People often delay writing their memoirs because they don’t believe that they have all of the information required to write their life history. They don’t know the dates and locations of their parents’ births, perhaps, and certainly don’t have that information for their grandparents. How can they begin their own story if they don’t have documentation for what came before?
This might be true for an autobiography, though I think it’s not required, but it’s certainly not true for a memoir. As Judith Barrington wrote in her book Writing the Memoir:
[A] memoir is not an autobiography but rather a selected aspect of life. How you select that aspect is crucial to the success of your piece. You have to know–not necessarily right away, but at some point–what it is that you really want to write about, which in turn will tell you what to leave out.
Life doesn’t have a shapely plot in the way that fiction often does. Instead, it goes day by day with an ever-shifting focus as various themes unfold over time. As you shape your memoir, you will need to select events from this random package in order to capture a narrative.
That is where vignette writing comes into play. When I work with my memoir writing clients, I suggest that they begin by writing vignettes of their lives, those stories that they frequently tell others, or those stories that they hold deep within themselves that must be told. These are the seeds of the future memoir.
Once we have eight or ten vignettes, it is often possible to begin to recognize an inherent story structure, to see what is important in the relating of their lives. Themes often become apparent, such as themes of loss or of movement or of a search for meaning. Often, once we identify the unifying theme, more stories come tumbling out of the writers’ minds, prompted to flesh out the theme.
These vignettes are then tied together with a main theme…much like individual frames of a film.
Of course, a memoir can have multiple themes, but even these will eventually show a structure around a larger, pervading theme. The main theme is like the trunk of a tree, off of which will grow the branches and leaves that give the tree its form.
Some writers know before they begin what their themes will be. Others must discover them through process. But all memoirs will be mere aspects of a larger life. And that is perfectly okay.