This blog was featured on 09/12/2017
Autobiography to Memoir: Chrysalis to the Butterfly
Written by
Nancy Chadwick
September 2017
Written by
Nancy Chadwick
September 2017

I had autobiography. I wanted memoir. I had a chronological timeline. I wanted reflections and takeaways. I had experiences. I wanted life lessons.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a manuscript. I had quit working full time to find that one thing that everyone talked about–the one thing that wasn’t considered work, but a passion, something I was born to do–and writing it all down was a cathartic quest to find it. My desire to find a place to be, a true home, occupied my thoughts. I didn’t know this would be my memoir’s theme.

I wrote a poem when I was fifteen and realized I had a place in this world. I had something uplifting to express as I could communicate my own experiences, drawing connections to places and people and home, despite my disconnections.  Under the Birch Tree racked up 77,000 words  in recording of those disconnections I encountered through the decades: divorced parents, moving away from the only home I knew, lack of belonging in high school, loneliness in my twenties, reinventing myself for a career change from advertising to banking. I didn’t know then how my disconnections would be the antagonist to my memoir’s theme.

After completing a first draft, I wondered if a memoir was buried beneath these layers. I yearned for confirmation so I sent my manuscript to its first professional critique, affirming my strengths–unflinching honesty, truth, generosity of feelings–to validate authenticity. The narrative’s sensitivity to human interaction, something many women readers could relate to, confirmed I had an audience. In the end, my persistence, determination, and triumph overruled depression, loneliness and disappointment gleaned throughout the pages. My story’s feel-good takeaway confirmed my desire for the reader to root for me through her turn of the last page.

No, I didn’t have memoir; the book lacked a narrative arc with a beginning, development, climax, and resolution. I didn’t know how to begin or where to start so in resignation I tossed the manuscript in a drawer hoping that after time, I would find my answer. I envisioned my manuscript like a chrysalis, requiring a gestational phase to grow and transform, turning into a butterfly, my memoir, ready to fly, ready for a public debut.

In the meantime, instructional self-study of the craft and reading other memoirs became my teachers as I studied their structures. Intellectually, I understood everything about memoir but one’s autobiography does not a memoir make! I couldn’t figure out how to apply my knowledge to turn it around. I rewrote, massaged paragraphs, and questioned the purpose of each scene. With each rewrite I could delve deeper into hinted issues as the start to a narrative arc. Soon, reflections and takeaways presented themselves and life lessons were understood. My theme unfolded in simple understanding; I would find home through discovered connections.

The birth of Under the Birch Tree will not be the day it is published in June 2018, but when I was a young girl, discovering a favorite tree standing tall and arabesque in greetings near the front door of my childhood home. Through the years, my birch buddy shadowed me as my first learned connection, synonymous with home.

I learned that sometimes if you start something too soon, you may not see what it’s really about. I realize now that my memoir needed the years to cultivate perspective, meaning and to make sense of my early recordings.

Was I born to write a memoir? Was that my passion? I can’t say for sure. But what I can say is my memoir, transformed from autobiography, is now the butterfly.

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  • Nancy Chadwick Writing

    Thank you for your comments, Frances and Susie. Oftentimes we, as writers, are so hard on ourselves to produce and to produce in a specific time frame. I couldn't have possibly turned it around without the years spent working it and reflecting on it. Sometimes you just have to get down the autobiographical stuff as a starting point and then eventually you do see a story.

  • Frances A. Rove Writing

    In 2016, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote my memories. Long, good grist for the mill of memoir, but really more of an autobiography. I'm working on distilling it into scenes, takeaways, narration, and reflection with great help through NAMW. Thank you for an inspirational article that helps me see I'm headed in the right direction.

  • Susie Bedsow Horgan

    I love the learning you have shared with us here. I've had, and am having, the same experience with my memoir which I've been working on for years. And like you, I have decades of life experiences that simply weren't falling into a theme or narrative that I could see. I put it aside for a year. And then I read a transformative memoir (Leslie Garis' House of Happy Endings) and it suddenly became clear to me what my story was. My memoir and my life story. It was a thrilling discovery and now I am rewriting all that i wrote with the knowledge of what my life has been about and therefore, my memoir. So happy to have this confirmation from your article. Thank you.