into reading other people’s memoirs while I reflect on life from the new perspective of my eighth decade.
In Draft No. 4, John McPhee brings us back to the issue of theme versus chronology, which he sees as difficult: “Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.” (p. 23). I suspect he’s right, but I’m still hoping to discover a graceful way to blend the two.
With gratitude to:
Christian, David. Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013.
Grumbach, Doris. Coming into the End Zone: A Memoir. New York, NY: Open Road Media, reissue ed., 2014.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, NY: Scribner, 10th Anniversary Edition, 2010.
McNeill J. R. and William H. The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2003.
McPhee, John. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Sarton, May. Plant Dreaming Deep. New York, NY: Open Road Media,
Spark, Muriel. Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography. New Directions, Reprint ed., 2011.
Sullivan, Arthur, and W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado, 1885.
Zinsser, William On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 7th ed. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006.