The Project Memoir Pattern

I’ve talked a lot about project memoir. A sub-genre of memoir where a person tackles a set of tasks set out by themselves at a time in their life and uses the task they are attempting to accomplish as a way to juxtapose a struggle or set of struggles in their lives. The book produced is often witty and filled with either a furthered genuine understanding of the human spirit, or a cynicism about the particular task they are undertaking.

Having read many, many project memoirs over the last eight years or so (after all, as a memoir aficionado, it was only a matter of time before I slipped into this contemporary genre), I’ve noticed a pattern to the works I’ve read, and I wanted to outline it here.

One: The author introduces themselves and their circumstances, and provides a snapshot of the “lightning bolt moment” that makes them realize that they are unhappy, unsatisfied, or generally stagnant. This might be a ride on a bus, or in the midst of prayer, or at the suggestion of a spouse or parent.

It is around this time that the writer outlines their life’s malaise. The likely conclusion to their memoir will be that the project they’ve undertaken will bring them happiness, contentment, or something in between.

Two: The author will begin the task. By beginning, the author will both contemplate the nature of their undertaking and further outline what they are doing. They might decide to share the order by which they have chosen to do something, and will usually add in some anecdotal family drama.

Three: The author will drive the reader forward on their project towards the first hurdle: self-reflective doubt. “Will people/society at large think that the thing I am pursuing is stupid/not worth doing.” If you are reading a finished, published book, chances are that someone, an agent, an editor, or someone in the publishing industry, did indeed find the authors endeavors worth pursuing.

Four: The midpoint. The author will reflect on what they have learned so far, as well as what they hope to glean from the latter half of their project.

Five: The “twist in the third act.” The goal of this isn’t necessarily to throw off the reader, but rather to keep them engaged. Whether it’s Elizabeth Gilbert meeting a man she might fall in love with during Eat, Pray, Love, or AJ Jacobs entering Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, the point here is to hit a grand point of revelation. Which leads to:

Six: Lessons learned. Putting a nice, tidy bow on a project that caused strife and was filled with a level of hard work and dedication. This might be framed as an epilogue, or a list of things learned, but either way, it’ll be the last fifteen pages of the book.

Project memoir is a fascinating genre, and this is just a pattern that I picked up from the books that I’ve been reading. Did you notice something different? Let me know in a comment below.

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