As with any narrative, I get writers to think about the tension that forms the backbone of the story. This tension just about always describes a conflicted relationship. That might involve the narrator and one person. EG in my memoir, The Lost Woman, the conflicted relationship is between my mother and me. In Kate Richards’ memoir, Madness, the conflicted relationship is between her sane self and her psychotic self. In Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski writes about her mother and her – that is the conflicted relationship. I once sat on a panel with a woman who had survived the Nazi concentration camps. She was nearing the end of her life and wanted to write about the years she spent in confinement, close to death, never knowing whether she would see tomorrow. It’s a gripping concept – and it’s built on a conflicted relationship – between her and the Nazi regime, in particular its determination to exterminate the Jews. She made an abstract relationship – the Jews and the Nazis – specific and available to story by focusing on one aspect of the oppression of the Jews and the Nazi decision to kill them all. In Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, the conflicted relationship is between himself and nostalgia, which was for him a disease that began when he was exiled from his home by the Russian Revolution and prevented from returning by the Communist regime.
Writing about a conflicted relationship doesn’t exclude other conflicted relationships. It’s just that this one is the principal relationship in the memoir.
When we look back over our lives, we see a mass of events and incidents which seem random and chaotic. A memoirist has to steer a course through these events, has to find a story arc. The conflicted relationship is one way of looking at this.
Once you know what it is, then see if you can express it in the form of a premise. If you can put it into one sentence, two at the most, you’ve got it. In my memoir, the sentence is: I want to leave my mother, but I can’t leave her. The memoir is organised around incidents that show the conflict at work. That means I first of all have to show what makes our relationship conflicted. I did that in the first chapter. The other chapters show me trying to leave her and being unable to do so for a variety of reasons – because I don’t know who I am without her, because I feel how isolated and lonely she is without me, because I will be all alone in the world without her, because I fear I will die without her, because I fear she will punish me, even kill me, if I leave.
My way of approaching a memoir isn’t the only way. It develops plot and brings narrative drive to the story. It bestows a structure on the narrative. But it’s only one way of doing it.