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Wild About The Alternating Memoir

26 February, 2013


I start descending Perry’s Lookdown, a popular trail in the upper Blue Mountains. I veer off on a side track to reach the cliff edge and perch on a large grey rock, where I can admire  the panoramic view.  On the other side of the wide valley below me, sandstone cliffs are shrugging off morning shadows. Shafts of sunlight  punctuate rising  mist. Wattlebirds, daredevil acrobats, zip over my head before plunging over the cliff edge in front of me.

It’s the  perfect place to reflect on  Cheryl Strayed‘s recent memoir, the hugely popular (Oprah-selected) Wild: From lost to found. 

Her account falls into the memoir category, How I Turned My Life Around. To get a grip on personal issues, she challenged herself to hike a slab of the Pacific Crest Trail. Some 1,000 miles. With no experience in long-distance walking.  And doing it solo.

I liked her life story, and  I particularly enjoyed  its structure.

Memoirs tend to use a chronological structure. Strayed’s account  does not. She chose to focus on two past periods in her life.  Her lost period covers her troubled childhood, teen, and adult years. Her  found  period concerns issues and insights that emerge during her ‘pilgrimage’  hike, which she undertook 17  years ago. Alternating these two past periods creates a repeating structure where sections about me lost  are followed by sections about me found. 

The alternating structure has advantages. You can use it to achieve the following.

Keeps readers hooked

Telling a life story chronologically provides a familiar story arc, for readers and the writer. The story usually starts early, with the author introducing herself as a small child or baby. Some accounts start before birth to provide the family’s back story. The story typically ends in the present day.

The downside is that this approach may not keep readers hooked, wanting to read more. And if  the early material is unrelentingly negative (I was abused) or positive  (I was always happy), readers may assume the rest of the book will be more of the same.

Complexity appeals to many readers, holding their attention earlier, and perhaps maintaining it to the last page. The alternating structure is complex because it gives writers two poles to wind their story around. Strayed works the two poles, maintaining a good balance between lost and  found. She shares as many interesting bits about her trail experience as she does about earlier issues affecting her life.

Provides a familiar structure

Although the chronological approach is more common, the alternating pattern is a familiar one. Many novels establish a tag team—two characters, time periods,  locations—to develop the story.

Sets an interpretative frame

The alternating structure can support showing a more dynamic recent past, one still forming and capable of further change. Strayed is not walking the trail as a fulfilled, mindful person, a winner. She searches her soul, faces many problems, stares down some demons. Eventually, her physical and mental journeys meld, and she starts to put her more distant past into perspective. This open-ended approach is a pleasant change from the memoir where the author stays in the unassailable present, everything resolved and safely tucked away.

Provides opportunities for change

I  have little patience reading about one-dimensional people—the totally mad mother, the ever-clever child. Lives are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak.

The non-sequential approach may help push writers to this mixture because they are working with what’s important at each point, rather than what comes next in the timeline. And one of the important elements may be the changes that take place in people important to the writer.

Strayed’s book centres around two people, her mother and her ex-husband. Each time she writes about one or the other, she provides a slightly different take, a new grain of information. By the book’s end, both of them have been fleshed out as realistic, complex people. It works the other way as well. Each time Strayed returns to her trail experience, I found it impossible to guess what she would write about next.

All writing is shaped, and writers using a chronological approach may achieve the same goal. But the chronological format  may encourage writers to throw in so much material that the theme of their life can be obscured. If Strayed’s book were a piece of music,  her walking goal provides an underlying rhythm, supporting the melody that emerges from the alternating stories she chooses to tell.

If you are writing a memoir or a personal story, it could be useful to try this structure and see where it leads you.

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