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“How do I write the last chapter of a memoir?” coaching and editing clients will sometimes ask me.
It is a good question because the last chapter of a memoir is your final shot at affirming your theme and at creating a satisfying ending to the story the reader has been engaged in for perhaps 200 or 300 pages.
Revising the last chapter is also something I have been working with on my childhood memoir—which, alas, is still nameless.
As I write this
It’s early September and, here in Maine, already the nights are much cooler and the leaves are showing hints of changing color.
The cooler weather has also brought with it thoughts of spending more time indoors—what better time now that we are increasingly about to be indoors more than to write your memoir! That’s what I’ve turned to myself after a summer of—horrors!—some slacking.
For a while now, I have been contributing to the text of the second half of the book, and the text has become a bit rambling. Without much awareness that I was doing this, I filled it with vignettes—my “little darlings”—I had forgotten to include elsewhere. Some of them are going to have to submit the fate that writers refer to as “killing their little darlings.”
The result was, when I read the last chapter, it felt like I was not in the end of the story. The last chapter contained material that was new and needed expansion or was merely interesting but it distracted from the story which was supposed to be winding down at this point.
So… do I add another chapter or do I pare this unkempt garden of memories down? Since I was at 275 pages of text, paring down—weeding out and transplanting, to continue the metaphor—seemed the better choice.
It has begun to be time to release the insight a last chapter of a memoir that has been worked and honed to basics can give a book. This chapter is the focus of the theme which, at this point, ought to be proven or substantiated .
Something wraps up here that has been “in the making” since Chapter One. If you can get the last chapter fixed—that is, to tell how the story ends, you are in better shape to work on and revise previous chapters—especially those that make up the second part of your memoir.
When I watch a movie I am always reminded that many many directors and writers can pull off the beginning of a film but only the experienced and talented among them can pull off a satisfying ending.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this: lovely scenery, great costumes, an exposition of characters, an action that sets up a conflict. This is a great beginning, but let’s see if it all comes together at the end.
The movie goes on and on and, when it finally ends, you have no sense of why the characters did what they did and what the story might possibly add up to. It just stops.
A Caveat before I start
I am not advocating starting to write a memoir from the last chapter. No, this is about what to do now that you have written your first draft and have done substantial polishing to the first half of your book.
I am not a great believer in outlining a memoir. Instead you do better to be writing story after story and linking them as you discover what your memoir is about. This is how you find your theme: by writing.
What to do about the last chapter of a memoir?
- Ask yourself what the memoir is about.
When you started to write your memoir, you had a vision. While there were people you wanted to commemorate and events that you wanted to celebrate, there was also something more intangible you wanted to express. The something can usually be expressed in a few words that the memoir expands to 200 and 300 pages or more.
Perhaps you wanted to support the idea that hard work will win the day or that hard work will not win the day. Perhaps you wanted to affirm that you had experienced “hard knocks,” but your attitude pulled you through. Whatever the encapsulated expression of your theme—sorry about this—it often sounds like a cliché. That’s why you are writing a book: to take the theme out of the realm of the cliché and into an experience the reader will enjoy.
The last chapter wraps up (or substantiates) the theme in a meaningful and convincing way. The reader must cease to read with a sense of having had a satisfying experience.
2. What did the character (you, me) do that brought the story to a climax? What was the character yearning for (pointing towards) throughout the memoir and does it materialize in the last chapter?
Wow! that really put a fine point on things for me. In the last chapter of my memoir, I am awarded a scholarship that I had set in motion in a previous chapter. I choose a school that I want to go to (this is high school) and I get accepted. Of course, there are things in between all of this—why do I want this outcome? what is conspiring for and against its realization?— but that is the gist.
Many earlier chapters tell why going away to a school was important to me and they outlined the paucity of opportunities I saw in my other choices. Winning a scholarship that will pay for a residential school and being accepted are a logical and satisfying conclusion to the action and the character angst that runs through the book.
Everything else belongs earlier in the book than the last chapter of a memoir—yes, even the vignette about our family working in the yard to clean it up after the long winter. That was a good story about pulling together, about our community, and it fits really well few chapter earlier where it suggests that in spite of my ambition to go away to school, I will miss my family. In the last chapter, however, the inclusion of this vignette was dissipatory.
3. Do the episodes of the memoir (often synonymous with the chapters) support the development of the theme as it wraps up in the final chapter?
A memoir is not fiction and must tell the literal truth. Because of that, some writers feel they have to include everything that happened to them in the period of time encompassed by the memoir.
No! You omit what does not support the theme. You might have learned figure skating during the time of the memoir which is, however, devoted to acquiring financial freedom. If figure skating did not contribute to your learning financial skills, you do not need to mention the skating lessons in your book—in fact, were I to edit our book, I might recommend either omitting it or tying it more closely to your theme (if possible).
4. Write and polish the last chapter of a memoir.
After you have written and polished the end, go back to the other chapters of the second half of the book to hone them down and make sure they contribute to the last chapter’s wrap up.
Now, my asking you to wrap up does not mean I am implying you need to make everything neat and orderly. No, a wrap up can be as simple as, “And now I awaited the next phase knowing that there would be challenges and I might not succeed but knowing also that I was ready.” Of course, it could take you the whole chapter to say that.
These are a few solid suggestions for writing a last chapter of a memoir. If you follow their guidance, you will likely avoid the fate of movies (and memoirs) that have great beginnings but don’t know how to end.
Of you, people will say, “This is a good writer who knows how to end a book.”
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