ScrapMoir How To #2: Writing Your Memoir Stories with Photos – Organization is the Key

by Matilda Butler on October 8, 2009

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #8 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

… Kendra Bonnett and I are pleased to bring you the second special guest blog by Bettyann Schmidt. Twice a month, she’ll provide writing tips and scrapbooking concepts designed to help you better combine the best of these two worlds. If you have questions about how to meld your memoir vignettes with your photographs, be sure to ask Bettyann. If you leave your questions in the Comments field, Bettyann will respond.

By Bettyann Schmidt

In the foreword to his book, Much Ado About Me, comedian Fred Allen writes:  “Some years ago John Steinbeck offered to help me with a book. I didn’t know how to write a book.  John listed some rudimentary suggestions for the beginner.”

Actually, Allen was writing his autobiography, and these are the suggestions Steinbeck gave him:

“Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in.”

Writing a Memoir Vignette

As I last posted, my scrapbooking has evolved over the past 10 years. I knew I would do chronological from the first. How could anyone think to do otherwise? After all, aren’t we telling a story with our pictures and writing? Aren’t stories chronological? According to Steinbeck, they don’t have to be.

I recently began reading how a lot of the famous scrapbook entrepreneurs have turned from the old chronological rule of combining their photos and stories. They’re doing more “theme” books now. Another trend is to quit trying to get every picture of an event on the page. One or two that stand out from the rest and are flawless is now the rule. This makes for beautiful pages and more room for story writing.

Like photos, I thought my writing had to be chronological too. My goal is to write my family’s history and stories, so I thought I should start on page one and write everything I knew, and could validate, about my great great grandfather Valentine sailing from Baden, Germany, to America. I have to admit that this idea has been a huge hindrance in my writing.

It wasn’t until I read Lisa Dale Norton’s wonderful little book on writing memoir, Shimmering Images, that I understood the value of writing pieces of your whole lifestory, a “slice of life” as some refer to it, or the “shimmering images” from your life, as Lisa Dale Norton refers to them

If I want to write these important, stand-out-from-the-rest stories and depict them with a photo or two of the same quality, only the best, this means, like Steinbeck states, do one at a time and it doesn’t matter in what order.

I began writing my shimmering images and found that by just focusing on one story, out of context of the whole book, it was easier to write and it was easier to pair with the right photo. Sometimes I have no photo at all for a certain story, and that’s okay. Sometimes I find a picture in a newspaper or magazine, or off the web, that adds to my story. As in my last ScrapMoir How To post about the JFK assassination, I used a personal picture that set that story’s time period for me.

After I had written a few shimmering image stories, I decided to file them in a way that complemented my photo storage, and chronological monster again reared its obsessive head. Instead, however, I chose filing by event or person.

For instance, the following story is one of my most cherished and shimmering images, and will help me describe my filing system after you read it.

Daydreaming of Diamonds

This is the Christmas of my ninth year when I was in love with a bracelet I’d seen and when the whole meaning of Christmas changed for me.

It was rhinestone, but it looked just like diamonds to me. It looked like the tennis-type bracelet of today. I’d swooned over that bracelet at the corner 10-cent store every time I walked in the door. It was kept on the sales counter up front, in a cellophane pouch, on a black jewelry display that was shaped like a tent or a Christmas tree. The diamond-like stones were held in tiny silver prongs and caught the light from the wide storefront window, glistening from every angle as I observed them. Occasionally they would reflect intense shades of emerald or turquoise from other color sources. It was, in my opinion, a bracelet exquisite enough for Elizabeth Taylor.


I never told a single soul I wanted that bracelet because I knew it was too expensive; it cost a dollar. Sometimes at night I dreamed of that beautiful circle of stones, and more than once Sister Julia had to call my name out in class to snap me out of my “daydreaming,” as she called it, because I did that a lot. I could picture myself walking down the aisle at church on Sunday, after everyone was already seated, with those diamonds hanging gently around my wrist for all to behold.

I'm sitting on Santa's lap at Shillito's, the largest department store in downtown Cincinnati

I'm sitting on Santa's lap at Shillito's Department Store in downtown Cincinnati

Santa always came to our home on Christmas Eve, early in the evening after supper. That year, we had eaten, my father was not yet home, and my two little sisters began to fidget and whine about when he would get home. There were four of us children then, all girls. Nancy was the baby and already sound asleep under the old quilt that hid everything but her black curly hair. Her crib was against the wall in the only bedroom we had, which was right off the living room. French sliding doors separated the two rooms. Besides the crib, there were two other double beds in the bedroom, all in a row. Entering from the hallway door, there was the rollaway where Phyllis and I slept. Next was Mom and Dad’s double bed, but usually it was occupied by Mom and Donna, and Dad slept on the sofa because he came in so late every night. Then against the wall the crib.

Donna was about three then and Phyllis about five, and that Christmas Eve, with Dad not home to play Santa, they were wearing Mom out. I was nine and, as usual, part of my job was to keep the younger ones under control. I didn’t even try that night, I was so angry. All I could think was, “How could Dad do this to us?”

