ScrapMoir How To #7: The Point

by Bettyann Schmidt on January 28, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #23 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

By Bettyann Schmidt

In the years I’ve been teaching people to tell their stories and create scrapbooks and albums, I’ve been noticing a recurring problem among a lot of folks. I named it “The Point,” and in fact used it as the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for a couple of years. That should tell you something about me.

I’ve watched women, young and old, get to the part in class where we journal the stories about our pictures, and I’ve watched when a young mom might write something like, “Dustin taking his first step.” And that’s it? That’s better I guess than, “Dustin, June 2007.”

Oh, Ladies, our families need to read our stories. They want to know what you felt about those photos in your book. And that is exactly “the point.” Look at a photo. Why was it taken? Who took it? What was happening at the time?

What’s the Point?

What is your goal for recording your memories? You must know the answer to this question. Do you want to tell people something, or do you simply want to put the pictures in albums all lined up like soldiers in an army with maybe a date and a name?

Why do we take so many photos, if not to record why we took them? I know I enjoyed taking pictures of my little girls when they were small, all dressed up in red rosebud flowered cotton dresses and patent-leather shoes with ankle straps and bows. But I finally found out, and knew in my heart, when I got to the point of putting those pictures in albums, that’s not the reason I want to remember. It’s not about the clothes they were wearing.

My children had such precocious personalities when they were growing up, like so many children. Now my younger grandchildren are developing those personalities that sometimes amaze me when they say something so profound for their ages.

One of my little granddaughters, Rachel, who stayed with me a whole summer and had her own room upstairs, came on Christmas Eve 2008 and proceeded to walk up and down the stairs, into the dining room, through the downstairs bedrooms and into the kitchen, over and over. Finally she stopped, looked at me with those blue eyes, with her hands on her hips, and said, “I’ve looked everywhere in this house, and I can’t find my room.”

We’d cleared everything out of her room to start working on it, redecorating. The look on her little face made me laugh, and then I wanted to cry. To think she thought her bedroom was somewhere in our big house and she simply couldn’t find it, like a lost toy. That story definitely goes in my collection of memories about the family that is evolving into my memoir.

Some of the scrapbooks I’ve seen among women who embrace this concept have made me wonder what in the world I would do if my mother or grandmother had left something like this for me.

One of these was an album created by a mother for her two children, and she wrote letters to them on the pages with the photos. You couldn’t help but get teary-eyed reading those stories. This was on a day, about eight years ago, with a roomful of women listening to this mom talk about why she does what she does and showing us what it looked like.

The story and page I remember most– and inspired the writer in me the most–was of her son’s ninth birthday. She chronicled the entire day, starting at breakfast and ending with the birthday party with all of his friends who were sleeping over. At the end, she had written how she sat on the steps outside his room and listened to the boys laughing and playing with the gifts he got, and how happy she was at that very moment, just sitting on that step outside her child’s room on a momentous occasion.

That day, looking at her album, I wanted to race home and dig into my kids’ pictures and do something  just as stupendous. This is not a little thing. Not for a child. Or that child’s own children someday. A burning desire ignited in my heart that day that hasn’t been extinguished.   Your family’s history is being lived out in real life right now.

Smaller Points

Before you can tackle The Point, it’s assumed that you’ve done the foundational work. You’ve organized yourself in such a way that the project you want to create will be both fun and easy.

Order is the shape upon which beauty depends.” Pearl S. Buck

I know the above quotation is true for a fact, because if I try to create something when there is chaos all around me, stuff stashed everywhere, my tools and products is disarray and not in their proper places, I will not be successful. If my cardstock is not organized in its folders, it affects the order in my head. I have to clean up my space first and start over.

Now, you might be thinking, oh she is just OCD. I’m not like that at all. I can work in clutter. Yes, a lot of people say that. All I can say, however, is I’ve not found that to be true of all the ladies I’ve worked with. The ones who can’t get organized don’t accomplish anything.

About Story Points

Finding the point of my photo stories comes easier to me these days. The subject of the photo is where you start. Below I show a page created about my oldest daughter, Sherry. Her life hasn’t been what I would have chosen for her. She was diagnosed with lupus at seventeen and stayed sick for a long time before we could even get the diagnosis. Over the years, she’s had terrible migraine headaches and arthritis, and two years ago she also had to suffer through cancer and all it entails, chemo and radiation, pain, the terrible sickness.  And all I could do was watch her go through it. As a mother, you find yourself wishing it was you instead. I live close to Nashville, and she was living in Jackson at the time, a couple of hours to the west, and I stayed with her a lot and tried to at least help with the house and my two teenage grandchildren.

Sherry’s personality, like all of my children’s, is unique, and during her surgery and treatment, I began to see her as a hero. She got through it with more grace than a lot of us would. I was so proud of her. You think of all the stuff you’re proud of in your kids, and here I ended up being more proud of my daughter during that time than I’ve ever been in my life.

