How to Write a Powerful Memoir, Part 1: Developing the Structure of Your Memoir

Turning Points and Timeline Exercise

At the beginning of December, I mentioned by way of an introductory article on How to Write a Powerful Memoir, that I would begin a series of 3 articles delving into Plot, Structure & Theme.  Each of these elements will help you better understand How to Write a Powerful Memoir.   This–the first of the three articles–focuses on developing the structure or main spine of your memoir.

There is a great technique that helps you locate the main spine of your stories for a longer memoir. Think about the turning point moments in your life, the special times that changed you profoundly and altered your life in such a way that it was never the same again.  Make a list of the 10-15 most significant moments that turned your life path from one direction to another. These might be very different kinds of moments, some ecstatic joy and soaring happiness, and others profound sadness, confusion or grief.

Now draw a timeline on an 18×24 sheet of paper—a long horizontal line to represent time, and mark your birth about ¼ of the way along that line. This way you can note the events that you might want to write that occur before your birth. You might want to write the stories of family, parents, or grandparents—some of the lore that you listened to during holidays or family picnics.

Divide the horizontal line into sections that represent decades, and set out the dates of your life, beginning with your birth, including the year and the date along the horizontal line. Begin to locate your turning point events along the timeline.

In my workshops, there is always an “aha” when doing this exercise. First, thinking about the significant turning points can be illuminating and provide new insights, but then when people see events on the timeline, inevitably they start murmuring about how the events clustered, or how they’d thought the event was closer or further away from another significant event. The emotional impact of the timeline exercise can the powerful, as there is nothing like an image to illuminate the important moments of our lives to offer new insights.

Starting with a spine or structure by using these turning points and timeline exercises is a great place to help you learn How to Write a Powerful Memoir.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I offer two more suggestions for How to Write a Powerful Memoir.