Begin a memoir by setting the tone with the first sentence
What’s the best way to begin a memoir?
That’s an important question, for many prospective readers will pluck your memoir from the shelf and decide whether or not to buy it after reading the first couple of sentences. So your first sentence (indeed, the entire opening) should be catchy and interesting and capture the flavor of the entire memoir, whether it’s adventurous, romantic, nostalgic, introspective, shocking, or just a great romp. For example:
In The Glass Castle, the story of a deeply dysfunctional family, author Jeannette Walls begins: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” This sentence is not only shocking and attention-grabbing but a harbinger of things to come.
Elizabeth Gilbert opens Eat, Pray, Love, her “meditation on love in its many forms,” with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.” This opening is romantic, introspective, funny, and full of longing, just like the memoir.
Rewrites, a memoir written by the famous playwright Neil Simon, begins: “In the spring of 1957, I was unhappily in California working on a television special. I was thirty years old and knew that if I didn’t start writing that first Broadway play soon, I would inevitably become a permanent part of the topography of the West Coast.” In a matter-of-fact way, he tells you who he is, how he feels, where he’s going, and what year it is, in just two sentences. While Simon’s intro is not as scintillating as the first two examples, he doesn’t need to be quite so catchy because we already know about the fabulous accomplishments that lie in his future. But if your life story is not so well-known, you’ll need to make your opening a bit more evocative.
In short, don’t build up to an interesting, catchy, evocative beginning; begin that way with the very first sentence. Two good ways of doing this are starting “just before,” and beginning with a dream.
Starting “just before”
It seems logical to begin a memoir at a pivotal event in life.
But to increase the tension and set the stage, you can start by briefly describing what you were doing in the hours, minutes, or seconds before it happened. This can be a great way to introduce yourself, your situation, and the state of the world around you, and will propel you into an action-packed sequence.
For example, in A Woman in Berlin, the tale of one woman’s experiences during the Russian occupation of Berlin in 1945, the anonymous author begins: “It’s true: the war is rolling toward Berlin. What was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar.”
She goes on to set the stage with: “Now and then whole hours pass in eerie silence,” adding descriptions of war-torn Berlin, the charred ruins of apartment houses, the attic apartment she occupies, and “bombs that make the walls shake.”
She and her neighbors can do nothing but sit and wait for the apocalypse: in this case, the arrival of the dreaded Russians.
This starting “just before” technique can be used with any important event, such as:
- waiting in the wings before going on stage to deliver a stunning (or disastrous) performance
- tightening your helmet and shouldering your rifle before dashing across an open battlefield
- getting into starting position and murmuring encouraging words to your horse before the gates open at the Kentucky Derby
Beginning a memoir “just before” does more than simply set the scene. It serves as a springboard to action that will grab the readers’ attention and make them want to get on board for a wild, exciting ride.
Just keep it brief; readers tend to lose patience with lengthy descriptions and setups.
Grab their attention, then pull them into your story immediately!
Beginning with a dream
A memoir is “remembered history,” a true accounting of a slice of your life. But sometimes, the best beginning doesn’t come from absolute reality.
Mikal Gilmore’s dark and fascinating memoir Shot In the Heart begins with, “I have dreamed a terrible dream.” He then goes on to relate the dream, which introduces every member of his family, certain salient details about them, and how each one died. For example: “There is my mother, Bessie Gilmore, who lived a life of bitter losses, who died spitting blood, calling the names of her father and her husband…” “There is my brother Gary, who murdered innocent men in rage against the way life had robbed him of too much time and too much love, and who died when a volley of bullets tore his violent, tortured heart from his chest.” “There is my brother Gaylen, who died young of old wounds…” “And there is my father, Frank Sr., who died from the ravages and insults of cancer.”
In recounting this dream, Mikal sets the stage for a harrowing tale of a family gone terribly wrong, a tale that will involve many deaths, including the famous firing squad execution of his brother, Gary Gilmore, in Utah in 1977. Mikal reinforces his theme of death and continues the introduction of his main characters in his opening paragraph in Chapter 1: “One by one, I had watched them all die. First, my father. Then my brothers Gaylen and Gary. Finally, my mother, a bitter and ravaged woman.” He goes on to introduce himself, or at least how he felt about his family. “In the time that followed I believed I was no longer tied to the wreckage that had been my family’s spirit, and whatever devastations might come in my life, at least now they would be my own.” Dreams, ghost stories and true stories almost too terrifying to tell dominate the book, culminating in the horror of Gary Gilmore’s widely-publicized execution.
Using a “bookends” approach to beginnings and endings, Mikal ends his memoir with another dream, this one concerning Gary’s trial. In the end, he wakes up sobbing in the middle of the night, “my insides racked in a sharp pain,” when he realizes that, “It will never be all right. It will never be all right.”