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.
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.
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.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. 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, 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.