Memoir: Linear Stories or Hither and Yon?

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“A story has its purpose and its path. It must be told correctly for it to be understood.”  ~Marcus Sedgwick


1-2-3, A,B,C, Now Where Do We Go?

two drops of ink marilyn l davisWe live chronologically. We factor time in  1-2-3 order. We like our ducks in a row. We know the ABC’s, and as such, our brains are programmed to track linear stories.

However, a linear story can either take our readers on the journey where there’s activity, interest, and lessons along the way, or  turn them into the adult version of a typical five-year-old clamoring, “Are we there yet?!”

Why Does B Follow A?

After choosing the scope of the memoir, the starting point and the natural conclusion, the next decision any writer has to make is how to get from point A to the end. Too many writers assume that A to B to C is boring, so jazz it up with memories of an earlier time via flashback or by projecting the reader into a time beyond the scope. Don’t get me wrong, interspersing the memoir with an occasional flashback or projection isn’t always bad storytelling, but it can make for awkward writing.

The writer has the advantage of knowing exactly how and why any event occurred. The reader, on the other hand, is learning about the events in the memoir.

Flashbacks can flesh out the writer’s attitudes and reactions to the later timeframe with information about how their thought processes formed earlier in life via the flashback, or the writer can simply reference within the memoir and not divert the reader to an earlier time not covered in the piece. But whichever method is used, those words and passages must have a natural flow and not distract the reader.

Does It Add to the Memoir?

If you don’t think your earlier life events and experiences will add to the memoir, don’t include them. This is especially true for a memoir of “finding one’s life purpose upon graduation from college”. No, it’s not a genre, but certainly could be. Think about these as ‘coming of age’ or launching memoirs. These tend to focus on three aspects:

  • Vocation
  • Relationships
  • How many parental beliefs to take into adulthood

Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book, is an example of the enthusiasm of youth not jaded by adult experiences. By that I mean, what cynical adult would try to write a book about writing a book when they had never written a book? Probably not many of us, as we’d be too embarrassed to pose as an author, yet Markley’s enthusiasm energize us old fogies and helps us smile, remembering how we navigated early adulthood. Plus the writing is good. That’s a bonus.

Teenage angst. Coming to terms with being gay/bi/lesbian/transgender. Get married or live together? Leave the nest or stay because the relationships with parents or siblings support the person now, and I don’t mean just the free room and board, either.

Ultimately, we all find our working definition of relationship; for some it’s marriage, for others it’s single – they are in a relationship with themselves. For many others, it’s somewhere in-between. But relationships extend to family and friends as well, and in many cases, those relationships needed healing, reconciliation, or reinventing.

When We Were on Fire, by Addie Zierman is a story for doubters, zealots, and those who find their balance. Addie had a blazing faith, lost it, and then found hers, not traditional or even resembling her fashion statement of three WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets.

Maintaining Purpose

If the purpose of your memoir is to demonstrate how you changed, what transformations you made, or your new found awareness regarding a particular issue, it is probably necessary to work in some of your backstory for the reader to understand the process of change, transformation, and awareness. This is especially true if the changes, transformations, and awareness are profound.

John Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye takes us from John labeled as a “social deviant” to an individual with Asperger’s syndrome. This awareness and change of perception of himself and the world are what move us, and without understanding how he was bullied, ridiculed, and felt unworthy and odd, we could not understand the profound healing that he experienced.

I was struggling in my memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate with how I could best explain my resistance to opening a recovery home for women. My reasons reflected my attitudes and perceptions in 1990, but I knew that they had their roots in certain childhood experiences.  Therefore, I could justify a flashback to help readers understand my present state of mind and understand my attitudes and issues surrounding working with women.  However, I did not necessarily broaden the scope of the memoir beyond my original intent, just gave the readers a pause point to show them how something from my past was still influencing my decisions in the time frame of the memoir.

Other stories focus on a midlife crisis, course correction, or reinventing. Yet, each of these later decisions to change something are predicated on past choices. It’s up to the writer to decide what, when, or how the past factors into the equation and does the reader need to have lengthy passages and information to make the memoir cohesive.

two drops of ink marilyn l davisMore than one Direction

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether to write in a linear manner or back and forth and hither and yon, as Alan Cumming does in Not My Father’s Son. The beauty of writing is revising and rewriting. Write a few pages in a linear manner, then switch up to a non-linear approach.

Write the same events, adding flashbacks or add events that go beyond the projected end of your memoir. Change the point of view or change tenses. All of these drafts will help you hone the writing and give you a feel for which way most authentically chronicles your story.

More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:

Memoir: White Rain, Penny Candy, and Crooked Politicians

Memory Lane: Memoir and Reverse Writing

The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Arcing, Enhancing and Advancing the Memoir

Memoir: Your Story, My Story, Our Stories

Writing a Memoir of Restoration, Renewal, and Rediscovery

Untangling the Messes: How Much Truth to Put in the Memoir?



  1. I didn’t notice this article before. It’s really helpful and I’m surprised no one else has commented on it. It seems your choices in timeline can be endless really – just as unlimited as fiction. This article has given me a lot of confirmation on how I’ve already been structuring my final draft. I have never written an entire book before (of any kind) so I have never known the “rules” and I needed a little reminder that, like in art, rules are made to be broken.

    • Hi, Carol. I missed this earlier. You are one of those artists and writers who make breaking rules seem like the “correct” way to do both. Hopefully, you’ll submit again. I enjoyed your last post and images of your art.

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