Finding the Heart of My Story: From Vignettes to Memoir

KathyPoolerBrighterPooler Final Cover

In classes I teach and my current work-in-progress, the second edition of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing (or whatever name it finally bears), I emphasize the value of writing piles of short, free-standing stories, even if students or readers plan a longer project. Today it is my pleasure to feature a guest post by Kathleen Pooler, author of Ever Faithful to His Lead. In this post, Kathleen explains her writing process, including a long list of resource links.

“Your sacred place is where you find yourself again and again.”
Joseph Campbell

Writing a memoir goes beyond recording a series of life events. It’s about creating a larger story and in so doing developing meaning and connection; striking a universal chord through your unique story.

In order to get to that meaning and connection, a writer needs to find the heart of the story.

When I started writing my first memoir in 2009, I only knew that I was living a joyful life after spending twenty-five years finding freedom from two abusive marriages. I knew I had a story to tell, but I wasn’t sure of the real story—that glimpse of life truth that would have meaning and connection.

After three years of studying the art and craft of memoir writing and writing piles of vignettes, I was ready in 2012 to pull it together into a memoir. Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse was published in July,2014. I recently completed the first draft of my second memoir, The Edge of Hope: A Mother’s Journey Through her Son’s Addiction (working title) and am applying the same methods to shaping my story.

Basic Plan to Get Started

Here’s my basic plan on how I found the heart of my story over a two-year period in the pile of paper and words:

1. First and foremost, answer this question: What is my purpose in writing this story? For me, it was to share hope, that no matter how far down into the abyss you go, there’s always hope for a better life.

2. From this purpose, define your target audience and main message. A memoir can have several themes that I found revealed themselves through the writing.

3. Be able to state your main message in a 90-second elevator pitch.

4. Write a two-three page synopsis of your story, keeping the narrative arc in mind.

5. Plot your story on a storyboard or in a detailed outline. I used a story board.

Events leading up to using a storyboard:

Before I could even think of storyboarding, I had to write vignettes. After three years of collecting stories, I was ready to shape them into a narrative arc. A memoir needs to read like a novel and requires the tools of fiction to bring the story and the characters alive.

Opening Hook
Scenic details
Character Development
Point of View
Conflict, Suspense and Action

I also used creative exercises such as “The Tree of Me

Tree of Kathy

and drawing a mandala:


The following resources have provided a framework for my stories:

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey 
Linda Joy Myers’ Narrative Arc/Turning Points 
The 22 Rules of Storytelling by Pixar- Once Upon a Time

If you google “story board”, you’ll find many resources. Here are a few that helped me decide what process to use:

W-Method by Mary Carroll-Moore (You Tube)
Storyboarding by Teresa Reasor 
6 Writing Outline Templates by Duolit
Three-scene Storyboarding pdf by The Career-leaning CAFÉ

I used a mixture of storyboarding, outlining turning points and The Hero’s Journey to define my story structure.

What is a Story Board?

A story board is a way of brainstorming your story line (plot) so you can visualize a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end. Within this arc will be scenes, turning points, forward movement of the story, plot points, climax, movement toward change and resolution.

How Did I Develop My Own Story Board?

Each person needs to find their own way through the process.

Since I’m a visual, hands-on person, I needed to see graphic images of what my story looked like. I started with a tri-folded cardboard poster, colored post-it notes and felt markers. I read through all my vignettes and wrote each chapter and the year on the yellow post-it stars. On the orange post-it stars, I wrote the purpose for each Act

and I rearranged it many times.

My story is divided into three acts (Pixar):

Act I: Opening Scene: The way things were…Once upon a time…
Act II Big Scene or Messy Middle…When things might change…then this happened…
Act III Following Scene…How things became different—until this happened and finally…


Of course, this is just the beginning. The real work begins with professional editing and rewriting until your story is polished and ready to launch.

Anything as important as your story is worth the effort it will take to write it right.

And the beauty of the writing process is that the heart of your story will begin to reveal itself in ever-deepening ways as you keep writing.

Starting with vignettes and fitting them into a story structure in a way that works for you will help you shape a story larger than you that will create meaning and connection.

And remember, your story matters. Keep writing and you’ll find the heart of your story.


How about you? What methods do you use to find the heart of your story? I’d love to hear what has worked for you and will be happy to answer any questions.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, The Edge of Hope (working title) are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York and blogs weekly at Memoir Writer’s Journey blog:

Twitter @kathypooler 
LinkedIn: Kathleen Pooler: 
Google+:Kathleen Pooler: 
Personal page, Kathy Pooler : 
Author page: Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey: 
Pinterest (


kathleen pooler said...

Thank you, Sharon, for the opportunity to be your guest. I'm looking forward to the conversation and hearing how others find their way through the memoir writing process.

Sharon Lippincott said...

It's my pleasure and privilege to share this info with readers, Kathy, and I also look forward to conversation beyond Facebook.

Unknown said...

Inspiring post, Sharon and Kathy! Such good resources listed! Thank you.

kathleen pooler said...

Thanks for stopping by, Linda Joy. Now all we need is Jerry to complete the memoir mentor reunion!

Sharon Lippincott said...

You are welcome, Unknown Linda Joy. Kathy, a Memoir Mentor reunion is a great idea for a post. Maybe more than that. Anyone who writes memoir/lifestory for ten years learns a lot. And I've proven to myself that "if you want to really learn a subject, teach it" really is true.

kathleen pooler said...

Great idea, Sharon! We are lifelong learners--doing, making mistakes and doing it over and over. And I agree, teaching a subject is one of the best ways to learn and keep learning.

Linda said...

Thanks for this excellent post, Kathy and Sharon. It's a rich resource for me and other memoirists.

kathleen pooler said...

Thank you, Linda. I appreciate all you do for memoirists, too.