Road maps for your memoirs

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Woman writing.

I forgot to take a photo of the participants at the Wetaskiwin Word Weavers memoir writing workshop.

It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are: science fiction, romance or memoir, when you get an idea in your head, it sticks around. That little kernel of a thought will pop into a full-blown story that bounces around in your brain – until you get the words out. Sometimes though, there are too many ideas and it’s hard to pick which one to write first. My advice? Use an outline.

One Saturday, I gave a six-hour memoir writing workshop in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. The event was organized by the Wetaskiwin Word Weavers and I spoke to 12 authors whose creativity filled the room with wonderful stories and thought-provoking questions. One thing holding some of the writers back from telling their memoirs, was they didn’t know how to start.

Writing a collection of memoirs is almost no different than writing fiction. You still need description, a dramatic arc and a great idea at the core. However, we have so much more to draw on when writing life stories. We’ve lived through many different experiences, lessons, exciting events and quiet moments that it can be overwhelming if you’re looking at the big picture. Stop doing that. Start making an outline.

I call outlines “writing road maps.” The road map can guide you to ideas, structure and detour you around writer’s block. There are various ways to do outlines such as timelines. Listing your life chronologically is a linear tool that some prefer. Another way to outline your memoirs is by storyboarding. Storyboarding is often used in films and television shows where a director or animator draws a picture of each scene before a shoot. If you’re a visual person, you can do this too.

My preferred method of outlining is brainstorming. There are tons of examples of how to brainstorm but I think the following method works best for memoirs:

Pick five categories from your life and write each down on separate pieces of paper. I suggest:

  • family
  • friends
  • work
  • pets
  • travel

Pour out your ideas, thoughts, stories and reflections under each of these categories. You can use bullet points or full sentences – it doesn’t matter. All you need to do is get the words out of your brain and into the outline.

Next, circle five in each category that are the most important to you. These will be the stories you’ll start writing.

Outlines are working documents. You can add to them when you think of other things. Have too many ideas in your outline? Think about a second collection of memoirs!

Everyone needs memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.  ~Saul Bellow

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