Another one of my children, my youngest, also got a page about being a hero. Jeff’s story came before Sherry’s, and I’ve always wondered if I’d gotten prepared back then for dealing with what was to come years later with another child. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier.

There are no decorations on this page of Jeff, though it was a celebration. I’m doing more of this type of layout, just black and white, to go in my own memoir for the kids and my sisters and brothers. Especially the older photos. They’re so classy, it’s almost an insult to try to fancy them up.

What’s Your Point?

Look at some of your photos and try to see beyond just the visual, look at the character of the person, the place, or the scene, and try find the real story. We’re not going to do this with all of our photos, or even very many of them. Only the ones we look at and feel the story speaking to us. If a picture provokes emotion in you, that’s probably the one. You can keep the rest in photo boxes or files, or the slide-in type albums.

I’m still learning every day and changing my direction after eleven years. Mostly because of digital. It’s exciting, creating your own books filled with your own writing and memories. Who can stay away from it? It’s a big business these days.

I want you to experience the feeling that comes from telling a rich story around some of your pictures, getting away from the plain old who, what, where, and when.

“Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.”
Thomas Mann

The above says it all. If you get just the basics you need, and you adapt an organizational system that works for you, and you keep the whole project simple, you will master the process. And you will love it, and it will enrich your life more than you can imagine.

As usual, let me know of any problems or suggestions, or just anything you’d like to tell me. I’m reachable, or leave your Comments below and I’ll respond.

Bettyann Schmidt

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Janet Riehl January 28, 2010 at

“Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.”–Thomas Mann

Dear Bettyann,

Thanks for this helpful and clear post. My father, Erwin A. Thompson, has developed a simple and thorough system for organizing his photo-story notebooks. These range from world travels to six generations of stories and pictures.

1) He uses an ordinary 3-ring binder with archival plastic photo sheets and typing paper.

2) When the book is opened one side of the page spread shows the photos in an order that makes sense to him.

3) On the other side of the page spread he writes descriptions that refer to each photo. These write-ups tell all the pertinent facts he has: where, when, how, and who. And, the why…which comprises the story associated with each photo.

4) Underneath each photo there are a stack of duplicates. He has these made at a photo shop in town who takes his negatives or originals to convert into finished photos.

So, let’s say you are looking through the album, reading along the travel log or family story span, and you see a picture you like. Pop will say, “Take it with you.”

He’s set it up like this so that 1) There’s no need to write anything on the back of the photo; 2) anyone who wants a photo can have it. He says he’s seen families torn apart when more that one person wants the same photo. He can’t prevent all potential disagreements, but he’s seen that one coming and cut it off at the pass.

He’s a nexus not only of family history but of widening circles of history reaching from local history to the region and state. Want to know how the River Road was built along the Mississippi? Want to know about the railroad that ran at the base of the bluff 100 years ago or more? Pop has a photo-story album that gives you that information in vivid context.

When people come to find out what he knows, they go home with paste-board report covers stuffed with information he’s printed from his computer and plastic sheets filled with photos.

We’ve donated copies of these photo-story notebooks to the Jersey County Historical Society, the local library, and our Riehl-Thompson archive shelf at the University of Illinois.

His simple system has legs. It can travel from family use to documenting history as legacy and heritage.

Janet Riehl

Bettyann January 28, 2010 at

Hi, Janet. Thanks so much for telling me about your dad’s great system. I wish I could meet him. I know your family is glad you’ve got him to do this for you. He’s right about families being torn apart over ra picture. I’ve actually seen that happen once over a very old photo. His sysem makes a lot of sense

I’ve gotten into the history of my hometown, Cincinnati, over the last few years, even though I’ve lived in Tennessee more than half my life. I wish I knew as much as your dad does about his town. I guess I’ll have to keep buying books and studying.

Thanks again for sending this to me. I’m sure I’ll have to pass this info along to people, since it seems like such a siimple process but vitally important to families.

Matilda Butler January 28, 2010 at

Hi Janet:
Thanks for providing the details of your father’s photo-story system. Especially great that he has multiples of the photos so that he can be generous with them. Generosity is what makes the system special. Please tell him how much we appreciate his system.

Helen February 22, 2010 at

Thanks for the tips, my partner has a habit of taking dozens of pics then doing nothing with them. since reading this we have printed off some and between us created a booklet to send home to family 10,000 miles away. the stories to the pictures helped them come to terms with our absence and support our decision to move. you never know they may even decide it’s a nice place to visit as well!

Bettyann February 23, 2010 at

Thank you for letting me know that my blog post hellped someone do something life changing with their photos and stories. I really believe that this is a way to connect with people who you might otherwise not know how to. Like when my father was dying with Alzheimer’s, he looked at one of my albums and I saw a spark in his eyes, just a tiny one. I knew I had connected with him. I hope your family does come to visit! And good for you in taking this step.

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