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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?

Planting the seed: making the change to a whole food plant-based diet

Plant-Based Made Easy book.What is a whole food plant-based diet? Until I edited Nele Liivlaid’s Plant-Based Made Easy book, I thought it was an expensive and time-consuming way of eating. Now I know that’s not true.

A whole food plant-based diet means eating plant-based food in its natural form. You eat fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes and exclude animal products (meat, eggs, etc.) and processed foods. Plant-Based Made Easy: The Complete Practical Guide To Transitioning To Healthy Whole Food Diet taught me that you don’t need to spend a lot of money and it doesn’t take a lot of time to start eating plant-based meals. Nele is the founder of Nutriplanet Health Hub, a business that believes in sharing information about healthy lifestyles. Her book breaks down the steps and gives you tips on how to start moving to a whole food plant-based diet. She even planned two weeks of meals so you don’t have to do all the thinking – just the cooking.

Nele Liivlaid: founder of and

Nele Liivlaid: founder of and

There are tons of tasty recipes and the photos look good enough to eat, too. Try Oven Waffles for breakfast, Quinoa-Spinach-Lentil-Soup for lunch with Chia-Fig Pudding for dessert. For supper, you can have Pizza and as a treat, a Bean-Sweet Potato Brownie. Sounds yummy to me.

Plant-Based Made Easy Oven Waffles.

Plant-Based Made Easy Oven Waffles.

If you’ve been thinking about moving to a whole food plant-based diet, consider Plant-Based Made Easy: The Complete Practical Guide To Transitioning To Healthy Whole Food Diet.  Besides satisfying meals, there’s also nutritional advice, how to get the kids eating plant-based as well as stories from others who have made the change. Plant-Based Made Easy could be your recipe for success.

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 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.

Writing is work

A person writing in their notebook.This morning, my spin instructor said December was for wrapping things up and January is for starting new things. Hmm. I’ve never thought about it that way before. I do know a lot of people start going to the gym this month – part of their “New Year’s Resolution” regime.

According to this article, one in three Canadians make resolutions — and out of those numbers, over 70 per cent won’t keep their promises. I have seen a few writers resolve to finally finish their books. I’ve also fielded many questions from aspiring authors about how to start their books. In fact, as a writing instructor, that’s the top question I’m asked. My answer is always that writing is work.

Writing takes time and effort. You can have a great idea but if you’re not writing it down, then you just have an idea. You’re not a writer unless you’re writing and shaping your thoughts into a story with characters and events. To be an author, you need to approach writing as a job.

Start your writing job by scheduling time in your day to write. Some people write best in the morning while others prefer late at night. Whatever your preference, try to keep to the same routine (day and time). As well, you’ll need to tell your family and friends to leave you alone during the time you’ve set aside. If this can’t be done at home, go to a café or the library. Sometimes the lively atmosphere of a coffee shop can add colour to your own words.

If you don’t have an hour or four, take any time you can get. You’d be surprised at how much you can write in 10 minutes. Use the dead time while you’re commuting or waiting for an appointment to jot down some things on your mobile phone or scrap paper. Speaking of phones, turn off your notifications. Other distractions like e-mail and magazines can wait until you’ve written 50 words. Then you can reward your hard work with a peep at Facebook.

There’s no magic pill that’ll turn you into a writer. As I tell my writing workshop participants, no one cares about your idea. You have to care enough about it to make it into a story. That’s only going to happen if you do some work and start writing.

If you’re in the Edmonton area and looking to start writing your memoir, I’m teaching at the North Edmonton Seniors Association. Memoirs by You starts tomorrow, January 9. For more information and how to register, go here:

I’m also teaching Memoir Writing, Your Story, Your Way at the West Side Seniors Activity Centre starting Thursday, Feb 22. For more information and how to register, go here:

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