Memoir Structure Readers Love: Your ‘Year Of’ Journey

A Book Analysis and Example for Structuring a Memoir

Memoirs can be some of the easiest and trickiest books to write. Easy, because, if you’re going to follow the adage “write what you know”, what are you more familiar with than your own life? Tricky in that, just because you want to write your story doesn’t mean people will automatically want to read it. Unless you’re famous (or infamous), what will prompt someone to devour one will be stellar storytelling, an interesting premise or a heart-tugging issue. If you’re going to write a memoir, what you need is a solid memoir structure.

One entertaining way to structure a memoir is to use the “Year Of…” format. The first book I read of this type was The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. If I’ve ever peed my pants laughing while reading a book, this would be one. I’ve enjoyed a few other variations through the years, such as Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shona Rhimes, but for this memoir structure example, we’ll use Tricia Goyer’s book, The Grumble-Free Year: Twelve Months, Eleven Family Members and One Impossible Goal (2019).

Key Components to Consider in Structuring a Memoir

Often, authors shape their memoirs based on reflection of their life’s themes, conflicts and challenges they have overcome. What makes the “Year Of…” type of memoir structure different is that it’s usually premeditated. Journalists, veteran authors or influencers will need a topic for their next book, and set out to live an adventure so they can publish a book about it.

These successful “Year Of…” books share several key elements in their structure and style that make them so popular and fascinating to read.

Every Memoir Needs a Hook or Compelling Concept

A noteworthy “Year Of…” memoir begins with a compelling hook or concept that grabs the reader’s attention. This could be a unique challenge, experiment, or journey the author undertakes for a year, such as living according to specific principles, adopting a new lifestyle, or pursuing an unusual goal.

Can you imagine training a family of 11 to live without grumbling for a year? That’s what the book The Grumble-Free Year: Twelve Months, Eleven Family Members and One Impossible Goal (2019) by Tricia Goyer is about.

Tricia Goyer, the author, inspired me before I even picked up one of her 80+ books. Anyone who has writes that many published books, adopts two sets of siblings after she’s raised her own children, homeschools to boot, and still finds space in her life to care for a grandparent and help weekly with the local teen pregnancy centre she founded — well, it certainly arrests my attention.

When The Grumble-Free Year was released in November 2019, it intrigued me. I only had one kindergarten-age child, and steering our family towards non-whiny, pleasant attitudes was be challenging enough. As the eldest of eight children who were homeschooled, I could only imagine the feat Tricia’s adventure must have been, and that hooked me in to read her book.

Personal Narrative Connects with the Reader

The heart of the memoir is the author’s personal narrative, detailing their experiences, emotions, and reflections throughout the year-long journey. Readers are drawn to the authenticity and vulnerability of the author’s storytelling, as they navigate the challenges, successes, and revelations encountered along the way.

In The Grumble-Free Year, Tricia demonstrates this kind of authenticity and vulnerability throughout the book. She describes the Goyers as a “too-big family squished in a too-small home”. By the time she had raised her own three children and launched them in the world, she had worked through how to balance raising kids, managing commitments and working from home. She had faced trauma and triggers, such ones tied to her past as teen mom as well as her how she dealt with expressing what she needed. Her home had become tidy, clean and a quiet place to write.

Then she and her husband John felt drawn to adopt. Within six years, they finalized the adoption of seven children, six of whom were through the foster system. Their home became entrenched with anger, reactions and hurt feelings as each child wrestled with the fears and trauma from their past. Laundry, clutter and emotional drama overtook the house, and Tricia struggled with losing the calm and cleanliness she had previously known. These nuggets certainly soothed the tension I’d been feeling in my life and home!

A Structured Timeline Keeps the Narrative Focused

The ‘Year of..” memoir contains a clear structure or timeline that organizes the memoir into distinct chapters or sections, each corresponding to a specific period or aspect of the year-long experiment. This helps to keep the narrative focused and coherent, allowing readers to track the author’s progress and development over time.

The timeline, of course, begins with a reason striking enough to embark on such an adventure, and the stakes need to be high enough to stick through the entire year. At the beginning of The Grumble-Free Year, Tricia had had enough of merely surviving. Something major needed to shift — for her sanity and the children’s well-being. Thus, her grumble-free year idea and book was born. After announcing the experiment to her family, she writes,

“Taking a family of eleven, full of personalities and viewpoints and individual struggles, through an entire year without grumbling was a monumental task, but I sensed we were on the verge of something special. And I couldn’t wait to see what God had in the works.”

