I just returned from a week in Illinois, where I attended a conference in Springfield and had the good fortune to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. It was fabulous. I have been to a number of presidential libraries, but none so beautiful, interesting, and inspiring. You should all put it on your “Places I Have to Visit before I Die” lists.
This post is not about the library, however, but a book I read on the airplane going and coming. It’s called Hooked, and it was written by Les Edgerton. The subtitle is “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.” Yes, the book is directed toward fiction writers, but its principles apply equally to memoir writers.
Edgerton says the best opening chapters begin with a problem or conflict that is presented through a scene rather than a description of the problem. A scene draws readers into the action and lets them watch the conflict unfold. Edgerton says, “Summary doesn’t convince anyone of anything. Your goal is to evoke an emotional response that hooks the reader, and telling absolutely won’t get it. The reader must live through that opening scene right along with the protagonist. This is the only way the reader will really believe it and, more importantly, feel it.”
As I say in my book, Breathe Life into Your Life Story, middles and endings make better beginnings. When you’re pondering how to begin your memoir, consider some of the problems you’ve grappled with during your life. They could be ongoing conflicts—addictions, relationships, health, and so on. Maybe you’ve struggled with conflicting attitudes or values. Have you had some long-term goal or mission in your life that you’ve strived to obtain? What challenges have gotten in the way of accomplishing that goal? Once you’ve settled on something, think of one specific incident that illustrates that issue and re-create it as a scene that opens your memoir.
If you’re having trouble coming up with an interesting beginning, don’t stew about it. Just keep writing. Sometimes we don’t understand what our life has been about until AFTER we’ve written our story. But don’t even THINK about beginning your story with “I was born on…. Meanwhile, buy Edgerton’s book. It will be money well spent because it will expand your vision of how to approach your memoir. I’ve barely scratched the surface here.