Mindmapping Your Memoir | Part 1

by Marylee MacDonald in Apps & Software, For Memoir Writers

Mindmapping software can help writers untangle the knots in a memoir’s storyline. A mindmap is a brainstorming tool that can help you in the following scenarios:

  • before writing your first draft, or
  • when revising.
blue rope

Untying the complicated knot of our experience takes time. In writing a memoir, authors seek to understand and bring meaning to the seeming chaos and randomness of our pasts.
Image from Pixabay via Pexels

When you’re writing your first draft, you can use mindmaps to play around with focus. Even on your first pass through a memoir, you’ll want to have an idea about the central conflict or, alternately, what I call the “curiosity factor.” Later on, a mindmap can ensure that you’ve written scenes pertinent to your memoir’s throughline.

Mindmapping for Writers of Memoirs

In my post on right-brain/left-brain issues, I suggested that organizing your “raw material” would be a lot easier if you separated the visual info from documents/text. That’s because it’s easier to silence your internal critic if you’re working from pictures.

When I do a mindmapping, I use Scapple, a $14.99 app that allows me to drag and drop images into a whiteboard. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll walk you through a case study; but for now, I want to give you a quick look at how the program works.


If you use Scapple, you can drag text directly into a Scrivener outline. If you have never heard about Scrivener, I suggest that you go to the Literature and Latte website and check it out. Using Scrivener has saved me a ton of time, although it also took me a week to learn. If you find yourself struggling, go to YouTube. It’s a lot easier to learn how to use Scrivener if you can look over someone else’s shoulder.

Scapple mindmapping software

After you’ve figured out the focus of your memoir, you can drag text items directly into Scrivener.

Mindmapping the Throughline

Scrivener is great for writers, but if you’re planning to write just one book, learning how to use Scrivener might not be the best investment of your time.

The opposite is true for mindmapping software. A good mindmap can keep you from getting lost. It’s good for anyone.

Let’s see how it works.

Every story, whether a movie, novel, or memoir, needs a “throughline.” Think of the throughline (a term used in movie scripts) as the fish hook that embeds itself in the reader’s consciousness and that won’t let go until the climax.

In my view there are two kinds of throughlines. Either one can drive the plot of a memoir and provide that page-turning tension.

The first is a central conflict. The second is curiosity.

What Is Your Memoir’s Central Conflict?

Conflict is pretty easy to grasp. It’s good vs. evil; innocence vs. cynicism; playing it safe vs. taking a risk.

Sometimes, the narrator faces an internal struggle. Often, that struggle finds a mirror in the outer world: a mountain to climb; a war to survive; or, an addiction to overcome.

Throughout the book, the reader sees one side losing time and again, until that person (the narrator) develops new coping strategies that lead to escape–and triumph.

Your memoir will gain strength if you can fill in the blanks in the sentence below:

Because of what happens to [xxx-author’s name] in this memoir, [the narrator-you] becomes capable of…

The “becomes capable of” means how you changed as a result of what happened to you. Think of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail or Piper Kerman’s bestselling Orange Is The New Black.

The Curiosity Factor

But, wait! You’re waving your arms and telling me that your life story doesn’t have conflict? What will keep readers turning the pages?

Don’t worry. Curiosity, as well as tension, can drive a plot.

Think of the Curious George books. Generations have turned the pages to find out one simple thing: What will the little monkey do next? Will the man in the yellow hat get there before everything is destroyed?

But, let me give you a concrete example from a book written for adults: Claire Hoffman’s memoir, Greetings From Utopia Park.

The book is about her childhood in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s cultlike community in Fairfield Park, IA. Early in the memoir Hoffman made readers wonder if the yogi’s meditation practices could really teach her mother to fly (but not in a plane). The cult provided flying lessons, and her mother was always trying to wangle money to pay for them.

At first, Hoffman, the little girl, didn’t question whether flying was possible or not. Hoffman wanted to believe her mother wasn’t a whack job. And, as Hoffman entered her teens, she began to have doubts. Of course, the reader wondered all along, not just whether the mom could fly, but whether or when young Claire would realize flying was a hoax.

Without that question about flight hanging over us, the memoir might have degenerated into the kind of plot so many of write—this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. The plot is episodic. The events may all be interesting, but there’s no hook. In Hoffman’s case, flying provided the hook.

Let’s see if the sentence below can help you get at the nugget of curiosity in your book.

Because [xxx] happened, but no one knows why or how, which scenes will make the reader more and more curious, until, at the end, the narrator tells us the truth?

In the case of Hoffman’s memoir, the truth revealed at the climax did not turn out the way I had foreseen. When the adult Hoffman returned home to try out flying for herself, she found a way to reconcile her past and present.

The Discovery Draft

In the first pass through a book, a writer must figure out what the story will be about. By story, I don’t mean the events of what happens. I mean what causes the story to have tension or what makes the reader curious. (I’ve written a post on story arc that you might find helpful; but, don’t worry about nailing down the “throughline” in words.) Mindmapping will help you do that.

What we’re seeking with a mindmap is the “aboutness” of the story. Our first drafts are discovery drafts. They’re likely to be messy, lacking in plot, and disorganized. We have too many images in our heads. If we can narrow these down, we can discover the story’s essence.

With mindmapping software you can zero in on the main conflicts and obstacles, or focus on the curiosity factor. (An author of a memoir about climbing peaks in the Himalayas might, for instance, pose this question: What made xxx put himself in danger again and again? This would give the author a “first pass” at the aboutness of his story.)

Part II of this article will appear on November 18, 2016. Then, I’ll show you a step-by-step method to make this work for you.

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