26 Mar Hard lines. The 7 lives of Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou was a very accomplished woman, perhaps that’s why she wrote seven (some say eight) volumes of autobiography. What follows is a deconstruction of her most famous book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was published in 1969. Caged Bird is a coming of age story that records her life up to the age of 17. This is not a review of the book, it’s a dissection to show the would-be memoirist how it’s done.
There are many ways to approach an autobiography and in this memoir, about her childhood, Angelou chooses to write about the ‘first-time’ experiences that taught her hard lines about the way the world is and what she needed to do about it.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Maya Angelou wrote Caged Bird when she was 41, it is 309 pages and has 36 chapters. The dedication and acknowledgement are one paragraph each. The chapters are numbered rather than titled and there are no photographs in the book.
Angelou opens the book with a random story about an incident in Church which she uses to describe how she viewed herself as a young girl, then, the first chapter begins with her arrival in Arkansas aged three, where she moved from California to live with her grandmother.
This book can be broken into four sections of roughly ten chapters each based on where Angelou lived as a child, namely Arkansas, Missouri, Arkansas again, and finally California.
Use natural breaks in your own story to section your book in the same way. If you intend to write a full autobiography then you’ll only need three or four chapter titles for your childhood, which in this case might be ‘Arkansas’, ‘Missouri’, ‘Arkansas Again’, and ‘California’, but if you only intend to write about your childhood as in Caged Bird your story is likely to be a lot more detailed and you’ll need more chapters to guide your writing.
In the first ten chapters, Angelou writes about her life in Stamps, Arkansas, where she and her brother live with her grandmother. These chapters are about day-to-day life, family, animals, church, and others living on the periphery of her grandmother’s general store; what she saw around her when she was a young girl.
When she and her brother move to St. Louis, Missouri, we’re given a glimpse into her father’s inept parenting and general absence and a mother viewed by both children as higher being, a ‘beautiful lady who talked with her whole body,’ We’re also introduced to other less likeable members of her mother’s family. Bad things happen to Angelou in St. Louis and these are the chapters that describe her loss of innocence. She explains how her name transitions from Ritie to Maya almost acknowledging her growing worldliness.
In the next ten chapters set again in Arkansas, we see Angelou learning more and more about how the world works. She writes about recovering from her St. Louis ordeal and life back under the watchful eye of her grandmother, Momma, who raises her with a religious rod of steel. She tells the stories of meeting her best friend, her brother’s deflowering, realising her own mortality, and the futility of graduating high school as a negro with qualifications but no prospects.
In the final chapters, Angelou is caught between her parents and their very different parenting skills and she moves around California to spend time with both of them. During this time she runs away and spends a month living rough in a junkyard, finally settling down to live with her mother and stepfather. She writes about struggling to understand her own sexuality, and we see the first signs of her determination to succeed when she lands a job as the first Negro to be employed on the streetcars of San Francisco.
What Maya Angelou has done here is to pick the stories that taught her about life. She doesn’t open with the story of where and when she was born, she writes about daydreaming about another life. She doesn’t write about going to school, instead, she describes what happened when the children of ‘powhitetrash’ aped and taunted her grandmother. Her stories are the ones that taught her about abuse, discrimination, mortality, futility, belief, retribution, joy, triumph, and love.
Now Write Your Story
If you want to write about your early years then Johnnybio’s Child and Teenager is the right chapter for you. Pick the events that taught you the most and use them to step through the story of your childhood. Begin and end your story here or go on to write about other eras of your life and join them as you write. Follow our Writer’s Blog for more ideas on how to approach your autobiography or memoir.
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