form follows function


When writing about one’s life, the urge is to move chronologically, plodding from one place to the next, adding layers of experience and wisdom: and then, and then, and then, conveyed by the hope that somehow, if I put it all in order, it will add up to something more. Like the drawing that shows the stages of man’s evolution from the twisted hairy thing on the left to the attractive and big-brained character on the right that struts forward with excellent posture, wouldn’t it be nice and neat if we all got bigger and better along the way, if a simple path of progress could be traced?

When I try to plot my life it rings tinny and false, as stilted as a résumé, and it becomes apparent that my development is not linear: it’s cyclic, recursive, backward, messy, and redundant. Instead of one triumphal arch, my life looks more like a million inchworms writhing on the floor. Here’s the thing: People save up their entire lives to take a trip to Rome to admire the architecture but I’ve never heard anyone say that they hope they get to see worms someday.

Fellow blogger/writer Richard Gilbert says that “In memoir […] chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.” He also says that “bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those who achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective.”

It occurs to me that I could construct several different bestseller plots with the events my life:

Made-for-television plot: Girl with father issues poses for Playboy then uses the money to attend UC Berkeley and Harvard then has an epiphany one day at a café while sipping tea and watching a homeless woman apply makeup on the sidewalk outside. For her happy ending, she goes to work at a bookstore.

Woman vs. Nature: Unpublished writer and stay-at-home mom who feels overlooked and cut off from the world befriends a skittish, leery group of neighborhood crows and through their friendship learns about love, trust, and her own nature.

 Wretched Excess & Quest For Answers With Final Ascension: Girl reads Zap comix and starts smoking cigarettes at 8, Siddhartha and pot at 10, The Fountainhead and booze at 13, cocaine and fashion magazines at 16, hallucinogens at 17, MDMA at 18, reads Toni Morrison and Philip K Dick and develops a Cindy Sherman obsession and it’s a fast forward high-speed party until one day, she takes a sip of tea, pauses at her bookshelf, and feels suddenly sated. The story ends with her standing in front of a high school English class wearing jeans, a blazer, and a pair of reading glasses, reading aloud from A Clockwork Orange to a group of rapt teenagers.

Cliché Love Story: Straight-laced nice-boy hooks up with grungy, bookish tramp for hijinks and unlikely romance played out in a road trip from San Francisco, CA to Boston, MA.

Tragedy: Writer writes joyfully, constantly, without pay until she has to get a full time job at a bookstore and has no time to write anymore. The irony kills her.

Comedy: Same as above but add a goofy husband, wise-cracking kids, a lot of jokes, and an uncanny knack for selling other people’s books.

It seems to me, the riskiest thing about autobiography is that one might start to believe one’s own story.

It also seems unlikely that I will ever write a bestseller. Blame it on brain damage or myopia or pretentious taste but for whatever reason, my mind just doesn’t move that way.  Gilbert says, “We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.” My body moves chronologically but my mind does not. And so, to tell my body’s story, it feels right to let form follow function.


If you wrote a memoir, what would it look like? 

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. The static on a disconnected TV.

  2. Many things I could say to you after reading this, so I’ll choose just this one. Leonard Cohen must have felt himself unlikely to be the type to write a bestseller too, and yet, he made his art. His life must seem too much to write, though much of it is written.
    For you, from him…

  3. I am writing a memoir right now, in fact. But it’s not mine. It’s fiction. It has no plot either. I’ve been thinking a lot about how creative writing is changing and how traditional fiction seems contrived and fails to hold a reader’s interest. Readers seem more interested these days in what they consider to be real. I want to try something that at least seems like real life, and through that discuss the ideas that I find interesting.

  4. So true that we can pitch our story many different ways, Anna.

  5. A road trip through generations of conjuring woman.

  6. Todd

    A bucket of bolts, nuts and rusty nails.
    Glimmering in the morning light.

  7. Hilarious yet poignant, your spins on the story of the life thus far. I would give you a list of spins on my life, but I would have to look at it to do that, and um, that’s kind of uncomfortable…

  8. this was a really inspiring post for me 🙂 just wanted to share

  9. My memoir wouldn’t be a memoir as much as it would seem more like a screenplay co-written by Judd Apatow and David Mamet.

    • Gus– you mean you’re going to give those guys all the credit? (I’m hoping Christina Ricci will play me. But she’ll have to add some lbs and wrinkles for the part.)

      • I’m saying if I did write a memoir, I’d come across as one of those man-childs that Judd Apatow writes about so eloquently while making you cringe, while spewing the kind of whip-smart, borderline psycho commentary that David Mamet would be proud of.

  10. A snowflake falling from great heights on the hot summer asphalt and for some peculiar reason not melting.

  11. Uncanny timing, Anna – I’m just about to submit life story for my final assignment: part stanzadized fragmentary images, part metaphorical fairy tale – this was a handy read, thanks!

  12. I’m glad you brought this up! I’ve been working (for too many years) on a memoir/bio of my mom. Actually, I’ve revamped my approach to it three times during those many years. Finally I think I’ve nailed the right voice and tempo and in the process I’ve fictionalized it and woven my own story into it. At first I struggled with the reporter/tech writer in me who wanted to start at the beginning and painfully plod through all the facts, just the facts, ma’am. What I’ve discovered is that fictionalizing released me from the editor/fact checker/relatives. And then I realized that, just as you say, we grow old chronologically, but it is the reflections back on past events and epiphanies that makes the narrative fly. I’ve been mixing it up a lot lately, with flashbacks and premonitions. Now, a new difficulty emerges…sewing it all together so the reader doesn’t get lost in maze of backwards, forwards, and laterals.

  13. “Grungy, bookish tramp” made my day, would’ve been a great blog name had you not already thought of girl in the hat, and the plural would be a cool girl-band name. My memoir–hah; would be corners not turned, forks not taken, scenes of talent wasted and luck unearned.

  14. Please write them all, you have to!
    My memoir would look like a half finished scrapbook, with a lot of censoring.

  15. I can’t decide between a patchwork quilt or a tightly wound coil – either way, I’m not sure if I wrote a memoir anyone would have a use for it. But I’d buy yours…

  16. great thoughts on memoirs. i’ve wanted to write one for years and i know, like you mention, that it will not be chronological. i have swirly ideas about it that i can’t even put into words yet. i hope they make their way out someday.

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