Guest Post: How to Open a Memoir

Today I’m honored to provide a guest post by multi-published author and writing instructor Sara Mansfield Taber, whose latest memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, has just been published by Potomac Books. I first met Sara when taking a workshop taught by her at The Writer’s Center, and I’m flattered she’s willing to share some of her wisdom here today, a post relevant to any creative writer. Her bio is below the post.

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To open.  To open a question. To open the curiosity.  To open the emotions.  To open up.   To open in. To  open out toward the world.

These are the basic purposes a writer may wish to achieve with the opening of a memoir.   Here are some other objectives a memoirist might keep in mind while creating an opening to his or her story:

  • To strike a keynote.
  • To “hang the guns on the wall” for the story.
  • To set a course.
  • To paint a gone-away and yet ever-present world.
  • To offer up a compelling character/self beset with an urgent problem.
  • To establish a voice.
  • To—basically—intrigue.
  • To awaken in the reader an inquiry close to his own, a human question familiar to us all.
  • To open a feeling, to inspire a rustling in the reader’s own heart, so that the book stays open.

It can take a memoirist long hours, even years, to come up with an opening that does its job properly.  And often the opening is among the last portions of a memoir to be finally fixed in print.

It takes many trials before the writer is able to say to herself or himself with surety and satisfaction, “This is it: The opening to my memoir,” and sit back in the chair and breathe easy at last.  This is for the simple reason that often one doesn’t exactly know what one is saying until one has written the book all the way through, and revised it any number of times.

Only then does the opening itself—like a king or a queen who has been hiding his or her true colors—step into the clear at last. There at last he or she is: regal, bright, velvet, a-gleam.

I struggled and struggled with the opening to my new memoir of my CIA childhood.  What in my story would interest a reader?  What basic information did I want to establish right at the outset?  What tone did I want to begin with?  What would intrigue—and not just intrigue, but be true to the story that would unfold?  What question or questions might be posed—questions that would last the reader and the book all the way through?

Here is the opening to my memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, that I settled upon, finally, in the end—the one that appears on the first page, fixed in print, in the volume one receives from the publisher’s warehouse:

I was born under an assumed name.

It was in Kamakura that my parents first went under. “Mr. Brown,” a colleague, met them at the Tokyo airport after the endless flights from Washington.  As he was driving them the forty miles to Kamakura near the coast he asked them to select a surname.  Once they arrived at their new home, nestled into a mountain slope beneath an ancient, three-story high Buddha, they settled into their new identity.

 Two years later, on that piney slope, I emerged into the world.  It was 1954, and the world was seething.  McCarthyism, Soviets, massive retaliation, Red China, Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh: these were the maelstroms of my first world.  All through my childhood, my father’s shifting identities and covert missions ruled us, as we moved from continent to continent. During the first five years of my life, we changed places five times—from Japan to Okinawa, the Philippines, Taiwan, Connecticut, and back to Taiwan.

Always, the secret was there, like an invisible molecule suspended in the deeps of the sea.

A person who loses worlds, whose truths are murky, whose identity wavers, is hungry and given to remembering—to tracking down and naming sensed truths, and to fashioning scenes and whole landscapes around an image of a pea soup-green Dutch canal or a dimly recalled whisper in the Taiwan night.  To retrieve the girls I used to be, to stitch my life together, and claim my own name, I collected half-recalled fragments of long-ago moments, cities, and people, and awakened from deep memory, with imagination’s assistance, the sights and sounds and smells that surrounded them.  In order to understand my father, and thus myself, I had to fathom not only the kaleidoscope of my own life, but American soldiers, American spies, my country, and its role in the world.  This was the only way I could sort out what it was to be an American, and even more: what it was to be human.

Only you can tell me if the opening succeeds in its purpose.

For more clues, here are examples of openings from some of my favorite memoirs.  Each has a very different flavor:

The opening to Ghostbread by Sonia Livingston:

I know where I came from.

It must have been April or May of 1967, when he came through town, a vacuum-cleaner salesman with the carload of rubber belts, metal tubing, and suction hoses.  Spring in western New York, it was probably a sunless day—he may have been chilled as he grabbed hold of his Kirby upright, walked to the door, and rang the bell.

She was a well-formed redhead with a dry-cleaning job and a house full of children to forget.  She must have put a hand to hip, flashed falsely shy eyes, and said something about not needing another vacuum…

The opening to Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey From Her Father’s Harem Through The Islamic Revolution:

When memory haunts me, above all it is him that I remember.  He was more than sixty when I was born, and old when I knew him—a dauntless, aged lion of the fallen dynasty, troubled by the griefs and ailments of many years.  But in the world in which I moved and lived, he ruled supreme…

I was born in rose-perfumed Shiraz, the capital of the ancient province from which the Persian Empire sprang, and a city famous for its gardens, wines, and poets.  My father, who had been a military commander and governor all his life, had been sent to take charge of the restless province during the First World War.  I was the fifteenth of his thirty-six children, and the third child of my mother, Mussumeh, who was the third of his wives.

