First Page Critique: Defining the Scope of Your Memoir

From Jane Friedman:

A summary of the work being critiqued

Title: When Did You Know?
Genre: memoir

Emily was adopted at birth, and I was privileged to be present when she was born. When she first emerged, I wondered if something was wrong, she didn’t cry right away. You’re worrying too much. But at six months old, she didn’t respond with recognition when I picked her up from day care, a flat affect. Later Emily had a choking episode that might have started with a seizure. This started a series of medical tests revealing a chromosomal abnormality, a seizure disorder, and autism spectrum disorder. By this time, we had also adopted her biological sister, Madison, also at birth, an energetic blond girl who later was diagnosed with ADHD.

The memoir shares the pains and joys of parenting these girls, addressing topics such as spirituality and autism, nutrition and weight issues, fatigue, behavior management, sibling rivalry, friendships and sexuality. This book includes resources and ideas of what helped me navigate the challenges of autism parenting.

First page of When Did You Know?

“Did you know she had autism when you adopted her?”

“No, I just thought she slept a lot. We were able to take her to movies and she’d sleep through them,” I said. People would look at us as we lugged her carrier into the cinema but she’d be silent all the way through.

But even from the day she was born I wondered. I also wondered about Amber, her biological mother. I eventually found out a lot about Emily, our daughter with autism and Amber, her biological mother.

“The baby’s coming, push Amber,” the doctor said at the foot of the bed. He was surrounded by nurses and medical students in blue scrubs.

“Come look,” he told me. He knew I was the adoptive mother.

I stood behind him as a blueish, brownish dome emerged.

“Push one more time, Amber,” they said.

I stood back. Amber grunted and cried out. That must hurt so much. The baby whooshed into the doctor’s gloved hands. He held her up.

“Is there only one?” Amber asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

Earlier while I waited with Amber during labor, she mentioned that a lady in the grocery store had commented it looked like she was having twins. I was surprised she thought twins were a real possibility and that no one put her fears to rest. I paused and wondered about Amber. Just like when we first met her a few days earlier.

Continue reading the first pages, with color coding and comments by editor Hattie Fletcher.

Dear Julia,

Thanks for sharing your work and the first pages of your memoir about parenting—certainly an important story for you and one that’s potentially incredibly useful to other parents who might find themselves in a similar situation.

My first big-picture observation is that it feels a bit hard to see the shape of the story from the materials you’ve submitted. That is, your summary describes the book as a memoir that “shares the pains and joys of parenting these girls …” but that’s potentially a pretty big and abstract story. Do you plan to focus on their very early years, or the time up until they’re 18 and (perhaps) leaving the nest? Do you want to focus primarily on a specific aspect or aspects of parenting—perhaps on your experiences seeking help from the medical community, or your challenges finding a peaceful rhythm as a family? Obviously, readers don’t want to start a book already knowing the ending (at least, not usually), but in the book pitch you want to define the scope of the story more specifically.

There’s no firm rule for how much time/story a memoir can cover. A quick look at some memoirs about parenting will show you many different approaches: Anne Lamott’s classic Operating Instructions is a journey through the first year of her son’s life; Mary Louise Kelly’s It. Goes. So. Fast. is framed around her son’s last year of high school. (A one-year narrative can make a tidy frame, indeed.) But many writers tackle longer arcs: Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated covers almost two decades of his family’s efforts to use Disney movies to help his autistic son engage as fully as possible with them and the rest of the world.

Once you have established the scope of your story and your overall narrative arc, then you can think about where to first enter the story and begin to introduce your characters/family. Maybe you’re telling the story of your young daughters from Emily’s birth to the day when (I’m making stuff up now), at the ages of twelve and fourteen, both girls climbed on a bus together for a week-long group wilderness adventure. Or maybe you’re telling the story from the day of Emily’s choking episode to her high school graduation lunch. Your goal, essentially, is to find a satisfying narrative arc that will take readers on a journey with you and that will provide—even if there’s a lot of mess along the way—some degree of resolution of a central question or tension.

That being the goal, I’d question whether Emily’s birth is the most effective starting point. Birth has, of course, the obvious advantage of being a very clear beginning—Day One! On the other hand, a purely chronological organization of material can sometimes feel tedious on the page. (First, Emily was born. … In her first week … When she was two months old … And then, when she was one…)

In fact, you’re already sort of building in a bit of that framework, by starting—even if only for a few lines—with a fast-forward in order to flash back to the birth. So, for a next draft, I would be inclined to start somewhere a little farther along. And then, after you’ve established some of the conflict/tension of the overall narrative, you could jump back to the time of Emily’s birth (and even before that, it seems), and look at it through the lens of the information you later learned.

Regardless of where in the larger work the birth scene ends up, when you do get there, it might be helpful to consider the pacing of the scene. There’s a balance, usually, between spending too much time in one scene (which, like a chronological organization to a book, can become tedious) and weaving in other elements, such as reflection, description, character development, etc. It seems to me that your first pages currently bounce around quite a bit between several scenes/times, in a way that feels a bit disorienting and jumpy. Focusing more on individual times might make it easier for readers to follow the story, and also open up a little space for you to go into more detail. I’ve color-coded your first pages to show the jumps in time visually. Until the long stretch at the end, a couple days after the birth, you can see there’s a jump every few paragraphs, more or less. It might make sense to consider grouping some of the color sections into bigger sections, whether or not in chronological order.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman