A Card Trick for Memoir Writers

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
By Mary J. Breen

When I begin a memoir piece, I usually start by brainstorming. This helps me get to some of the important aspects of the story that I’m not yet aware of, and it helps me uncover forgotten memories that can get me closer to the story I want to tell. Best of all, brainstorming often shows me what the piece is really about.

At the beginning of the brainstorming process, I always feel overwhelmed by the number of words/ ideas/ images/ memories that arrive almost all at once. The first ones are usually aspects of the topic that I’m already aware of, but soon after, newer ideas, the ones I hadn’t predicted, start to show up. These ideas and images come all jumbled together, randomly linked and definitely not in a nice orderly fashion. In order to try to sort them, I used to use a Mindmap spread out over one large piece of paper, but that didn’t work very well. I realized that the diagram itself was restricting my thinking. It was pushing me towards finding an order and a plan much too soon. Now I use index cards instead. This way I can turn off the organizing part of my brain for a while, and just listen to whatever pops up. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it works.

Step 1: Brainstorming

  • Get a bunch of index cards or small pieces of paper. You’ll probably need 50 or more to start with.
  • Think about your topic, and start jotting down any thoughts and ideas as they come to you, one on each card/paper. Let your mind wander, and write down anything and everything that comes: feelings, memories, images, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings (both physical and emotional).
  • Use few words and simple words.
  • Don’t worry about repetitions. Just keep going.
  • Don’t censor or judge your ideas as good or bad. If something comes up that seems to matter but you don’t know why, jot it down.
  • Don’t think about which ideas are peripheral and which are central at this point; just keep going.
  • Don’t rush. Keep going as long as ideas are coming.
  • PS: You may notice that ideas and images will come to you later—when you’re making dinner or drifting off to sleep. Keep some blank cards handy so you can capture these too.

Step 2: Organizing

  • Give yourself space to spread out: use a large table or the floor or a wall.
  • Scramble or shuffle or throw your cards in the air to mix them up. Then spread them out, and start looking for ideas that fit naturally together. As topic areas emerge, choose names for them, and make a card for each group or category. You’ll probably find categories you knew would be there, as well as some you hadn’t predicted.
  • Put your category cards across the top of your table, and start sorting all the cards into categories. If something seems to fit into two areas, make a duplicate card and put one card in each pile. If you find you’ve got an idea or two that don’t seem to fit anywhere, don’t discard them yet. Make a “What to do with?” pile, and decide on them later.
  • Since this process often uncovers ideas and issues below the surface, a whole new major topic might emerge. If this happens, brainstorm that topic too.
  • After you have the cards sorted, start putting the cards in some kind of order within each category; perhaps in chronological order, or according to the points of view of different characters, or perhaps reflecting an overarching theme. If you find that some ideas would fit better in a different category, just move the cards. Take some time and try to sort them well at this stage.
  • Once you have sorted the ideas in each category into what seems like a good working order, read the cards aloud. Listen to whether or not the ideas flow naturally from one to the next. Keep going until you reach that point where you feel the little thrill of knowing you’re getting close to what you want to say. Then start typing.
  • Don’t throw out your cards. If, after you start writing, the order doesn’t seem right, go back and rearrange your cards or the whole categories. You’ll find it’s much easier to move your cards around to produce a better flow than it is to reorder a long piece on your computer screen.

This method works well for me; try it and see if it works for you.


Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Ars Medica, The National Post and Persimmon Tree. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing and is trying to complete a memoir collection.


Margo Dill said...

Thanks for this step by step guide on this memoir process. I know it will be helpful for many writers writing personal pieces.

Sheila Good said...

Love these ideas. I've toyed with a memoir and have a few ideas sketched out, but this seems much better for tweaking memories and organizing thoughts. Thanks for sharing.
@sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

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