ScrapMoir How-To #31: Writing Living Stories for Scrapbooks and Memoir

by Bettyann Schmidt on May 19, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #97 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

by Bettyann Schmidt

History must be written of, by and for the survivors.~Anonymous

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, scrapbookingDoesn’t the world today seem to be changing so fast, so much history playing out, that it’s hard to keep track of it all?

We are armchair witnesses to monumental regime overthrows by a new generation armed with technology, who’ve seen their parents trampled by higher-class powers. We are survivors of historical events.

Those of us adults alive at this moment survived 9/11, and we recently witnessed the capture and slaying of one responsible for that tragedy.

Memoir: Balancing Textbooks with Living Stories

Those of us who feel the calling in our hearts to capture the events that take place in our lifetimes know how important our task is.

We know children will learn about history in their school books. I remember some of my history from school, but it was pretty dry stuff compared to my grandmother’s stories. We learned in school how people during the Great Depression were poor and had little food. Grandma told me how she had to make a head of cabbage and a few potatoes feed her family for a week.

School lessons described mass unemployment. My father painted the picture of going to work as a young boy on the city street corners selling newspapers to help pay the rent on a three-room apartment he and his four siblings and mother lived in.

While the textbooks can supply facts and dates, they cannot paint a personal, living picture of what real people lived through.  The required texts can’t substitute for “Living Books,” books about real lives.  Living Books are stories of real people, some of them children, like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the story of a young Jewish girl’s fear of being found and captured during the Holocaust.

Only you and I can write our personal account and feelings of what happens during our lifetimes.

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday. ~Pearl Buck

Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.~Søren Kierkegaard

I remember how surprised some of my younger family members were to read my account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They never considered anyone they knew was alive then. It was in school history books, as was the murder of President Abe Lincoln. These textbook tragedies didn’t touch their lives, but it does touch people when they read a true account of how we felt about the big things that happened during our lifetimes. We bring history to life. We leave for them living stories, living books. We leave a legacy.

In Our Own Words

How did I feel a few weeks ago when I watched President Obama announce from the White House that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed? I wasn’t sure at first how I felt. I wasn’t sure I believed what the President said. Like a lot of other American citizens, I wasn’t even sure we were still looking for the man who was responsible for so many innocent lost lives in our country.

Internet Pictures

Then I watched on TV a young girl speak of her father’s last words to her before he died in one of the Twin Towers. What must that be like? It became real to me then.

No school book can duplicate what I and every other American felt at the very moment in history, on 9/11, when we realized what was happening to us on our own soil. People going about their everyday lives with no warning at all of what was to come. Only the survivors can tell the story

The Why and the How

History isn’t really about the past – settling old scores. It’s about defining the present and who we are.~Ken Burns


My feelings about life events, good and bad, define who I am, more importantly who I was on the day the world changed. That’s something important to leave behind.

Now I’ve added another story to my collection about the capture and death of our 9/11 enemy. My story doesn’t contain all of the facts surrounding the killing. This can be learned from textbooks, newspapers, magazines. My story is just that. A story.

People tend to forget that the word “history” contains the word “story”. ~Ken Burns

A story about how you react to an event or a crisis only requires an openness to feel. It’s about allowing yourself to examine your thoughts, your fears, your beliefs. Once you’re in touch with the feelings, the words come.

It helps us in the present to be in touch with our reactions, and it will surely help those in the future who read our words.

I’m interested in your comments, any tips you have for others on how to write our life stories, especially living through world events. 

And be sure, if you haven’t yet, to download a free copy of my e-book here on Women’s Memoirs: ScrapMoir: 7 Steps to Combining Your Photos, Your Memories, Your Stories.

Bettyann Schmidt
Be sure to join me on my blog,


You may also be interested in Bettyann Schmidt’s article on:

Using Political Turmoil in Writing for Scrapbooks and Memoir


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda May 19, 2011 at

Bettyann, I devoured your every word! I agree wholeheartedly with your message and I encourage people to connect their stories with historical events. Reading the concept in your words (instead of mine) brings new richness to the whole idea. Thank you for your inspiration!


Bettyann Schmidt May 20, 2011 at

Thank you, Linda! Your words make me feel so honored. I also like reading your blog, Spiritual Memoirs, and have added it to my blog list. It’s good to know others gain from what we write. It makes it all worthwhile. Thanks again. b.

Christine Phipps May 22, 2011 at

I agree, wholeheartedly. But, that said, if you write it, much as your family may treasure it, is there a market for life stories full of historical events? I ask because I have written my own family’s story, set during WWII and its aftermath, and am not sure what to call it when I query agents. It doesn’t really fit the usual definition of memoir. Perhaps that’s because it’s the story of a family and the events that shaped that family, and thus me, rather than than just my own story?

Kendra Bonnett May 22, 2011 at

You pose an interesting question. First, let me say that I do believe there is a market. Second, the nature (or genre) of the book can be one of several categories of nonfiction. And third, I want to introduce you to the work of someone you will find most helpful.

Back in 2008, Matilda and I wrote Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story. This is a collective memoir of the lives and experiences of woman born during WWII (the daughters of Rosie the Riveter). Much of this is Matilda’s personal story as a member of this remarkable generation of women. Matilda also interviewed more than 100 women to determine if their experiences could help her identify patterns and traits about the generation. Then she put it all in context–historical, social, cultural and economic context.

If you tell your family story from your perspective, it certainly will qualify as memoir. If you invite members of the family to add their 2 cents, their perspectives and memories, then maybe it’s a collective memoir. Or if you put together your family’s story in a creative fashion…adding dialogue as you imagine some events played out and creating a rich tapestry of history and culture and how your family fit in, then maybe you want to call it a family biography using the techniques of creative nonfiction.

Finally, you need to know about Kim Pearson. She’s big on placing personal stories in context. And she wrote a fabulous book called “Making History.” It’s a little bit her story and a lot timelines of events. She makes it easy for writers to find the events and influences for any year…most of her entries are post 1930. You can find the book on Amazon. And check out Kim’s website: .

Hope this helps.

Bettyann Schmidt May 22, 2011 at

That is a good question, whether a family history is a saleable project. I’m in the middle of my own family history, or memoir, at present.

I haven’t considered the question of pitching it to a publisher, but I do intend trying to place it in bookstores in my hometown, Cincinnti, because the story is set in one of the most historic sections in the country, and definitely the most historic in Cincy, “Over the Rhine,” where the German immigrants settled.

Thanks, Kendra, for your awesome tips and guidance here. I admit I didn’t know about Kim Pearson’s book. I’ve used lots of published resources on Over-the-Rhine but didn’t check out everything available on placing writing in historic time sequence. Going over to Amazon right now.

Thank you, Linda, for posing the question. Gives me a good subject to delve deeper into, and perhaps write about. Let us know if you learn more in your own quest to publish.

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