Structure of memoirs and conversations

photo of MacBook Air and a sip bag Pontaining pens and pencils
Writing tools in use for writing a memoir

I’m excited. This is me, right now, embarking on a new book, a conundrum of a memoir. And I am accountable, I am bound to write it, because I have received a grant for this very purpose. I’ve spent two weeks getting over the shock and massaging the memoir in my mind and now I’m fizzing with enthusiasm. This pyrotechnic state is one that I know and love.

When the crucial email arrived, I first read what I expected to read: ” … not successful … high standard … next round of funding…” But then the rest of the email didn’t make sense, so I re-read it with astonishment: “Congratulations … application … successful … pleased to offer funding…” The message was perfectly structured for maximum clarity, and the fault was in me, the reader.

Sometimes you apply for a grant in the hope of actually receiving one. In this case, I applied in order to clarify my thoughts. What did I actually want to write? A one-woman show? More poems? Or both? Or neither? Or a sort of memoir? Or what?

Project Description: towards writing a prose-and-poetry memoir featuring the shocks, challenges and pleasures of ageing in the 21st century

Until now I’ve always sworn I would never write a memoir. But what’s this: a memoir about being old? OK, I have been old in the 21st century for several years so far, but I have reason to believe that most of my old age is hovering on the horizon.

But hey, a memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir can be an idiosyncratic disputable fictional fanciful arbitrarily selective work. A memoir can cover a lifetime or a single week. A memoir is not necessarily chronological. A memoir can be a patchwork, a pastiche of random episodes and insights. These bits can accrue around poems that may, at a pinch, seem relevant. A memoir can be written in bits and pieces, one at a time—a useful approach when time is short.

This time, I like the idea of an apparently unstructured structure. This is peculiar, because as a writer and a reader I think I’m hyper-conscious of the structure of books. I know how devilishly hard it is to build a book that won’t fall down in an earthquake. When reading, I sense a structural shift physically, as if in a car that suddenly swerves right or speeds up. I admire a quirky structure and respect a traditional one. Often I recall the structure of a novel long after I’ve forgotten the plot and characters. Reading business documents, I get cross when structure is sloppy or devious.

So it seems a bit nutty to be planning a book of bits and pieces, a book that swerves and divaricates, a book that is not built from the foundations up. And yet how cool if the structure can reflect the way an old mind works!

An old mind has endless options, can choose to whizz from A to B along a highway or inch along in rush-hour traffic. We can choose to take any one of a thousand side roads. We’re inclined to stall in alleyways and cul de sacs and crescents. And at any time, without warning, we may get out of the car of our brain and wander aimlessly in a mental desert or in a dense dark dripping tripping tweeting old forest of memories and ideas.

Once long ago my professor-friend told me the old joke about two Oxford dons strolling in the cloisters, when one is heard to utter this immortal phrase: “And ninethly…” He told me this as a joke, because who can recall nine points in a particular order, whether speaking or listening? But maybe I got that wrong. Maybe for some people this style of thinking—orderly, cumulative, taxonomic, linear, analytical—is a cognitive ideal, even when chatting with your lover or writing a memoir.

Because on an other occasion, he and I were having quite an interesting conversation, or so I thought, when he said sharply, “That is not the topic of conversation!”

I was in my forties at the time, and it was a taste of things to come. In old age, half of our conversations go off topic within seconds. Sometimes I find that frustrating. But mostly I go with the flow.

That was me diverging from the topic of conversation. Which was—remind me please?

Oh yes. The grant. That totally unexpected windfall was like a shake of my life’s kaleidoscope. Obviously chance and luck play a huge part in any distribution of money to artists, and great writers and great books miss out time and time again. But even so—someone believes in my project, so I can’t help thinking it must have merit. They believe in my ability to deliver, so I had better get started.

But hey, I have started. This is me starting.

And this is me saying thank you to Creative New Zealand: thank you! A grant is more than just a grant.

How older people talk

We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.
We polish them in private.
They are touchstones. So it goes.

