Memoir is a personal story, which can make the task of beginning the writing a bit difficult! Most of us have thousands of stories within our life story, so where do we even begin to start condensing that into one book?
Writing a memoir outline is important so that you can have a bounce-off point to start writing your manuscript from key memories. Memoir is loosely defined as a collection of memories. So, we’re going to use a simple 3-step process to ‘collate’ your memories so you have an outline you can use to start writing.
Whether you’re starting to write your book from a scene, a thread or a single idea, here’s a quick way to outline your memoir so you can start writing.
What you need: index cards, a large piece of cardboard, thick pens, and uninterrupted time to think freely and not edit yourself as you brainstorm.
Bonus ingredients: Photos, music that triggers your memory, or even a candle that does the same.
Categorise your memories in relation to a topic chronologically
Memoir is, loosely translated, “a collection of memories” so i really love this method.
Let’s say your memoir idea is around a huge life achievement. Get your idea down into a focus sentence, and then start to think about your memories as they relate to that sentence.
Here are some examples of memoir topics:
- How you survived a global pandemic (!)
- Your journey to win gold at the Olympics
- Starting your (now amazingly-successful) business
- Recovery from any kind of addiction / relationship / crisis / health issue
Mapping out the chronology helps you identify major turning points.
On a stack of index cards, jot the major turning points that made up your story.
When I think of Turning Points, I think of lines from the Robert Frost poem: The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
These Turning Points are times you met forks in the road that radically shifted the outcome of your story. Think: the party you almost cancelled where you met your future love. The job you almost didn’t take. The YES you said that meant many NO’s…
Let yourself think unedited. Just jot keywords, if you need to.
TIP: every scene, keyword or idea needs to relate to the central premise of the story. Use that sentence as your end-point.
Use a separate card for each idea or keyword or scene. For example, just say you’re writing about surviving the pandemic in a country where health care was scarce, you might scrawl topics like:
- First experience of health care system (eg. childhood illness or injury)
- parents were hoarders
- how panic buying affected you
- Your first job with health benefits – how it changed things
- Friends with health issues – their experience of the pandemic
When you’ve come up with as many topics and sub-topics related to your focus sentence as you can, try to allocate the month / year / your age on the back of each card.
Pull out a pile of cardboard index cards and write each year in order on one side of the index cards. On the other, write a word or sentence that summarises the Turning Point that you want to include. You’re going to write freely on these turning points in your diaries, to really get to the heart of what happened, and how, and when, and how you felt about it.
What I love about this method is that once you hone in on specific dates, you can allocate your writing time to that specific index card. Fleshing out scenes, you can consult world events, diaries, library archives, photos, even find music that was popular at that time.
It’s a great way to break down the overwhelm as well, when you think your memoir has to be about your entire life.
For my memoir A Letter From Paris, here’s the kinds of things I put on my chronological cards at the outline phase:
- Memories of dad (age 4 or 5)
- dad’s death
- Packing up his house
- First trip overseas / search for Gisele in Paris
- Contact from Coralie
- Library (first try, second try)
TIP: When identifying your turning points, they all need to relate to the central quest or theme or point of your memoir.