Do you start with action or backstory?

Matilda Butler – Opening Salvos #5


“Sprinkle story background in your memoir like an herb in your cooking,” said Joyce Boatright in a recent interview with me. I had asked Joyce to tell me about her thoughts on writing openings to memoirs. She responded, “My standard advice is to begin with action.” However, she quickly gave me an example from the memoir she’s writing where “the background or the seed of the story is too compelling to ignore.” Therefore, Joyce begins her memoir with a few background statements that hint of the story to come.

Her words immediately caused me to remember the women I interviewed for my collective memoir, Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story. I began my questions by asking about their experiences in the years just after high school. Initially, I was surprised when many women said something like, “Before I tell you about that, I have to explain what happened when I was a child.” Eventually, I saw the obvious. It is difficult, probably impossible, to separate pieces of our lives. Yet, how do we weave the background, or the backstory, into our memoir writing?

Joyce, who you probably also recognize as the new President of Story Circle Network, caused me to reflect on her wonderful analogy between backstory in memoir and spices in cooking. An herb or spice is never the main ingredient. Rosemary grows bountifully throughout my garden. Today, as I look through the raindrops to a nearby berm, I see the pale blue flowers that adorn my winter rosemary. Perhaps I’ll pick a stem or two, finely chop the dark green leaves, and toss them in with olive oil and roasted Yukon gold potatoes for tonight’s dinner. Too much rosemary, a disaster. Just right, a delight.

I hope this insight from Joyce will help you as you craft an opening to your memoir. By the way, there is an equally important concept of why you are telling backstory information. Remember, it isn’t there on its own or to take over the entire memoir. Opening-salvos-fresh-mint-tea

What do I mean? The backstory is an ingredient that has helped make you the person you are today. In writing about it, keep in mind its use in your memoir. Even if the backstory is important to an explanation of the person you have become, it is critical to remember you are telling the story of iced mint tea, not the mint. One is just an ingredient in the final product. 

Want to hear Joyce’s interview? Click here.  In addition to discussing memoir openings, she shares a tip about using "fast write" to silence your inner critic as well as a clever way to involve children in family storytelling.

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