Five Tips for Organic Organizing: Setting the Stage for Writing Your Memoir

by Pamela Jane on March 3, 2013

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #94 – Memoir Writing Tips – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

5 Tips for Organizing Your Memoir (or Novel)

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties will be out soon. At the bottom of her blog post, we’ve put her new book trailer. I know she would appreciate you looking at it — especially if you like cats.

“…how do you arrange your documents?”

“In pigeon-holes partly,” said Mr. Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.

“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything gets mixed in pigeon-holes:

I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.” – Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot's writing desk

George Eliot's writing desk

I hate clutter.  The great Victorian novelist, George Eliot, hated clutter too, so I guess I’m in good company.  My daughter, on the other hand, feels perfectly comfortable with clutter.  She doesn’t even like to empty the trash on her computer – she says it’s cozier when it’s full!trash can

Uncluttered space in which to write is important to me because the creative process itself is unavoidably messy and unpredictable.  If I am going to make a huge mess, at least I can clear space to make way for it.

get organizedI have a theory that it is better to allow the way you work (and think) to inform your organizing plan, rather than imposing someone else’s strategy on yourself.  That’s why I call it “organic organizing” ­ – because the ideas flow from you.  And because they reflect your mind and temperament, you’re much more likely to benefit from them.

Having duly warned you against adopting someone else’s ideas for organizing, I’m going to share five tips to get you started:

Memoir Tip #1.  Design your own filing system

Zipper envelopes

Zipper envelopes

Ordinary file folders can be difficult to work with.  Small pieces of paper, letters, or cards tend to fall out of them, and it’s time-consuming to remove or replace folders in a filing cabinet.  I prefer to use plastic snap or zipper envelopes for various memoir categories, such as “research” “chronology” or “letters.”  These envelopes securely hold of scraps of papers or photos, look neat stacked on a desk, and separate various subjects or themes in a way that makes sense to me. Plastic or wooden file drawers are also helpful. You are much more likely to “file as you go” when you can simply open a drawer and toss something in.  Baskets also work well for holding manuscripts, photos or books related to your memoir, and you can move a basket from room to room if necessary.

Memoir Tip #2.  Create an “anxiety file”

This is a fairly simple concept, and requires only a little inner monitoring.  Here’s how it works:  if you have an important, letter, yearbook or other document relating to your memoir that you are worried about losing, create an “anxiety file” (or drawer) and put anything you feel anxious about misplacing there.  Later, when you are looking for it, you’ll experience a slight uptick in anxiety (What did I do with that old letter?  Is it lost forever in some “super-safe” place?).  The anxiety surge is your signal that you filed the missing item in the anxiety file.  This strategy never fails!anxiety

Memoir Tip #3.  Play “Name that file.”

Everyone puts off filing; it’s tedious and time-consuming.  I suggest you set a timer, say for twenty minutes, and play “name that file” by identifying new categories for unfiled or uncategorized papers.

I bring a chapter of my memoir to my writing group every month.  I “named” (and created) files, such as “next Writing Group,” “in process” or “completed.”  This works better than a stack of unidentified papers, and the chapter I’m bringing to the writing group is there in its plastic envelope, ready to go.

Memoir Tip #4.  Use a student planner to keep track of things

Day plannerI began using these when my daughter, Annelise, was in elementary school.  Maybe it’s the kid in me, but I just love elementary-school day planners (you can get blank ones, without the subjects filled in).  The large spiral notebook is hard to misplace, so you don’t lose research notes, stray thoughts you jotted down, insights or inspiration.  I highlight anything that is especially important.  Later, I rip that page out and file it.

Memoir Tip #5.  Store a treasure chest on your computer

Keep a file on your computer for special quotes (including your own), precious bits of writing, dreams, or descriptions.  Sure, you can always do a global search on your computer to look for a specific piece of writing, but it’s much easier to find in your treasure-chest file.  If the file gets too long, you can create a new one each year.Treasure chest

These are just a few of my favorite tips to get you thinking about organizing organically.  We’d love to hear your ideas, so please leave us a comment!

memoir, writing
memoir, writing

Pamela-Jane-Bell, memoir writing, memoir and healingPamela Jane has published twenty-seven children’s books with Houghton Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, Harper, and others.

Pamela’s upcoming book, Little Elfie One, illustrated by NY Times best-selling illustrator, Jane Manning, will be out in 2014 (Harper). For more information visit

P&P&K coverPamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic with co-author Deborah Guyol, will be out this April.  Finally, chick lit meets kit lit! Filled with funny cat photos in authentic Regency settings, this hilarious mash-up spins a fresh, quirky take on two of the things we just can’t get enough of: the enduring novelist and the endearing feline. Pride and Prejudice and Kitties is a book for cat-lovers, Austen-lovers, and people who love to laugh—in other words, just about everyone!

Pamela Jane Bell’s new website is coming soon! We’ll let you know when it is available.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matilda Butler March 3, 2013 at

Pamela: I’m a big fan of your tips. Today’s list has one in particular that I’m going to put to use immediately — #2: Create an Anxiety File. I have papers that are so important that I worry about losing them. So I move them from a pile where they’ve been successfully sitting and file them. That’s when they get lost. I can’t remember exactly what I thought was the logical name for the file folder.

Now you’ve given me (and all of us) permission to just create one place where all these important papers go.


Sylvia Olson March 3, 2013 at

I love your idea of the an Anxiety File. That is just brilliant as I often can’t remember where I filed odd things that don’t seem to have a regular file. Thanks for that tip.

pamela Jane March 4, 2013 at

Silvia: Thank you for your comment; I’m glad the Anxiety File idea was helpful!

Leave a Comment

Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category News Category News Category News Category