Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: corporate legacy writing (page 1 of 19)

Road maps for your memoirs

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

Soapy memoirs

Smart phone and senior woman.Go online or visit your local bookstore and you’ll find a variety of memoirs. The genre is on the rise and we’ve seen many stories, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, hit the big screen. Memoirs are also hitting the small screen and ending up as plot lines, too. The Young and the Restless (YnR), for instance, has weaved life stories into its sensational mix.

Last year on the show, Victor Newman, a much-maligned but rich and successful antagonist, contacted a writer to craft his biography. Of course, true to dramatic form, the writer has an interesting backstory of his own. Scott, a famed journalist, escaped captivity and death in a war zone thanks to Victor’s connections and money. Now Scott has the chance to repay his debt by penning Victor’s story.

Dun-dun-dun… Victor’s wife (or ex-ex-ex-ex-wife then?) doesn’t want him to spill his guts on the page. Many more juicy plotlines follow and I’m not sure if the book ever was written. (I just googled it and Victor decided to let the project go.)

The man who plays Victor Newman, Eric Braeden, has written his own memoir, I’ll Be Damned. The book follows him as boy in Germany during the Second World War, through to his life on a television soap opera. Readers on Goodreads either loved the memoir or hated it. Just like Victor.

Now on YnR, another character is interviewing her grandmother, Dina, and collecting her story. Dina is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and her granddaughter, Abby, is videotaping their conversations. Abby is hearing the stories of her grandmother and learning about Dina’s life. Per soap opera style, Abby is learning a little bit more than she bargained for: her uncle might not be biologically related to her.

Truth is stranger than fiction. But hopefully not as convoluted as YnR.

Apple of my eye

Child writing with a pencil and paper.For the past several months, I’ve been giving writing workshops to children. Every Sunday afternoon, students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 learn about formatting essays, figurative language and other aspects of writing. Last week, I taught them about clichés. However, some of the sayings I thought were commonplace, aren’t so much anymore.

Clichés are those sayings that are repeated so often that they’re meaningless. We’ve heard expressions like abandon ship, fit as a fiddle, walk a mile in another’s shoes, etc. a lot and the words don’t affect us anymore. I tell my students that their favourite authors don’t use clichés, they think of new ways to describe things.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling paints a picture with words without using clichés. Here is an example:

Nearly Headless Nick (a ghost), Harry noticed, was still holding Sir Patrick’s rejection letter.

“I wish there was something I could do for you about the Headless Hunt,” Harry said.

Nearly Headless Nick stopped in his tracks and Harry walked right through him. He wished he hadn’t; it was like stepping through an icy shower.

The obvious cliché would be to write that Harry felt like “a ghost passed through him.” Clichés distance readers from the story – writers need to connect readers with actions and events that they can imagine too. Rowling knew most readers wouldn’t have had experiences with ghosts passing through them. However, we all know what an icy shower feels like.

I asked my students what Apple of my eye meant. They shouted Apple sitting on books.out that it was about owning iGlasses / smart glasses. I said no, that wasn’t it and waited for the correct response. Other comments ranged from liking Mac computers over PCs as well as iPads. No, that’s not it either.

When I was young (30 years ago), no one called anyone the apple of their eye. Nevertheless, I still knew what it meant – being someone’s darling. I was surprised that the expression is disappearing from our vernacular. I didn’t think I was old as the hills yet but I guess only time will tell what other clichés go the way of the dodo bird.

Past present

White flower border with the saying: Writing your memoirs gives your past, a future.

Blast from the Past

Me presenting at Blast from the Past. Some of my early writing, I’m talking childhood, is embarrassing and not at all noteworthy. I don’t know why I’ve been holding on to it but last week, I got the chance to share my Grade 3 prose. The Writers’ Guild of Alberta put on Blast from the Past and I was one of nine readers chosen to read our early scrawling’s.

 In my Grade 3 diary, my first entry is: I like hotdogs. And…that’s all she wrote.

I wrote that with a pen in the shape of a tube of lipstick. It was the start of keeping a journal, which I still do today. I also thought it was the start of a prolific writing career because after those three words, or four if you count hot dogs as two words, I started to record a novel. Yes, record. Writing about hotdogs took way too much effort so I decided the path to becoming a bestselling author was to speak into a tape recorder (it was the 80s).

I called my novel The Vampire Tree. I don’t remember the plot or even what a Vampire Tree is but I was ahead of my time. The Vampire Tree was twenty years before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. My book had a character named Bunny and because it was fiction, she hated hotdogs. Why I remember this part so well is that my two younger sisters discovered chapter one on tape and laughed at Bunny and me. That was enough to kill The Vampire Tree and it remains buried, never to rise again.

After abandoning prose, I decided to take a stab, literally and figuratively, at poetry. Here is another Grade 3 masterpiece, complete with misspelled words.

A piece of paper with a poem about brushing your teeth that I wrote in Grade 3.

A Grade 3 poem, complete with misspelled words.

Hi, my name’s Kieth.
I live inside of teeth.
I like to eat
Lots of sickly sweets
I like to hear
That groning spear
That rushes by the throat
By the owner Miss Toat
When that thoothbrush comes
I am a dead Jones
That does not make me happy
No no no!

I have many more poems and stories from my earlier years but I’ll keep them for my own entertainment. What kind of childhood memories make you laugh?

Mass appeal

When someone doesn’t like your memoir

A man who is disappointed.“What if someone doesn’t like what I wrote?” asked a participant in my memoir writing class last week.

That’s just it – not everyone is going to like or agree with what you put in your life stories. However, it’s your story.

O. Henry, an American short story writer, said this about writing: I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing, and here it is: Rule one, write stories that please yourself. There is no rule two. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you’ll never please the public.

