New writers often come to my classes on "writing memoir" wondering where to begin, how much to tell, and how to structure a memoir. "Don't start at the beginning," I tell them, since you cannot remember that day." There are, of course, exceptions to every rule: if one's mother died during childbirth, for example. Begin instead with a person or experience that had a significant impact on your life. Details about one's birth can be worked in later.
I had the same problems when I started my own memoir. I thought I would focus on my rural childhood (I grew up on a tobacco farm in North Florida). I could hardly wait to get away from the place and thought I would take the story up to the day I escaped as a bride.
In the end, my memoir does focus on my rural childhood. It begins in the dead of night when I was three years old (excerpt from Pumping Sunshine: A Memoir of My Rural Childhood):
"Wake up girls! Get outta bed!" Daddy yelled. Awakened from a nightmare, my half-awake eyes searched the cold, dark room. Dim moonlight shining through the bare windows helped me make out Daddy's flailing silhouette as he yanked quilts off my sisters and me. He grabbed my arm as I scrambled, trying to climb over Patsy and Anetha and off the cot we sisters shared. In my three years of life, I'd never been more scared. My heart pounded.My childhood memoir does not, however, extend to the day I became a bride. I wrote the stories out of sequence -- almost anything that came to mind. Deciding later what to include, what to leave out, and when to stop the memoir were my big challenges.
That night had started out like any other.
In the kitchen after supper, soapy water dripped from Mama's fingertips into the chipped enamel dishpan as she lifted her arm to brush loose strands of permed dark hair off her forehead. She couldn't stand hair in her face. Bangs like Patsy had would have annoyed Mama no end. Curls like mine that dangled to my eyes? Pure torture for Mama.
"C.G.," Mama called to Daddy. "How 'bout bringing in a washtub so the girls can take their baths by the fire?"
Through the kitchen doorway, I had a clear view of Daddy, sitting in a straight-backed chair by the hearth. Logs blazed. Daddy was studying a lesson in his Sunday school book that lay atop his open Bible. Expecting him to look up and answer Mama any second, I stared at the crown of his head. His hair was nearly as dark as Mama's except when the sun or firelight hit it just right. Then, you could see sparkles of auburn. His barber clipped it short, as if Daddy still trained with the Florida National Guard. With his hair only an inch long, he didn't need to plaster it down with Brylcreem the way most men at church did theirs. Daddy didn't even need to comb his. You couldn't tell if he did or didn't.
Daddy had been talking about adding a kitchen sink and pipes that would bring well water into the house and take it out again -- "indoor plumbing," he called it. Our grandparents, who lived just up the road, had all that in their new house, built in 1944, the year I was born. They even had an indoor toilet!
Eventually, the stories themselves dictated where the end should be, making me stop before I had even met the man I would marry. So, I say to those beginning a memoir, just keep writing your stories; the story itself will help you figure it out.