The opening to We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, by Ellen Cassedy:

A soft summer rain was falling as a white-haired woman made her way to the microphone.  “Tayere talmidim!” she began.  “Dear students!”  Through the pattering of drops on my umbrella, I leaned forward to catch her words.  The old woman’s name was Bluma, a flowery name that matched her flowered dress.  She was a member of the all-but-vanished Jewish community in Vilnuis, Lithuania, the city once known as the Jerusalem of the North. “How fortunate I am,” she said in a quavering voice.  “I have lived long enough to see people coming back to Vilnius to study Yiddish.”…

My reasons for being here were not simple.  I had come to learn Yiddish and to connect myself with my roots—the Jewish ones, that is, on my mother’s side.  (On my father’s side, my non-Jewish forebears hailed from Ireland, England, and Bavaria—hence my name, Cassedy, and my blue eyes and freckles.)  But I had other goals, too. I wanted to investigate a troubling family story I’d stumbled upon in preparing for my trip.  I had agreed to meet a haunted old man in my ancestral town. And I planned to examine how the people of this country—Jews and non-Jews alike—were confronting their past in order to move forward into the future.  What had begun as a personal journey had broadened into a larger exploration.  Investigating Lithuania’s effort to exhume the past, I hoped, would help me answer some important questions.

The opening to A Postcard Memoir by Lawrence Sutin:

What first caused me to confuse postcards and life was an accidental glance while getting change for a purchase at the Starr Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, back in 1973.  There was a shoe box by the cash register full of old postcards priced a dime apiece.  At the front was the postcard of the mosque at Sidi-Okba pictured later in this book.

My glance grew into a stare and then there came a brief mind pop in which I entered the mosque and felt its cool air and the sand-gritted flagstones on my bare baked feet…

It came about that certain memories of mine began to seep into certain postcards, there to remain like bugs in amber.  Other postcards challenged me to come out after them and fight like a writer, which I did, realizing, accidentally again, that they were egging me on through the stations of my life.

These give you just a taste of the vastness of the options.  Gather a pile of your own favorite memoirs and see how they begin.

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In addition to Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, Sara Mansfield Taber is the author of two books of literary journalism, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia and Bread of Three Rivers: The story of a French Loaf.  She has also published Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood, a memoir-writing guide for those who have spent long periods away from their countries of origin. A long-time teacher at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, she has taught writing at universities such as Johns Hopkins and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She provides writing coaching and editing to individuals, and also teaches writing workshops in her home and abroad.  She can be found at her web site and her blog, “Thoughts on Writing, Spies, Global Nomads, and Other Clandestine Musings.”

Born Under an Assumed Name portrays the thrilling and confusing life of a girl growing up abroad in a world of secrecy and diplomacy—and the heavy toll it takes on her and her father.

As Taber leads us on a tour through the countries to which her father is assigned, we track two parallel stories—those of young Sara and her Cold War spy father. Sara struggles for normalcy as the family is relocated to cities in North America, Europe, and Asia, and the constant upheaval eventually exacts its price. Only after a psychiatric hospitalization at age sixteen in a U.S. Air Force hospital with shell-shocked Vietnam War veterans does she come to a clear sense of who she is. Meanwhile, Sara’s sweet-natured, philosophical father becomes increasingly disillusioned with his work, his agency, and his country.

What does it mean to be an American? This is the question at the heart of this elegant and sophisticated work. In this fascinating, painful and ultimately exhilarating coming of age story, young Sara confronts generosity, greatness, and tragedy—all that America heaps on the world.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

9 Responses to “Guest Post: How to Open a Memoir”

  1. Sara, thank you so much for this great post! I love your opening and am looking forward to reading the book; I’m going to take it with me to AWP.

    I also love that you selected a Larry Sutin book opening. I loved that memoir, but I should also point out that Larry is my VCFA advisor this semester! Later today I mail my second writing packet to him. Good synergy, it seems.

  2. Wow. What a wonderful post (and, yes, Sara, your opening works!). I love the other examples you cite – all intriguing and very good at drawing in the reader. What struck me, in your bullet points indicating opening “purposes,” is that they all apply equally well to fiction. It’s a helpful list that all creative writers can post next to their computers as a reminder.

    Your memoir sounds fabulous. Thanks, Patrick, for having Sara on your blog.

  3. Now this is the kind of post that we can take to the bank (of wisdom). There’s nothing like EXAMPLES to fix the principles in place. I’ve emailed this off to the members of our writers group here in Mazatlan, Mexico. Thanks, Sara.

  4. Sara, your opening certainly inspired “a rustling in my heart” and the other examples too. I will have to revise the opening of my WIP. Thank you for the insightful article.

  5. Thank you for a great post, and, for me, timely. I am working on the sixth version of my opening chapter; not the six edit, the complete new approach. It is surprisingly challenging to launch a memoir, probably any book.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Popular articles on editing and memoir I posted to Twitter this month - March 20, 2012

    […] Sara Taber counts a variety of ways to open a memoir. […]

  2. Monday’s Link Roundup. | Dan Curtis ~ Professional Personal Historian - April 9, 2012

    […] How to Open a Memoir. “I’m honored to provide a guest post by multi-published author and writing instructor Sara Mansfield Taber, whose latest memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, has just been published by Potomac Books. I first met Sara when taking a workshop taught by her at The Writer’s Center, and I’m flattered she’s willing to share some of her wisdom here today, a post relevant to any creative writer.” […]

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