When strangers hear that I teach classes in lifestory writing, they often confess, “I’ve been thinking about doing something like that myself, but I have no idea how to go about it.” While some people start with their birth and write their way through the calendar, another approach is easier for most people to follow. I call this the scrapbook approach to lifestory writing, in the sense that scrapbooks are a compilation of bits and pieces of random material, or a collection of related tidbits. I recommend the scrapbook approach to anyone who doesn’t instinctively reach for a calender, because you can fit the random stories to a calender later if you decide to use a chronological approach.
In the scrapbook approach, you write stories about your spontaneous memories, regardless of chronological order. I’m a scrapbook writer myself, and I might follow a story about my preschool years with another about signing up for Social Security. Some stories are three or four paragraphs long, while others go on for several pages. I have a huge portfolio that bulges with about five hundred miscellaneous stories now, roughly sorted into about a dozen file folders. Several years ago, I parked a few early ones on Ritergal’s website, and I selected a baker’s dozen to illustrate points in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, but most are slumbering in the depths of my file cabinet.
Themes are beginning to emerge, attracting clusters of stories, and later this year I plan to begin organizing these themes, weaving them together with some narrative, and filling in blanks with related stories. Perhaps I’ll publish a volume with several themes, one theme per chapter or section. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t clear yet how to do it. When the time is right, it will happen, and if it doesn’t, at least I leave stacks and piles of random stories behind to entertain and enlighten future generations.
If you read memoirs thought-fully, you’ll begin noticing that many are formulated with chapters comprised of a collection of short stories, many perhaps only three or four paragraphs long. Some authors may write the stories specifically for the book, but others do as I’ve mentioned above, culling through collections and assembling the appropriate ones. Who knows how many of these authors set out to write a published volume when they first put fingers to keyboard?
So, if you are unsure where to start, quit fretting. Just sit down and write the first story that comes to mind. Then write another. If you need help coming up with a topic, click on the Prompts label below and skim through the blog articles that come up, or click over to the 236 Creative Writing Prompts website and write your heart out. If you have compiled a story idea list, you are way ahead of the game! Over time, you’ll cover the important parts of your life map. If you get around to organizing the stories in tidy volumes, that will be a wonderful accomplishment. But if all you leave is a pile of drafts, your family will still be thrilled.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal
Countdown: 35 days until the release of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing on July 1. Stay tuned for ordering details.