Writing Your Memoir | A Step-by-Step Guide

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Memoir Writers

Writing a memoir will force you to dig deep in the archives of your soul. When you recall the past and try to figure out just what it is that’s compelling you write a memoir, you’ll find yourself looking through old photos, postcards, letters, and newspaper clippings.

photo 3 women writing a memoir source material

To get memoir material organized, start with old photos. You don’t need the photos to be high quality. Just select those that bring back strong memories of the past.
Image from Flickr via State Archives of North Carolina

Writing a memoir can be as overwhelming as cleaning out your parents’ house, coping with the death of a child, or going through a divorce. A memoir takes emotional honesty. It requires self-reflection.

Your big challenge will be to figure out what belongs in the book and what doesn’t. But, the rewards are big. You will discover “how to make sense of it all.”

I’ve been working on a memoir for several years. In this blog post and the next, I’m going to share my process and hope it can help you.

Step 1: Assemble Visual Material

Some neuroscientists believe that our brains can be divided into left-brain and right-brain functions. The right brain is supposedly the visual, intuitive, and spontaneous half. The left brain is the verbal half, and it, apparently, likes orderliness and sequential events.

An NPR report says that the brain’s complex task management abilities can’t be divided into left and right. However, I think there’s a benefit to separating the verbal and nonverbal functions.

Working with visual images (nonverbal) helps us tap into our creativity. If you begin with the visual, you’ll be able to listen for the “zing” that touches your heart. When you sort through your photos, look for those that cause emotion to well up. Whatever happened in that photo may offer a clue about your memoir’s subject matter. It’s not the photo itself. It’s the feeling about the photo. Pay attention to your feelings. You want the photos that speak to you.

Incidentally, these don’t have to be great photos. You’re not choosing illustrations for your book. Try to winnow your choices down to 20 to 40 items.

Step 2: Assemble Your Documents

Dig for letters and newspaper articles. Old newspapers are especially valuable because they provide a context for the times. You’ll need to provide some of that information to help today’s reader make sense of the world you lived in.

Image from page 670 of "The Commercial and financial chronicle" (1911)

Look for newspaper articles, yearbooks, transit maps, city maps, and letters. These can help you work out an accurate timeline and, more important, give you confidence that you’re trying to be as factual as you can be. 
Image from Flickr via Internet Archive Book Images

Free sites to browse include the following:

Google News Archive – 1. Fill in the name or event you’re searching for. 2. Enter a date or date range. 3. Enter the name of the newspaper in the SOURCE field.

Library of Congress – Chronicling America – great source for memoirists, family genealogists, and those writing historical fiction

Elephind – a trove of newspaper articles from many countries; good for those telling stories of immigrants

Old Fulton NY Post Cards –  primarily images from New York, but also many from other places

I’ve also found info at www.newspaperarchives.com, but this is a paid site. Try the other ones first.

Some of these sites don’t make it easy to copy or print. However, all is not lost. To grab these old documents, you can use an amazing tool called Jing. Download it here.

Watch the video below the download, and learn how to make screen captures. I use this tool all the time, and I don’t know how I lived without it.

Step 3: Get Your Research Onto Your Computer

Take your photos to Kinko’s or OfficeMax, and they’ll scan them. Or, take pictures with your cell phone or iPad. Put these in a “visuals” file folder on your computer.

Do the same thing with your documents. Winnow your collection down to 30 to 60 documents and put them in a “documents” folder. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll be buried again.

Why the separate folders? I’m recommending that you divide these up in order to take advantage of left-brain/right-brain ways of dealing with information. Even if you don’t see the point, read all the way to the bottom, and I think you will.

Step 4: Choose Your Mindmap Software

In Steps 1, 2, and 3, you gathered the raw material for your memoir and put it on your computer. Now, I’m going to show you how to organize it and narrow the focus.

For this task I recommend using mindmap software. You might want to try a free tool, such as MindmapFree, or any other tool that allows you to drag-and-drop images and create text and captions. Lifehacker has a handy article on mindmap software, and I suggest you check it out here.

The tool I use is Scapple. You can try it for free for 30 days.

But, don’t get hung up on the tool! The point is that you are going to use a mindmap to help you brainstorm what should go in your memoir and what should not.

I’ve made some videos showing you how I use mindmaps.

Here’s the first one. Watch it and you’ll see how I zeroed in on a fuzzy, not-great image of a girl in a library. She’s the focus of this memoir.

Next week I’ll share two more videos that show how to use written records and incorporate them into the visual mindmap. Of course, you can always just lay this stuff out on a desk or table. The important thing is to find the feelings. Feelings will lead you to the story only you can tell.

2 Responses to “Writing Your Memoir | A Step-by-Step Guide”

  1. Diana says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Marylee! Love your junior prom photo and can relate to your true love being “John.” How traumatic to give up a child you loved, especially when you also both loved one another. This is a memoir worth writing. I would imagine not that many moms have given up their first born and then ended up marrying the father later. Wow. Did you key in on the photo of you in the library because this was the person you most saw (or most remember today) as being the “real you” as a teen?

    I’ve been doing something similar w/photos of me and my nephews and nieces, with whom I grew up. My niece closest in age to me died a couple of weeks ago at only 59, without reconciling decades of not speaking with her mother/my sister, who is very broken up about both her death and their relationship from her teen years forward. Death certainly takes reconciliation off the table.

    As I look through the photos of all of us spending time together as children on holidays, on picnics, at each others’ homes, and remembering how we were all for one and one for all, I realized I hadn’t seen or spoken to my niece in decades either. How is that possible, considering we were so close growing up? At times she even lived with us.

    Now I need to do the photo layout with photos of me and other friends/family over the time in Berlin and Ft. Huachuca and see if I notice anything else I’ve forgotten or pushed aside.

    • I will have more in my next blog post about how to use these Mindmaps. It’s so helpful sometimes to just “see it” all laid out. Next, I’ll be showing how I use the photos with documents, and then another video about figuring out which events need to be there.