Friday, May 24, 2013

Organize Your Memoir/Life Story - or Other Writing!

I've been teaching a six-week "Write Your Memoir" class through the Cameron Art Museum here in Wilmington, NC. I love teaching through the Museum School - we get terrific students. (I'll be teaching "Nature Writing" in the fall - details to follow!)

One of the challenges that memoirists face is organization, particularly those who are writing "legacy memoirs" meant primarily for their family and friends. The best way to pull together a large amount of information is, of course, a critical question for all writers, but for memoir writers it seems to be particularly pressing. This is so, I think, because the obvious choice when writing about a life is to start at the start and write to the end. In other words, follow the chronology. But often that is not the most interesting structure for the writer or the reader.

Happily, the alternatives are virtually endless. We could, for instance, arrange our stories around
  • Seasons or Months
  • Locations
  • Firsts - first kiss, first homerun, first time away from home....
  • Houses or other places that you have lived, short-term or long
  • Work, paid and unpaid
  • Learning, school and elsewhere
  • Passions – causes, hobbies, work, people….
  • many more!
For instance, suppose you work through the months, beginning with the month of your birth or of some other significant event. I'll pick June, the month in which I made my first overseas trip. Now I would use a variety of creative tools - freewriting, brainstorming, mind mapping, "photo diving," and more - to explore what June has meant to me at different ages. For starters....

  • school's out!
  • weather is warming up - swimming! softball! horseback riding and hiking with my dog without heavy jackets!
  • my dad's birthday
  • my first overseas travel - Greece & Egypt (and, later that summer, Lebanon & Syria)
  • travel as a kid to Maine, to California, to....
  • my grade-school friend Robin's annual birthday bash
Any of those topics can in turn be plumbed for lots of material. Many will work, too, for other kinds of writing - essays, poems, and fiction. After all, everything is fodder for the writer's imagination!

Here are some more resources that you may find useful. They are aimed designed for memoirists, but I have found some of the questions very useful for developing fictional characters and for thinking about other kinds of nonfiction writing and poems.

The Manifest Your Potential may be a bit New Age touchy feely for some of you, but the section on identifying themes that are strong in our lives is fascinating. The link I am providing will take you to a page that lists 28 common life themes - if any (or all) interest you, click on the heading and it will take you to a more detailed discussion of that theme. Those that appeal may inspire your writing, and the themes themselves may help you find a way to organize your life story or even more focused memoir.
This article from Writers' Digest offers some thoughts on organization and a few short examples of memoir writing. (If nothing else, read the last one, "If the Boot Fits, Wear It." :-)
Many writers have written books and articles to help memoir writers. William Zinsser is one of my favorite writers on the craft and mechanics of writing; here's an essay of his on "How to Write a Memoir"
The Life Story pages from the University of Southern Maine offer long lists of questions, guidelines for interviewing other people, and a lot more. I took some of the material I presented in class from their site.

Have a creative weekend!

Please come back Monday for a special Memorial Day post.





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