Think of memoir’s first chapter as a suitcase

Monica Lee

One way to judge a good memoir is by its first chapter.

At a memoir writing workshop I attended before writing “The Percussionist’s Wife,” author Paulette Bates Alden (“Crossing the Moon”) maintained the first chapter was a reflection of all that was to follow. “The first chapter is like a suitcase,” she said. “Pack some things there that you can unpack later.”

Often, a story begins at a crucial decision point (the suitcase), and then flashes back to tell the story leading up to this moment (the unpacking). In the “Percussionist’s Wife,” I did this by describing my encounter with a Reiki master who accurately summed up my messy marriage; 95% of the rest of the book unpacks this mess.

Donna Tartt uses this effective approach to narrative in “The Goldfinch,” which I reviewed recently on my Minnesota Transplant blog. It’s not a memoir, but this work of fiction reads…

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