If you write truthfully from your memory, then you shouldn’t have any problem defending your point of view. Where things get messy, is if you make things up. James Frey first sold his book, A Million Little Pieces, as a memoir. It is not a memoir. He created another life about drug and alcohol abuse and rehabilitation and wrote about that. Now he calls his book “semi-fictional.”

Using creative license (exaggeration or invention) to make your Thumbs down.life more interesting doesn’t belong in memoir. You can’t invent people or events or settings for a more exciting read. If you want to spice things up, write a fiction novel.

Turning real life into art is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard work and it takes guts to spill your thoughts and feelings on the page. Debbie Ehrstien is a survivor of sexual abuse and her recent book, The Dissociate, A memoir of secrets and survival of childhood sexual abuse is an example of dealing with a tough issue that many people want to keep buried.

Debbie wrote her book not as a therapy project (although she found writing was cathartic), but as a way to help others dealing with the same issues. She shared personal and emotional experiences rather than the details. Needless to say, she has her detractors and some bookstores refuse to have her book signings in their shops. It’s too bad as her message and goal is powerful: to stop childhood sexual abuse and tell survivors they are not alone.

Some memoirs are going to be hard to write than others. Some family members, friends or colleagues aren’t going to always like what you write – such is life. Don’t let them keep your words from the page.

It’s time

Ripped and torn burgundy plastic wallet.

What is this?

What is this ratty, ripped and torn burgundy thing? It’s my wallet. Well, the wallet where I keep my credit and debit cards. The writing on the front and back of the plastic folio has faded and the pockets inside are split open. I’ve tried taping the sides together but it’s no use. It’s time to let it go.

I’ve had the wallet for almost 20 years. I use it almost daily and every time I use it, I remember where I got it: South Korea. I was there teaching English in the late 90s. I was living in Taejon (spelled Daejong now), and I did my banking in the same building as the school. Very convenient!

Kookmin Bank card. Typically, I only used the ATM in the lobby of the Kookmin Bank but one day I had to ask a question at a teller’s desk. I walked in and a man in a suit waved me over to him.

“You run!” he said to me. “I see you. You run.”

I did run. I loved jogging the streets of Taejon and going up the River, lake, stream written in Korean. steep, narrow hills or down to the wide level pathways near the river. I always ran by myself and it was time to review my day or think about what to do later. I never knew someone was coming along with me.

“Yes, I run,” I said to man.

He picked something up from his desk and handed it to me with both hands.

“For you.”

It was a burgundy shiny plastic folio with the Kookmin’s logo displayed on the front. It was the same on the back. It was both functional and nice and the present made me smile. It was an act of kindness that was unexpected and appreciated.

Kamsamnida,” I said, thanking the man.

Since that day, I’ve almost never been without my wallet. Since that day, whenever I reach for it, I think of Taejon. No matter what. Nevertheless, my wallet is more of a sieve now. (Insert bank account joke here.) Nothing stays in its pockets and anyway, I bought a new one in Hong Kong in the spring. It’s time to say to “annyeong” to the old wallet. Even though it will no longer hold my cards, I’ll hold my memories.

It’s not a race

Swimmers racing in the pool.Recently, I was a guest blogger for Melissa Forziat Events. Melissa is a small business marketing coach and event manager who is engaged in supporting small businesses. I wrote about going at your own pace when growing your company – you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. Read my piece here.

To learn more about Melissa, go here.

Gift of Christmas present

A Christmas gift from the heart.

A Christmas gift from the heart.

Christmas is a few days away and I hope you’re not scrambling to get last-minute presents. If you are, I have a suggestion: Instead of fighting the crowds at the mall, write a legacy letter. Instead of shelling out megabucks for this and that, you’ll have a Christmas gift from the heart.

A legacy letter is a collection of your thoughts to a loved one. You can write anything, from how much you appreciate him/her to an experience you want remembered. You can even add a favourite recipe or attach photos and songs. Here are some step-by-step directions for you to get started.

Get your laptop/computer/tablet/phone/pen and paper.

Go somewhere comfortable — ideally, somewhere you won’t be interrupted. (That means putting your phone on silent and/or telling others not to talk to you for half an hour.)

Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • What is your earliest memory of this person?
  • How has this person impacted your life?
  • Which of your parents are you most like?
  • How is your family unique?
  • What is so fantastic about your significant other?
  • How are your children blessings?

Those are only suggestions. You can write whatever you want. The next step is, well, writing. Writing is work but don’t let that deter you. You’ll be surprised at how much you can jot down in half an hour.

Don’t worry about spelling mistakes and grammar in your first draft. Just get your thoughts on the page. Let the words spill out and fill the empty space. Don’t edit yourself by thinking you have to use big words and long sentences: short stories are great too. You don’t need some giant, fantastic event to make a compelling letter. Sometimes, the simplest moments are the best – moments like your family sitting around the supper table trading stories or the smell of your grandmother’s scones cooking on the griddle.

Once you have your thoughts and stories down on the page, leave it for a couple of hours. Then go back to it and see if you need to take anything out or add anything.

Next, spell check your document. Once that’s done, read your piece aloud. That’s really helpful when looking for missing words or words that are spelled correctly but aren’t supposed to be there. (I always type “clam” instead of “calm.”)

Print your letter and put it in an envelope and you’re done. If you want to e-mail your piece, you can schedule it to arrive in a mailbox on Christmas Day. You won’t be just giving a gift, you’ll be leaving a legacy that will make the recipient feel loved any day of the year.

A great tradition

What has zero calories, no price tag and is a great holiday tradition? Sharing stories of Christmases past.

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