Mindmap Your Memoir | Part II

by Marylee MacDonald in Apps & Software, For Memoir Writers

If you create a mindmap to brainstorm scenes and episodes that might go into your memoir, you’ll move yourself one step closer to your goal. While mindmaps can help fiction authors, having a roadmap for your journey down Memory Lane can bring focus to what might otherwise turn into a rambling tale.


clown costume mindmap with images

Begin by gathering old photos. These photos don’t have to be publishable. Use images that cause you to think about potential scenes. Later on, you can decide which pictures to use in your published book

A mindmap allows you to reduce the clutter of random events and find your story’s focus. Why is this important? Well, it’s important for the very reason you decided to write a memoir in the first place–your desire to make sense of life’s events.

Writing a memoir is quite similar to narrative therapy. Here’s a quote from the first chapter of Alice Morgan’s book, What Is Narrative Therapy? An Easy-To-Read Introduction.

Narrative therapy is sometimes known as involving ‘re-authoring’ or ‘re-storying’ conversations. As these descriptions suggest, stories are central to an understanding of narrative ways of working. The word ‘story’ has different associations and understandings for different people. For narrative therapists, stories consist of:

  • events
  • linked in sequence
  • across time
  • according to a plot

You can read more about this approach to understanding your life’s story by downloading this pdf.

Now, I’m not advocating that you go hunt up a therapist, just that you spend some time thinking about the “story of your life.” All four of the bulleted points above need to be part of your thinking. That’s where mindmaps come in.

To give you ideas of how you might use one, I created four videos.

The mindmap program I’m using is called Scapple. Go to Mindmapping Your Memoir | Part I and watch the video; but don’t feel wedded to the software. There are many free apps on the internet. The main thing you want is a giant whiteboard and the ability to drag and drop pictures, text, and pdfs.

In the near future, I’ll take one more step in fine-tuning the “story of my life.” For the moment, however, making these videos took a lot of effort. I ran out of steam!

Mindmap With Images

In Step 1 (if you’re willing to try my system), you’ll gather visuals and put them in your computer. You don’t need to scan or photograph every image in your possession–just a few that hint at your childhood, your adult years, and possibly where you are now.

Play with these images and see what happens when you resize them and move them. Look for conflicts, love triangles, or the “curiosity factor.” Work intuitively.

The photos I gathered for this exercise weren’t especially good photos. They weren’t the ones I’d put in a book. I just gathered the ones that made an internal “zing” when I picked them up.

Alice Morgan suggests that narrative therapists adopt an attitude of curiosity about life’s events. That’s a healthy habit for a memoir writer, too.

Working With Text

In my previous post, I suggested that you separate images from text. People become obsessive the instant we start fact-checking. That will stop the flow of any brainstorm.

But, at a certain point, you’ll want to make sure you’re standing on solid ground. Having documents in a mindmap allows you to keep your important dates and images together. Old newspaper clippings will help you track down pieces of the puzzle you’ve forgotten.

If you’ve stumbled on my website at the Authors’ Guild, you know that I’ve been heavily involved in research in the archives of Spain, France, and Portugal. I’ve been doing that for my memoir, too. Here’s a video about my archival work.

Gathering documents, letters, and the like is Step 2.

While you’re looking for your own history, make sure you look at the headlines and local events. If we’re writing memoirs, then we must also place our lives in a particular, historical moment.

In Laura M. Flynn’s moving and eloquent memoir, Swallow the Ocean,  the author writes with the wisdom of an adult about her mother’s descent into madness. Her brief mentions of the Haight-Ashbury remind readers that her mother’s unraveling took place in a society that, itself, was in flux.

Combining Images With Text

You can probably guess what’s coming next. In Step 3, you’ll put the pictures and text together. I’ve arranged my material chronologically, with one exception: I decided to move an event that could well have ended the memoir back to the beginning. That’s because I wanted to show the consequences of the narrator’s decision. (Use the word “narrator” when referring to yourself, and if you’re presenting your work to a writing group, make sure they refer to you as “the narrator.”) No matter how you cut it, writing a memoir requires vulnerability. Referring to yourself as “the narrator” can help you be just the tiniest bit more objective about your work.

Just in case anyone’s curious about my memoir-in-progress, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1.

How Should You Begin A Memoir?

In the above example, I chose to start in the “now” of my life. The memoir essentially becomes like a green twig, bent round so the beginning and end touch.

You can start your memoir in any number of ways. Free associate. Possibly you’ll springboard from one image or document to another. Think of a patchwork quilt. You’re piecing together a life.

Keep your eye on the central focus—the one you worked out by using a mindmap—and provide scenes that tie in.

Dramatic Scenes

Every story has scenes that feel significant to the storyteller. These are “must haves,” the moments when you slow the story-clock way down. In Step 4 jot these “must haves” on the whiteboard of your mindmap. Try to come up with 10 to 20. These may or may not be the actual scenes in your book, but for now, they’ll give you something to work with.

From doing Step 4’s mindmapping exercise, I discovered that some of my possible dramatic scenes didn’t line up at all. My core issue–the aboutness of this memoir–is the love triangle of mother, boyfriend, child. Now that I know that, I’m in a good place to work on my scene-by-scene outline. Since I haven’t done that yet, I’m going to leave you hanging. At this point, I hope I’ve shown you enough so that you can tackle your own stories.

What About Background?

When you’re writing a memoir, it’s tempting to empty the scrapbooks; but, take pity on the reader. Provide enough background so the reader knows why you’re behaving the way you do. And, provide that background when you’ve made the reader curious to know more.

Whatever you do, keep your eye on the core of your story. When you revise your memoir, or when you’re at the half-way mark and feeling lost, return to your mindmap and sharpen your focus.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

2 Responses to “Mindmap Your Memoir | Part II”

  1. Bruce says:

    I love the clown photo!

    • Oh, thanks. That was one of my costumes when I was performing with a little troupe called “Stars of Tomorrow.” It was led by Dorothy Roberts, a former showgirl from New York who had moved to the Bay Area of California. When I look at that costume, I’m amazed at the work it must have taken to make it.