Mom kept saying, “Your father will be here; just wait.” But finally, when she couldn’t tolerate their impatience any longer, and seeing as how my father was probably not coming home until very late, she ushered us out of the living room, slid the heavy doors closed, and began pulling presents out of the nooks and crannies of the living room closet and putting them under the tree just like Dad did.

Except Mom didn’t pretend to get in a fight with Santa because he wasn’t leaving us enough stuff, causing us to giggle like crazy on the other side of the door, believing Santa was really in there with Dad. This was the year I knew Santa didn’t exist.

I was so angry with Dad that I went downstairs to the kitchen and sat on the floor on top of the register blowing out warm air. Our big old house on Sander Street was cold, and for all the churning and clanking the furnace made, not much heat got blown into the rooms. The kitchen was a big square with a white sink hung on the wall on the left when entering from the hall at the bottom of the steps, in the middle an old white wooden table and chairs and the highchair, also wood with chipped white paint. We had a highchair in our kitchen as long as I could remember. There was always a baby and always another one that would come along to take its place.

A white wooden china cabinet that housed our dishes stood next to the table against the right wall. It had a drawer for the silverware with knobs to pull the drawer out, but the drawer always stuck. From the doorway directly ahead, against the far wall, stood the stove. Next to the stove on the left was a door to a small room which just had junk in it and a bathroom off of it my father painted Chinese red enamel, which was peeling. On the other side of the door leading to the small room was the refrigerator.

On the right side of the stove was a little set-back wall where the kitchen floor register was located. This was my favorite place to sit when I was really cold, or sad, or angry. The little alcove was just big enough to hide in, so that if someone was standing at the door off the hall they could not see me.

That Christmas Eve night, in an era when little girls, or women for that matter, wore dresses or skirts, the heat from the register got my legs nice and toasty, while my dress ballooned out like Marilyn Monroe’s did in that picture with her white dress blowing up from that grate in the sidewalk.

I didn’t care what presents were upstairs under the tree. I knew where my father was. He was at Baden’s Café on the next block with the other neighborhood men celebrating Christmas, drinking and laughing at each other’s jokes. That’s what he was doing instead of being home with us. Instead of making me still believe in Santa Claus.

The porch on Sander Street.  From left:  Our cousin Linda, Phyllis, Me, and Donna.  Behind us is Baden’s Café, the white building.

The porch on Sander Street. From left: Our cousin Linda, Phyllis, Me, and Donna. Behind us is Baden’s Café, the white building.

I must have drifted off, thinking Dad would be the last to leave the bar as usual, and I didn’t want to be upstairs when he came in through the bedroom door all laughing and crazy, waking everybody up.

I don’t know how long I sat on the register before I was awakened by my father’s hand on mine. He was handing me something. My eyes took a few seconds to focus and my mind even longer to register why I was in the kitchen late at night. I knew I must have been dreaming, because Dad was handing me the diamond bracelet. The one at the dime store. But I was awake.

I looked up at his face, his glassed over eyes, the lopsided grin. He said, “You need to come upstairs to bed. It’s late.” And he picked me up and carried me up the steps, me holding my bracelet tight to my chest.

Organizing a Memoir Vignette

I do not have the perfect picture for this personal, life changing evening on Sander Street. I do have the picture of me with Santa and a picture with Baden’s Cafe in the background. Eventually I will add to this story a photo of my dad on another Christmas with my first grandchild sitting on his lap.

That story is filed under Holidays, sub-folder Christmas, sub-folder Dad.

The photo for it that I will use, Dad and Kristen, is filed in my photo storage box behind the index divider Holidays, sub-divider Christmas, with a sub-divider Dad.

I am filing by event first and then person. This is part of the scheme of Stacy Julian in her Big Picture Scrapbooking book and website. She recommends four divisions:

About Us
People We Love
Places We Go
Things We Do.

Holidays goes into the “Things We Do” division.

About Us is my husband and me, and I’ve started pulling out old pictures already scrapbooked , copying them, and putting them in this file for a gift album for him. I have started writing the stories for that album as they come to me. The other day I was noticing how many things he did for me without me asking, and I just decided I had to write about what a wonderful husband I ended up with and started naming all of his great qualities. Sort of like “How do I love thee.”

As I described in my first how-to blog, I have an “About Me” album that I’m doing for my granddaughters where I get decorative and “girly,” and where I will impart to them things about myself, like how love felt for the first time when I was 14, and then how it felt when I got hurt the first time by love. What I liked to do when I was a teenager and some of the stunts my best friend and I pulled. How I felt on my wedding day and how it feels to hold a newborn baby in your arms for the first time. About being a grandmother.

With words and pictures, the world is your oyster, and you can tell all the stories you want with all the pearls to make them glimmer. That’s what scrapbooking is about. That is what writing memoir is about. They go hand in hand.

I hope you get the picture, sorry for the pun, here of what I’m trying to describe. Let me know any questions you have or any topic you’d like to cover in a future blog.

You’ll find my blogs here twice a month. For more information you can sign up for my newsletter at either of my sites.

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