Learn from Wild: Theme and Structure in Your Memoir



One of my students was complaining the other day about plotting, creating structure, outlining, and all that left brain stuff.  “I miss my freewriting!” she said.

We love the feeling when we are in flow. It’s like a drug, and it’s also the feeling of being exactly in the center of our creative energy, which is one reason we love to write. But if we only freewrite, we end up with bunches of pages that have nowhere to live. We get lost in the middle of our story and don’t know how to get out. It’s important to balance the freewriting with the effort to find structure for our story if we want to have our book done within the next decade.

Because a memoir is a full-length work, it takes a long time to write, and it’s a challenge to keep track of all that goes on in this longer form. We have to think and plan out how best to write the story that wants to come out, while keeping our passionate connection to the story at the same time. It’s important to keep your themes in mind, and the messages you want your reader to get from the whole book, and from each chapter.

Chapters are composed of scenes linked by reflection and the narrator’s guiding voice. The reason we write a memoir is because we have learned something through living the story we want to tell, and because of that, it can be hard to find objectivity in the writing. Our memories float around in our heads like a dream. When we write, we capture a thread of the dream but again, how do we make sense of these threads?  How do they weave together to create a cohesive story?

Clearly, memoirists need to be able to switch hats and have both the skill to structure and the permission to let go and write. You need to give yourself permission to freewrite, muse, sketch your memories, and take notes. Your writing journal is the perfect place for that. Everything you write doesn’t need to be for your book. You have to unhook from “production” enough to get refreshed, revitalized, and inspired to keep going through your freewrites.

Theme, Message, and Scenes

The smallest structural element in writing your book is a scene, and the largest is your themes as shown across the arc of your narrative through the whole book. Knowing your themes and the messages you want your reader to glean from your chapters helps you locate the scenes that will illustrate these points. Woven throughout is the narrator’s reflection as you translate your inner world for the reader.

The purpose of your scenes is to bring the reader into your world—to feel it, walk in it, hear, feel, smell, and taste that world. The reader experiences your world through scene. Each scene will have a purpose and a message for being in the book—and it will be true. However, the scenes will be there not just because “it happened,” but because it furthers the purpose of the theme. It’s important to understand that though a scene occurs in a specific place and time, not all scenes have dialogue or contain more than one person. You can write a lovely scene using prose only, and sometimes that is the best way, rather than using dialogue that forces an explanation or exposition.

The theme may be stated in the subtitle of your book: Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, has a descriptive subtitle: “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

When we open the book, we expect to read a story about feeling lost, being found, we expect an inner journey, we imagine that we will be with a woman on a trail and join her on her hike. The book’s themes showcase the ways she was lost: her mother’s death, the break-up with her husband, the loss of self through drugs, the grieving process for her mother, husband, and childhood, no relationship with her father, and being literally lost on the trail.

She gradually found herself, and there are scenes where she finds her way, learns how to solve problems on the trail, meets people who help her. The act of choosing to be brave, to face herself, and silence, and possible danger are the through thread of the book. The structure of the book includes scenes in the present, flashbacks, memories, dreams, and reflection, and everything supports the themes of being lost and found.

Cheryl wrote her book based on journals she kept at the time, but she also had to do some skillful weaving of writing skills and techniques. Writing your memoir will mean that you will draw from fragments of memories, and you may need to do research so you can include accurate details. It’s also important to pay attention to the emotional arc of writing your story—keeping your spirits up.

You can combine the joy of writing with learning your structural techniques by selecting a scene and freewriting it, getting it out of you and onto the page. You don’t have to write your scenes in a particular order, but as you assemble your vignettes, you will see your story starting to come together. The more you write, the more you will get your reward!

And read, read, read memoirs to learn how other writers solve these problems.


Wild book cover





The National Association of Memoir Writers is co-sponsoring a workshop with Cheryl Strayed June 1, 2013 in Petaluma, CA. Click the link to sign up for the great opportunity to work with Cheryl.

Learn from the New York Times bestseller about how to write a successful memoir!




 Workshop Schedule (subject to change):
8:30 Continental Breakfast
9:15 Welcome and opening remarks.
9:45 Introduction
10:00 Talk & First Writing Session
11:00 Sharing Q&A
12:30 Lunch
2:00 Craft Talk & Second Writing Session
3:30 Sharing and discussion
4:00 Reading 4:30 Q&A
5:00 Book Signing & Close