ScrapMoir How To #1 – Memoir Writing with Pictures

by Matilda Butler on September 24, 2009

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #6 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoirs – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

… We are pleased to introduce Bettyann Schmidt as our new regular guest blogger. Twice a month, she will 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. …

By Bettyann Schmidt

Have you ever asked yourself the question, ‘What do I want to write about?” and couldn’t come up with an answer? That was me 10 years ago. At the time I was working full time as an administrative assistant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center while juggling my duties of running our old, 1950s, two-story, white farmhouse and transporting my youngest child Jeff, born with Down syndrome, to his therapies and special school. I’d always wanted to write and had started writing stories and plays when I was 10 years old. In 1999, however, there wasn’t much time to think about my writing dream.

My dream still visited occasionally, and I’d think of all the reasons I wasn’t writing. What could I write about? The last piece I’d written was my thesis for journalism class in 1976, “Scare Headlines in the War on Breast Cancer.” I definitely swayed toward nonfiction. I’d always wanted to be a journalist, as long as I could remember, but in 1999 I knew I had to put that dream to rest. I tried fiction a few times, but it was always a lost cause. I just couldn’t get motivated. I didn’t even like reading fiction at that time.

I wanted to write about real people, their struggles in life, their accomplishments. One reason I loved working at Vanderbilt was because I watched doctors save lives. I wanted to try medical writing since I had all the assistance I needed from the doctors and I was familiar with the publishing process of that genre. Years earlier, during the mid-seventies, I’d been an editorial assistant for the Vanderbilt doctors, preparing, correcting grammar, revamping, and submitting the manuscripts to journals and book publishers. However, despite the help and training, I never jumped into the water. And now, 20 years later, I was mourning my failure; I felt the guilt.

In 1999, my office on the fifth floor of Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital was a glorified closet stuck behind the north nurses’ station. My plain steel desk, lateral filing cabinet, and visitor’s chair in front of my desk were all hospital beige. My desk faced the door, enabling me to see the constant activity of doctors and nurses around the station desk and anyone heading toward my door with a problem.

This particular morning, after throwing my purse and lunch bag on my visitor’s chair just inside my door, before I could retrieve my coffee mug and head down the hall to the main nurses’ station for my coffee and the assignment sheets for the last two shifts, I noticed a white square envelope on my desk. I recognized my boss, the floor’s nurse manager, Ann’s, handwriting on the envelope. Inside, was an invitation to a Creative Memories class, one of those home parties like Tupperware and Pampered Chef, except the card said to bring four to five photos. I was intrigued and decided to attend. The big question, of course, was what did they want me to buy?

The day of the class, a bright, crisp Saturday morning in early fall, a cozy, comfortable group of us sat in the hostess’s sun drenched living room, where the muted blues, purples, and reds of the upholstered furniture added to the warmth. We sipped hot coffee from earthenware mugs and watched our hostess hold up a beautifully simple, black bookcloth album filled with photos of her family. She pointed to the writing on her pages, actual whole paragraphs describing the events her photos displayed. A few decorative stickers and some complimentary paper decorated the pages, but the writing was what caught my attention. The only albums or scrapbooks I’d ever seen just listed names and dates at best. Some didn’t even contain those important facts, just rows of pictures.

The attractive hostess, dressed casually in black slacks and a fall sweater, smiled as she explained, “Our company encourages you to write stories about your pictures. We want you to write about the memories.”

The words struck me like lightning. At that moment, I knew. I finally knew what I wanted to write about. My life and my family’s lives. I wanted to write about my father, the stories my grandmother told me when I was young. I wanted to write about my childhood. Not that it was a fairytale, or that we had celebrity lives. We’d grown up poor, and every generation before us was poor. But I saw a story there. A real story. I couldn’t wait to get started.

I drove home with stories bumping each other out of the way in my head, and as soon as I got to the house I pulled boxes of photos out of closets and envelopes out of practically every drawer. I took the supplies I’d bought that day, an album, page protectors, colored cardstock, photo tape, and a set of four pigma pens, and went to work.

My scrapbooking, like my stories, has evolved. After a few years, I began genealogical research on my German ancestors and matched historical events to the time periods. What was going on in Cincinnati when my great grandfather ended up on the shores of the Ohio River? Even if I didn’t have everything exactly correct because my family didn’t keep records, I found I could fictionalize somewhat. That’s fiction I can write.

One of the first personal stories in my scrapbook depicted an important event in history–the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was a young newlywed, pregnant with my first child. I had one photo of walking my puppy in the park three months before the assassination. A man with a Polaroid camera snapped my picture and handed it to me, saying, “I thought you’d like this picture of you and your little dog.” Today, I’d probably run, thinking he was a stalker, but this was 1964.

I used this picture to point out how life in the U.S. changed soon after that, how an American tragedy, still in question today, disrupted our lives. Being part of a huge Catholic family, living in a primarily Catholic city, we took a dramatic hit.

The page from my first scrapbook contained that sole Polaroid of me and my puppy, a few stickers, and my handwriting covering the entire rest of the page. I’ve redone that page now for my LifeStories binder. The original remains in my family album.

Bettyann and a scrapbooking layout with memoir text and image

I also have an “About Me,” 8 x 10, bookcloth album that I write in, and this is my creative outlet. My personality shows on these pages with the decorations I use. I let myself “play” with this album. I’m creating this for my granddaughters someday.

Bettyann Schmidt's Loveland Scrapbook Page

I created an organization system for my photos and my stories, as well as my memorabilia, which works well for me. Surprisingly, the stories flow more easily with simple organization. My method is akin to outlining a writing project, but includes my visual aids. I plan on delving more into this subject in a future blog.

The most important lesson for me, and which I’ve always taught my clients, is to have “The Point” in mind, the goal, the mental picture of what you want to accomplish before you gather or purchase materials you may not need. I call it The Point, which is to ask, “Exactly what is the point of what you wish to do?” All writing, all projects, must have a goal to work properly.

If you want to create a ScrapMoir — combine vignette writing and scrapbooking — ask yourself these questions:

A. “If I could use some of my photos to tell stories, what kind of project would I want to create?”
1. A scrapbook album with refillable pages
2. Binder type notebook with page protectors (this makes a good working model for larger writing projects, like a published book)
3. Journal
4. Digital book
5. Memoir

B. “What is the subject of my project?”
1. A “Me” book or journal with photos
2. My children’s lives
3. A family genealogy history
4. A travel journal
5. Gift album, wedding album
6. Memoir that I will bind and/or publish
7. An biography of someone else’s life

We’ll explore further each of these venues in future posts, but right now just think about what you would like to accomplish with your stories and photographs. Keep a notebook or journal to sketch your ideas. Carry your notebook with you, so you can record memories as they flit across your mind.

Our next session will explain setting up your own organization system for processing your memories.

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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