So You Think You Might Be Writing a Collage Memoir…

Telltale signs

You’ve recently read Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts AND the deeper-in-the-catalog Bluets. You love Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. You own multiple copies of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. These are signs.

Your manuscript is built of teeny tiny chapters. Can you even really call them chapters? Your book possesses multiple narratives. Some pages contain more white space than words. These too are signs.

Except sometimes you also wonder: Am I writing a collage memoir or is this just a hot mess? May I offer…

A Quiz:

Answer the following questions to the extent your knowledge, humility, and sense of self-worth will allow: 

  • Does an organizing principle unify the manuscript?

  • Does the narrative require a collage form to express its message?

  • Is the prose sharp enough to slice steel?

  • Does the manuscript contain at least a snifter of narrative arc, allowing readers to wring some semblance of emotional satisfaction from discovering the narrator’s outcome?

Maybe you couldn’t honestly answer “yes” to all of these questions yet. But is it reasonable that–with some help and revision–you could get there? 

Perhaps you are asking, “Must the book do ALL of that??”

Let’s look at some examples.

Unifying principle

The metaphor of interrogation provides the unifying principle for Natalie Singer’s California Calling, thus the book’s subtitle, “a self-interrogation.” Questions from the chapters and sections are demarcated by the stages of interrogation. Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is organized by commonly known  dieting rules. Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge is unified by the central question “How does one take refuge in change?”

Form expresses content

The dieting rules in Starvation Mode illuminate the ways the narrator has been controlled by cultural narratives about the female body. The lake levels and individual birds that define the chapters of Refuge underscore the importance of the rising lake and demolition of the bird refuge. The interrogation questions throughout California Calling echo the questions the narrator herself is asked before she takes the witness stand (Read the book! It’s terrific!) and the way a woman’s experience can be brought into question by ancient male-dominated power structures. 

Steel-slicing prose

The collage structure minimizes the impact of plot, the big kahuna of literary elements. When plot is obscured, the onus of responsibility for creating literary pleasure falls on the other literary elements, namely theme and language. For a collage memoir to succeed (i.e. find a readership outside of blood relatives and best friends), the language must sing. Witness: Dederers Love and Trouble, Williams’ Refuge, Singer’s California Calling and the other books listed in the recommended reading list below. 

This is not a form for bloated prose. The sections of these memoirs are tight, economical, and tend to end with a POW. (Craft exercise: reread some of these memoirs with a focus on the final lines of each chapter and section. Boom. Mic drop).

Some semblance of narrative satisfaction

No matter how lyrical and off-road these successful collage memoirs may appear, they do still offer a basic problem, struggle, resolution pattern. Within the first page of Refuge we learn that the narrator’s mother is dying and the bird refuge is being flooded. By the end of the book, the narrator has learned to find some peace, some refuge, in change. In Safekeeping, we follow moments from the narrator’s thirty-year relationship with her former husband. Even though we get the story of their relationship in snapshots, most of those shots are lined up in chronological order. 


Need help with your collage memoir? I can do that. I can offer a quick read of your manuscript to determine which of these elements are missing and suggest how you might develop them or alter your approach. Have questions? Email me at theonestorprods@gmailcom. 

Recommended Reading: 

The Sparkling-Eyed Boy by Amy Benson

Starvation Mode by Elissa Washuta

My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

California Calling by Natalie Singer

An Earlier Life by Brenda Miller

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

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