Notes for a Twenty-Something’s Memoir


Start with a hook.

Vomit splashed on my shoes. Another bullshit night on the suck party circuit. (Too Nick Flynnish?) Or:

The sheets were sticky. Someone was in the bathroom but I couldn’t remember who. (Don’t overdo. Save scene for later.) Look at good beginnings and think about. Call me Ishmael. The past is a foreign country. Happy families … (check Google).

Define your focus and your target audience. Why is your memoir important?

Others who can relate to an overbearing mother, growing up in the suburbs, problems with substance abuse and relationships, esp. boyfriend troubles (lots). Girls my age and younger girls who may be saved from mistakes. This is an important portrait of life today for my generation. Something like that. 

Brainstorm using prompts from Timothy Orloff’s Scene by Scene: Writing Your Memoir One Step at a Time. For example, your earliest memory.

Sitting in a wet diaper, watching my mother put on coral lipstick and blot her lips with a Kleenex. Watching curtain flutter in sunny window. (Virginia Woolf?)

Your first pet.

The cutest little chihuahua-terrier mix. Liked to chew shoes. Hit by a car when I was ten. Little did I know it was the first of many heartbreaks to come! RIP Corky.

A memory of something that probably didn’t happen. (From Orloff’s “Put On Your Creative Thinking Cap” section.)

Being molested by neighbor Mr. Swanson. Thought I remembered after reading article about repressed sexual trauma in Glamour. His bright blue sweater. Clammy hand on my bare leg. Was sure it happened, then realized, fuck, the Swansons had already moved away by then.

Something that happened that you don’t remember. (Orloff, ditto.)

Being molested by someone else? Uncle Arnie? Tammy’s older brother? That creepy guy who stocked shelves at the 7-11?

A family story you’re sure isn’t true.

Me pushing my little brother into the pool before he knew how to swim. Sunny day, turquoise pool, smell of chlorine, grownups blitzed on the patio. Was I six or seven? Why wasn’t anyone watching us? Remember the splash when he fell, but sure I didn’t push him. “You could have killed your brother,” my mother says. Tells story over and over.

Mom’s story about Dad’s romantic proposal.

A family story you’re pretty sure is true.

Grandma Jean’s story about Grandpa’s romantic proposal. Him kneeling with the ring, waiter hovering nearby with champagne. “Will you marry me, Jean? I’d be the happiest man on earth.” Everyone in the restaurant clapping when she said yes. She ordered steak and shrimp with a baked potato. Big treat.

A conflict between family members dramatized as a scene.

Thanksgiving when Aunt Patti announced that Dad had only married Mom because she was pregnant. Chaos that ensued. I was nine. Tell from child’s pov? Opportunity for dark comedy and wild family dysfunction. Think Liars’ Club.

Your mother’s version of the same scene.

“Your Aunt Patti was always jealous. Yes, jealous! She’s been that way for years. You can’t believe a goddamn word she says” etc.

Your version of your mother.

Where to start? Try to keep it short.

First person monologue: your mother’s instructions to you.

(Re-read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”) “Never go out with chipped nail polish. Remember, college is an opportunity. It may be your last real opportunity, so for god’s sake don’t waste it. You’re never going to look as good as you do at 20. You’re not going to find so many marriageable men after you graduate. They may say they’re for equal rights, but they’re not going to want used goods, either.”

Second person monologue: your instructions to yourself.

You tell yourself to get as far from your mother and the suburbs as possible. You vow to embrace slutdom in college and not to wear underwear. There will never be this many good-looking guys with zero responsibilities after you graduate.

Maybe whole memoir should be in second person? Look at Lorrie Moore. Try both.

Scene using all the senses: a time you really felt sick.

There was that time vomiting in the airplane toilet after spring break in Miami. Smell of disinfectant. Nasty blue water and metal bowl. Stewardess pounding on the flimsy door. “It’s time to go back to your seat. We’re landing. You have to go back to your seat.” Sweat on my (your?) forehead. Insides heaving. Lurching against the cold sink, banging head on mirror. (Is that all the senses yet?) Acid taste in my (your?) mouth. (Be more descriptive.)

Dialogue: a time you broke up with a boyfriend, or a boyfriend broke up with you.

“It’s me,” you (I?) told Richard, half-conscious of parroting clichés. “It’s not about you.” (Of course everything was about me in high school. It was never about anybody else.) Can’t remember what Richard said. Maybe “Um, okay. Whatever.”

Why you hated a boyfriend.

Jonathan used to hum to himself. Hum!

Why a boyfriend hated you.

No clue.

An embarrassing sex scene (or two or three).

You were really wasted that time with Henry and his roommate. Really wasted. Would have to fictionalize to compensate for gaps in memory. Definitely embarrassing waking up naked with the two of them in bed the next day, though.

Dark room in Motel 6. Sticky sheets. Stranger in bathroom. Promiscuity a symptom of being molested (according to article). Could have been that retarded janitor in elementary school? If so, cramped closet, smell of Lysol and damp mops.

Consider fucking someone famous (writer? actor? musician?). Describe in embarrassing detail (what’s-her-name’s Adrien Brody thing way too long though!), post on blog under nom de plume, out yourself in memoir. (Possible pseudonyms: Tawny Bush, Fanny French, Izzy Young.)

Meta-commentary on climax and narrative arc.

Difficulty finding shape in life so far. Aimlessness of narrative mirroring an aimless life. Is this a copout?

Memories of addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, something else).

This won’t be hard. Might do all three. (Throw in eating disorder?)

A moment of despair (choose one).

Stomach pumped in ER? (More of a mistake than a moment of despair. Like really needed to sleep and forgot how many pills I’d taken. Hospital psych consult a joke.)

New Year’s Resolution after worst hangover ever. I will not do this any more, how did it get this bad, etc.

Breakup with Robby junior year. Sleeping and crying all the time. Thought I would never get over. Antidepressant. Found love again. More problems, despair.

Scene with a therapist (turning point).

She wasn’t very insightful. (Also had no fashion sense whatsoever.) Will need to fictionalize. Ramp up dialogue. (Re-read scenes in Girl, Interrupted. Classic.)

Turning point. I am 24. Getting older. Have changed. (How?)

Alternate turning points (choose one).

Pushing my younger brother into the pool at his engagement party. Turquoise pool, bright sun, sounds of laughter, all of us blitzed on the patio. Innocent horseplay. Might be a teeny bit pissed that he’s getting married before me. Confront this truth.

Trip to Disneyland last month with Oliver. Is he the one? Facebook photo with Mickey Mouse (lol). 36 likes.

Try solo hiking? (Wild, bestseller) Shorter hike than Cheryl Strayed’s! Blisters, maybe a hot guy, epiphany, etc.

Some kind of redemption.

I once was lost but now am found kind of thing. Absolutely necessary if this memoir is going to sell. What happens next? Will I find myself in love, marriage? Or as an independent woman? Better be clean and sober, or at least have a handle on it.

Some kind of closure.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her work is published and forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Front Porch Journal, Thin Air Magazine, Ninth Letter (winner of their online meta-essay contest), Frontiers, Sweet, South Loop Review, and elsewhere. More from this author →