Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. This is the last part of a four-part series on writing the first draft of your memoir.
Day Four: Writing an Outline
Don’t panic. This isn’t the Roman numeral one followed by capital A type of outline that you were forced to use in elementary school. This is an outline that will make use of your unconscious and subconscious as much as your conscious faculties. You’ve seen how branching works and if you’ve done the work of the first three days, you have some idea of a theme by now. The purpose of the outline is to give you a plan for moving forward.
It’s time to think about how you want to structure your material. First, write at the top of a page the general theme you think you may be working with. Under that write a few “subtopics,” leaving space between the entries. For example, in my case the theme was “Living in an Age of Transitional Femininism.” While that might not be the optimal way to phrase it, I mean that my idea of what a woman is supposed to be and do is vastly different than that of my mother and that has helped to define my life’s journey and the roads that I chose. My subtopics are the relationship that I have had with my mother, the quest for my own individuality, why I was lucky to have lived in the place and time that I did, birth order and siblings, men I knew in my twenties and thirties, men I knew in my forties, men I knew in my fifties, and finding empowerment. Under each of these subtopics I listed items that came to me, in no particular order. That gave me an idea of how to make a more formal outline, a process we will cover shortly.
Do this simple exercise and let the subtopics you have listed sit in your head for a day. Tomorrow you will refine and add to the list.
Day Five: Reviewing Your Outline
If you are like I am, you will quickly see that you have too much material to cover in one memoir, which is why refining your theme is so important. Your challenge will be to pick those incidents from your life that illustrate your theme the best, give up the most evocative picture of your experiences and evoke the most empathy in your readers. Some people can launch into their stories at this point, as I did. Others will need to outline more consciously and have a stronger sense of theme and the direction before they launch in.
I wrote what was basically a recitation of my life at this point. In about two weeks I was able to cover my whole life. The themes I might choose from in my next draft became apparent as I wrote. They included wanting to break the boundaries that my parents’ lives and attitudes seemed to have set for me and trying to think outside the box. I am now ready to take this raw material and produce short stories that will be woven into a longer narrative. I will have to fictionalize the names and characters because otherwise I might get sued. But my direction is clear. As I choose those elements of my life that illustrate the themes I am working with, I will know what to put in and what to leave out.
I think you will find an enormous satisfaction in simply reciting the facts of your life. While this would have seemed an overwhelming task before the earlier work I did, it was not painful or laborious because I had prepared for it by facing my fears, exploring and refining possible themes and writing an informal outline. I shared my work with a writing group, so I knew who I was writing this first draft for, three other people who I felt safe sharing my life with. This gave me the momentum to finish because I had readers, and eliminated the fear of exposure, because they were people I trusted. One woman in the group told me it was the best thing I had done for the group.
If you don’t feel you are quite ready for the recitation of the facts of your life yet, keep working at the outline over the next couple of days. Sometimes just letting your unconscious work on it for a little while will be enough. Happy writing!
- Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three (memoriesintostory.wordpress.com)
- Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Two (memoriesintostory.wordpress.com)
- Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of A Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part One (memoriesintostory.wordpress.com)