The rhythm of our talk is one of ocean waves.
Someone starts with a great-niece who is pregnant
or a barking dog, and one by one
we queue up with our fables
to help our troubled friend.
Nothing is solved, but various
scenarios are tendered.
We have a bottomless pool of parables.
We follow the way of Miss Marple.
We use the stuff that life dumps at our door.
We don’t stand back. We go straight from A to Z.

Children have anecdotes too
but you could fit them in a lunchbox.
They are missing the end of the story
the very bit they need.

40 thoughts on “Structure of memoirs and conversations

  1. Congratulations, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So cool! Thanks Maggie.

  2. Congratulations! That is so very cool, dear Rachel. You will have such fun doing this. Love the pencil case – it is so you! I know what you mean re the conversation ramble – one of the main reasons I like to go to a mid-week meeting (when I can make it) is for the company & conversation of the 80+ year olds there and their fascinating conversations that wander from point to point, memory to memory … it’s enthralling. Following the tributaries. Go well.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you, Kay! You really get it. I hope I can carry it off in writing.

  3. Sounds like a wonderful plan, Rachel. Congrats on getting the grant!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks, Becky. It’s yet another paradox to be planning a plan-less book.

      1. Such is life:)

  4. cedar51 says:

    And I too, add my congratulations – your writing would have helped immeasurably – from then to now. Go forth “memoir maker” – we look forward to hearing about your new journey

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What a lovely message, Catherine. I feel buoyed up by all this support.

  5. Sadje says:

    Wonderful news Rachel. I’m so pleased for you. All the best my friend

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sadie, many thanks. This book won’t be a solitary effort like most of my others, with such a cheering squad.

      1. Sadje says:

        You’re welcome.

  6. ashok says:

    All the best Rachel

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It will be fun.

  7. Anecdotes as touchstones, love that! Wishing you all the best on your memoir!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I love a hefty project!

  8. How thrilling! Congratulations!

  9. Beth A Rubin says:

    Congratulations! From whom did you receive the grant?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Beth. Creative New Zealand. It’s not a big grant but it does the trick.

  10. Cathy Cade says:

    Wow! Well done!

  11. Great news, and congratulations. Enjoy your meanderings, and remember, the best laid plans are often never made!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Perfect advice from you, Peter, as always.

  12. Mama Lava says:

    Oh my goodness- that is amazing!! I can’t wait to read your memoirs! “They” were right to believe in you. I’m just giddy for you- and for the world who will reap the blessing of your talent and experience.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s going to be fun. Thanks.

  13. haoyando says:

    “A memoir can be an idiosyncratic disputable fictional fanciful arbitrarily selective work.” LOL. I did think memoir is an autobiography–until now. How much fancy? For example, is “Of Human Bondage” a memoir? It’s taken a s a memoir but it is quite autobiographical. LOL.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      The author decides. “Creative non-fiction” is another term that is popular these days but I don’t plan to make anything up, in this case. I guess an autobiography is a serious attempt to tell the true story of one’s complete life, so far.

  14. Congratulations! How nice to receive a letter like that containing hoped for, but unexpected, news.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Indeed it was. I have rarely applied for grants, and that was about 30 years ago. So it’s quite a boost.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Great job! I think as long as the reader can follow along there doesn’t have to be a predictable structure. Sometimes little designs can mark transitions. Sometimes a date can help. Although it appears that we wander far in our conversations and mind spinning, as Tolkien famously put it “not all those who wander are lost.”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      The perfect quote, Elizabeth. Now I’m sorted!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Rachel; fantastic news. Yay for Creative NZ — not just the $$s, but the affirmation too.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  17. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations, Rachel! I’m very sure your memoir will be a great read.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hope everyone forgets about it for a year or so! But thank you for the boost.

  18. annbarrienz says:

    Warmest congratulations, Rachel. I’m pleased I managed to reconnect myself in time to read this. You’ll do a brilliant job. Ann

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well done! Thanks Ann. There is no end to techie challenges. My latest: the Dyson stick vacuum stopped.

  19. jukkasoft says:

    Wonderful! And Congratulations 👍

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you!

  20. lynnefisher says:

    Congratulations, Rachel, and enjoy :>)

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I will, Lynne—thank you. My time management needs a kick in the pants right now.

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