Arcing, Enhancing, and Advancing the Memoir

By: Marilyn L. Davis



Planning a Memorable Memoir:

Use a Bell Curve


Memoirs are hot topics again. Like all literature, memoir goes in and out of favor. However, with so many people blogging, self-publishing, and “knowing their story will touch millions,” there is ample opportunity to write a good and bad memoir.

Since my memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate, is almost ready to be published, I don’t have to focus on the product right now. 

I can focus on the planning and process of memoir writing because it’s within the planning and processing that we improve upon the story. 

That is not to say that we embellish, mislead, or outright lie in our memoir, but we do enhance the events and concentrate on the emotions, thoughts, and conflict of the protagonist – and that’s us.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to create a bell curve and decide a starting point in your life, remembering that memoir is the story from life, not a life story, so it’s okay to start your memoir at 14, 39, or 55.



Our Life in Stages



If you look at the life of a butterfly, you see the stages. At each juncture in the life of the butterfly, there are visible transformations. Is one greater, more traumatic, or profound than the next? Granted, we’re not going to interview a Monarch to find out, but we can see that some look more attractive or result in a more compelling image than the next.

The memoir would not go from egg to adult but might convey the transformation from chrysalis to butterfly. 

Just as someone reading knows that the butterfly began as an egg, people realize that we were children even if we are not writing about those years in our memoir. We’re writing about a part of our life cycle, just as the butterfly has cycles and stages.

Using my memoir title isn’t shameless publicity; it’s that the title helps you understand where we’re going – we’re finding North. Even though we don’t know what that is yet, and might suspect it isn’t just a direction, we understand that it took a journey to find it; that’s the plot.

We can also surmise that I’m an addict so that we can anticipate some of the conflicts, and we know that I changed to an advocate; again, the title tells us that. 

For this memoir, starting with childhood would be cumbersome and somewhat dull and not have as much to do with the story as starting it at thirty-five, although I can reference events from earlier if they reinforce the overall theme

If the information you want to include does reflect an earlier time, make sure it is relevant to the memoir. You can refer to your life stages if they enhance the storyline, like discussing the caterpillar stage if it helps advance the narrative.

Each writer has to decide which life events are exciting, educational, or entertaining enough to get and keep readers. 

Every event must move the narrative along - that's the upward curve of the bell. Moving from egg to caterpillar for our butterfly, or if the story begins later, then it's the transformation from chrysalis to adult butterfly. Click To Tweet


Understanding Movement in Your Memoir


We can reference a brief episode or several from an earlier time if it corresponds to our memoir’s overall theme.There will be points of conflict, stalls, delays, or barriers to reaching the story’s climax during the upward movement of the journey. The energy of that climactic event cannot be sustained, so the storytelling enters the downhill slope or the denouement. We know at the arch, there is the ‘Aha’ moment; and how disheartening it would be if the moment did not result in actions that reinforced the realization. For readers, it’s breathing room or a sigh of relief.


On Top of the Curve; Heading Home


While it is a downward slant on the bell curve, it is not anti-climactic. There are still events that demonstrate the transition, changes, and often character transformations that the writer experienced, and there is room to have excitement within those passages. Memoirs often convey a universal lesson or message, and when written compellingly, readers are entertained, encouraged, or educated throughout the memoir.


The End is in Sight


Once again, it is up to the writer to determine a logical end to their memoir, back to Finding North. I named the recovery home in 1990, North House. There are many references to North in native cultures, and my mentor was a 74-year old Native American. A chance encounter with him set up a chain of events that eventually encouraged me to open the house.

Why North? 

That direction represents rest, renewal, and cleansing. Each of those aspects is what transpires for us in recovery. We stop our use; we renew connections lost to our addiction, and we cleanse our body, emotions, and negative thoughts.

Again, since this is a memoir, there is a logical end to the piece. I closed North House in 2011. Therefore, I have a real cut off time that concludes the memoir.

Anything that has happened beyond closing would logically have to be “Beyond North” and we’ll leave that for another day. I’m not flip in telling you to leave subsequent life events for another day. If you are writing a memoir rather than an autobiography, you’ve got to end your piece at a logical point in your life.


Starting at the End for your Memoir? 


Some writers prefer to work backward or what I call reverse writing. 

They view an individual outcome or event as the culmination of their message and then trace it back to the transformation’s source or origin. 

Viewing themselves as changed or transformed, they trace their lives back to the downfall or conflict. They know when they emerged their changed self and reflected on the decline of self or the adversities’ beginning. They go from butterfly to egg, if you will. And in the final analysis, we are writing in reverse with memoir.

Even when the memoir ends, life does not. No, I’m not trying to be profound, but stopping the memoir is difficult for some.

Because we’re still here, more happened after the years recorded in the memoir, and some writers have excellent material for those later years. But that additional material is like darlings, save them and write another memoir or sequel.


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing


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

Memoir: What’s Your Theme?

Memoir: White Rain, Penny Candy, and Crooked Politicians

Memory Lane: Memoir and Reverse Writing

The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

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 found your post through Lynette, who’s truly wonderful. What an insightful post — also, I love your memoir title, and I wish you the absolute best.

    • Good evening, Dyane; thank you for reading my post and commenting. I appreciate both. I also visited your site. It must be disheartening to have a recognized, but overlooked condition. I must say, though, that your blog defines, addresses, and advocates for women like yourself. Keep at it and hope that you’re encouraged by the comment – I sincerely mean it.

      • Wow – this wonderful comment made my day, Marilyn! Remarks such as yours help me so much. Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and for understanding exactly what I’m trying to do through it.

        I’m smiling as I write this! :)))))
        take care & have a great night,

  2. Good morning, Lydia; what a generous friend you are! I’m still studying your social media posts and learning. Thanks for helping me understand.

    • Good afternoon, Lynette; thank you for sharing this. I appreciate that and hopefully, this will help someone plan their memoirs in advance. What is that expression – measure twice – cut once? I think it applies to the memoir as well. Planning takes some of the stress out of the process.

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