Tricia Goyer, The Grumble-Free Year

As Tricia figured out how to start training children towards a grumble-free year, she realized she needed to start with herself — by looking at how her past shaped her style of grumbling, acknowledging what she expected and needed from others, and examining the thoughts she nurtured that led to complaining.

“Grumbling is taking a grim look at ourselves and the world around us and muttering about it between our teeth…I realize maybe part of my grumbling came from my desire to feel powerful while truly feeling powerless.”

Tricia Goyer, The Grumble-Free Year

Her approach was a heart check I needed. Her vulnerability in sharing the blow-ups she regretted served as a mirror that revealed the impact my own grumbling has had on my family.

Research and Insights Add Depth and Context to the Narrative

Many “Year Of…” memoirs incorporate elements of research, as the author delves into relevant literature, interviews experts, or seeks out knowledge to inform their experiment. This adds depth and context to the narrative, providing readers with valuable insights and perspectives beyond the author’s personal experiences. However, this doesn’t mean you bog down your memoir structure with academic overtones–that’s not why the reader has picked up the book. Keep it as a natural part of the narrative and tone.

Tricia starts with a conversation with her kids about how grumbling feels, sounds and looks. One by one, each child recognized their signature style, such as eye-rolling, whining or mumbling. Admitting their own faults was a feat in itself. After being moved from foster home to foster home and disappointment by broken promises from other families, the children had every reason to be insecure and uncertain how much they could trust they had landed in their forever home filled with unconditional love.

Increasing self-awareness was a helpful start, but Tricia knew it wouldn’t work for everyone to just try and stop their grumbling. They needed simple strategies and ways to replace the thought-behaviour cycle. Some ideas had promising potential — at least how she envisioned it could turn out. But either the kids weren’t willing to get on board or she failed miserably in her approach to the strategy.

Humor and Reflection Engage Readers

Humor often plays a significant role in the ‘Year Of…’ memoir structure, as authors use wit, irony, or self-deprecation to lighten the mood and engage readers. This was certainly true of many “Year Of…” memoirs I’ve read, though not so much in The Grumble-Free Year. Additionally, there is typically a reflective aspect to the narrative, as the author pauses to contemplate the broader significance of their experiment and its impact on their life and worldview.

What I found endearing about The Grumble-Free Year, is how authentic Tricia Goyer portrays the messiness of her adventure. My perfectionist inclination would have been tempted to tidy up the details and deliver a polished portrayal of the experiment. Tricia may have had the same temptation, but she chose to be real about the mishaps, struggles and failures. Life and crises interrupted their rhythms, and a number of times she confessed, “weeks passed before I remembered that I was supposed to be guiding my children through a grumble-free year.”

memoir structure readers love

A ‘Year of…’ Memoir Structure Needs a Transformation or Resolution

By the end of the memoir, readers expect to see some form of transformation or resolution in the author’s journey. Whether it’s a newfound understanding, personal growth, or a change in perspective, there should be a sense of closure and fulfillment that leaves readers feeling inspired or enlightened by the author’s experience.

Looking back on the hard times as she wrote the final chapters of The Grumble-Free Year, Tricia realized her family had learned a way to position their hearts away from grumbling towards gratitude. The times when she was running out of strength and at the end of her rope, she realized how much she — and the children — weren’t meant to overcome grumbling on their own.

In a culture that often reminds us to practice mindfulness and gratitude to better ourselves and our mental health, Tricia keeps coming back to this refreshing truth that she and the kids couldn’t change on their own. God provides where we cannot. His presence is strength where we are weak and undone. He loves us amid our mess and transforms it into beauty.

As someone who defaults to trying harder before accepting grace, despite knowing better, I was surprised to find I still need this reminder. Presented within someone’s vulnerability and messy story, I was much more ready to receive it than if it had been offered in a tidy list of lessons.

Don’t Forget the Practical Application or Takeaways

Finally, many “Year Of…” memoirs conclude with practical insights, lessons learned, or actionable takeaways that readers can apply to their own lives. This adds value to the reading experience, empowering readers to apply the wisdom gained from the author’s journey to their own aspirations and challenges.

Each chapter of The Grumble-Free Year ends with questions to ponder and discuss. For readers who want to walk their family through the adventure of a grumble-free life, Tricia also includes tips to prepare and guide family conversations on each lesson she learned.

Will You Choose This Fun, Adventurous Memoir Structure?

If you’re wondering what is a good structure of a memoir, choosing the “Year Of…” method could be a fun adventurous writing project. By incorporating these key components into your narrative, you can help ensure that your book has the potential to resonate with readers and make a significant impact in the marketplace.

Have you devoured any “Year of…” structured memoirs you think I would enjoy? Leave a recommendation in the comments–and share what you loved about it!


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