A common format of biographies is they open at a pivotal point in the subject’s life – either a great success or failure. That pinnacle is then used to slide back to the beginning, as if through a funnel of time. Some might even go further, and explore their parents’ ancestry. This might be useful grounding, e.g. showing parents who are immigrants and fought great odds to come to a new country or, conversely, parents who are everymen, and rooted in the community.
Usually, though, the best place is to start at your birth and, from there, follow the arc of your life. Whilst this would seem logical, it’s amazing how often authors are stumped, or how often they might flit back, forth, sideways, and all over the place. This is fine if there’s a structure to the haphazardness which makes sense to the reader, like the picture that appears as you put together a jigsaw but, otherwise, the best course can be a straight line.
If you are going to observe the chronology of your life, try to refrain from interjecting your present-day self. For example, you might write something like this:
- When I turned 10, Mum and Dad let me run down to the corner store by myself so I could buy an ice cream.
This is fine. We’re inside the narrator’s head as a ten-year old. But then, often in memoir, something like this occurs:
- I remember the old store owner, Mr Georgiou, had a big nose …
The moment you qualify events with ‘I remember’, you’re injecting your present-day self. It’s your present-day self who says, ‘I remember’. The ten-year old has no cause to be saying ‘I remember’. They’re living events as they occur. They should, in fact write something like:
- Mr Georgiou, the old store owner, had a big nose …
It might seem pedantic to avoid writing ‘I remember’ (or alternatives, such as ‘I recall’, ‘I recollect’, etc.) but it jolts the reader from the unfolding narrative and alerts them that they’re not (as occurs in this case) reading a ten-year old’s perspective, but somebody from that ten-year’s old future who’s recounting what occurred. Once you have your reader hooked, you don’t want to lose them – not even for an instant.
Something else to avoid is having your present-day self insert present-day commentary that, again, will jar the reader from the narrative’s suspension of disbelief. For example:
- Mr Georgiou, the old store owner, had a big nose and a scar across his face that made me think he was a pirate. I know now that he’d been the victim of an assault, but back then it used to scare me, and after making my purchase, I’d run straight home.
We really don’t need present-day self’s observations (‘I know now’), and they only hurt us from staying invested in the ten-year old’s wide-eyed perspective of the world.
Stay in the moment of your narrative. E.g.
- Mr Georgiou, the old store owner, had a big nose and a scar across his face that made me think he was a pirate. As soon as I timidly handed over my money, I’d run straight home.
If you’re ten in the story, then only reveal to us what was privy to that ten-year old. Maintain the chronology. At some point in this child’s life, they learn about this scar, and it’s going to be a transformative revelation, so why ruin when that occurs with this premature pronouncement? Let’s see that happen – in due chronology.
Write your story down in a straight line – from beginning to end. It really is that simple. Once you have it all out on the page, then you can mould it as you see fit – flesh it out where required, insert new material that you’ve belatedly recalled, and trim away the excess. Now that you have it all down on the page, you might even see ways you can play with the structure.
But the key is getting it down on the page.
And sometimes, the easiest way – observing chronology – is the best.