How to turn a memory into a plot for your memoir

Tracy Lee Karner

Constructing a story is like building a house–do it in stages.

Making a story is a process. It is built in stages, just like constructing anything from a quilt to a bookshelf to a house.

Stories do not just roll out of pens’ tips or spill from keyboard-tapping fingers. Stories are drafted and then edited and then revised and revised until the right words and right sentences make the right paragraphs arranged in the right order to communicate, to a reader, a story. Maybe it sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s get started:

First, some motivation and inspiration–You should write your stories because you are the only source of your heritage and experiences, giving you something entirely unique to share with the world. There are people who will benefit from your particular wisdom (and you possess wisdom, or you would not have survived your life). And wisdom is a very good thing to share.

Do you need to be a right-brain or a left-brain person? You need both hemispheres, cooperating, to build a story (and you have both hemispheres, so you’ll be fine). Getting your left brain to cooperate with your right brain can be tricky. Most of us have a dominant hemisphere, one snotty-egotistical bully who thinks the other side of the brain is stupidly childish or stupidly mean.

The right-brained artistic hemisphere despises the constraints that the left-brained editorial voice wants to impose on literature. The left-brained critical hemisphere bristles with annoyance at the seemingly time-wasting playfulness of the right-brained creative process. But you need your whole brain to make a story. I’ve solved the problem that my hemispheres don’t make good playmates, by telling them both:

You hemispheres need to respect each other and share the pen.

Right gets a turn, then left gets a turn, and back and forth.

And don’t pout and don’t interfere, (I have to say to the not-immediately needed hemisphere) when it’s not your turn.

Often my inner critic (left brain) stifles my creativity (right brain). This is a common problem. Formerly, I had the problem that my right brain was all impressed with its own creativity, and wouldn’t let the left brain do the necessary fixing up that makes a draft (which is like a load of lumber and a pile of bricks) into a story (which is something that needs to be planned and built). This hyper-sensitivity of the right brain to criticism is also common.

Tell your hemispheres to cooperate with each other.

Today we’re going to start by drafting. Today the right brain gets to be in charge. I have a few techniques that will make my left brain take a nap, and I’ll share more of them with you in future posts. Let’s start with this one:

It often awakens the right brain to play music while writing. I think instrumental is easier to write to–lyrics tend to distract me. At the bottom of this page, following the instructions for this first sketching exercise, you’ll find a link you can click on to provide music while you sketch.

This drafting technique, which I call sketching doesn’t look like much. It resembles a story the way pine 2-by-4’s and a box of nails, resemble a wall. A sketch is material to make a framework that will later support a story. (Remember, we’re building a story in stages–you don’t expect anyone to build a house in one day!).

  • Begin by thinking of a holiday or birthday when you really, really wanted something–a Barbie Doll, your dad to be there, snow or warm weather, the right shoes….
  • It doesn’t matter what you wanted. What matters is the passion with which you wanted it. You felt like the world would be a sad place forever, if you didn’t get what you wanted (I wanted a Chrissy Doll, and drove my mother crazy insisting that Santa would bring one although there were none, anywhere, for her to buy because every other parent in the universe had gotten to the stores first).

The other key to making this work is–pick a memory at least 10 years in the past (my Chrissy-Doll memory is more than 40 years old).

Now, for this Sketching Exercise, write out the following (in pen, or cut and paste to a word processing program and use your keyboard), and fill in the blanks.

  • The year/time was __________________. The place was _________________.
  • I really, really wanted (__________________pick one ardent desire).
  • But…. (_______________ name the thing that made it difficult–a person, a tradition, an act of nature, a mass-marketing campaign, an emotional or physical barrier)…got in the way.
  • Because….. (_________________________ explain, briefly, how and why this thing that got in the way, prevented you from getting what you wanted).
  • Then I (_______________  describe how you squirmed and connived to get what you wanted anyway).
  • And then… (____________explain what happened and how you reacted) and  (_________________ explain the complications of the situation and how did you try to get your way?) and (__________repeat as often as necessary) until
  • It turned out that (_________________________________ explain how it happened that you did or did not get what you wanted.

And now you have the bare-bones structure of a story. It doesn’t look like much, yet. You’ve got nails and sticks, and we’re trying to build and furnish a whole room. But, these nails and sticks are useful, believe me. We can’t build a story without a basic plot, and you’ve got one.

Variation–you might find it more interesting to write about what someone you loved wanted. I wanted a Chrissy doll–but the more powerful want in that story, is my mother’s fervent desire to give me what I wanted. I’m going to write my story about what my mother really wanted.

Next session we’ll add a lot of sensory details, which will be like framing the walls and doing the mechanical work–plumbing, electrical wiring, heating ventilation, air conditioning. And then we’ll do some organizing, which will be like attaching the sheetrock. Within 6-8 weeks, you’ll have a decent little story all ready to share. And then you’ll write some more, and then you’ll have a book full of them. I’ll encourage you along.

Now, you can click here to go to a youtube video of relaxing music, to wake up your right brain while you sketch your first draft. When you get there, click on the “skip this add” to get right to the music. Ready, set, sketch.

 I’m interested in hearing whether the music helped your right brain come forward to make words flow, and for how long you were able to write. 

5 thoughts on “How to turn a memory into a plot for your memoir

  1. Thank you, Tracy for an inspiring post for the New Year! I am eager to begin writing my stories and certainly appreciate your guiding hand and encouragement. I look forward to starting on my sketch and will let you know how the music works for me. Thank you again for sharing your expertise.
    Jaynie

    • I’m glad I can help, Jaynie. It was great meeting you, and I’m thrilled that you’re motivated to write.

      I’m “doing” the exercises too, as I post them, and am amazed at the new material they’re generating for me. The amazing thing about mining memory, is that it’s impossible to deplete the storehouse of treasures…. and I believe everyone’s memories are a cultural/historical treasure–and want to see those treasures preserved and passed on. That’s what motivates me to do this…

  2. I’m anxious to try this writing exercise out. My left brain critic is ALWAYS shouting at my right brain and then I end up over thinking…or just scrapping whatever little story I had going on in the first place. Thanks!

    • My left brain is loud and obnoxious and bossy—I really have to fight against it when I’m trying to access the deeply creative/intuitive stuff. I use all sorts of techniques, which help, but the thing that helped most was when I started to “appreciate” my left brain, while also enforcing “sharing.” I don’t know why it works (it seems so silly), but it works.

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