Write a memoir from your journals

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I may be a memoir writer, but I’m a terrible journaler. I love pretty ones, leather ones wrapped with string, and journals made from uncut paper.

When I get a new one, I write as if my life depended on it. But all too soon, it’s too hot to write or the dog needs to snuggle. Rarely do I fill all the pages. Even so, I eventually get down on paper—or into my laptop—what I need to from my heart, soul, and brain.

There are prayer journals, travel journals, daily task journals, emotional venting journals, and gratitude journals. These are all commendable, but what do you do with them as they stack up in boxes the closet, or you cart them from apartment to house to house? They contain the stories of our lives, but how do you begin to organize years of your very self in words into something meaningful? Those journals remain forever mute if you don’t do something with them. Or maybe they'll reveal things you wish they hadn't after you're gone. Now you wonder what lurks between those covers don't you. Mmmm hmmmm.

Where do I begin?

The first thing you want to do is scan them all in. Every single page. Don’t read them or you’ll get sucked into reminiscing and never get to your memoir. I speak from experience.

Why digitize them? Imagine if a fire or water damage destroyed them all in one feel swoop. Poof! There go all those memories you took the time to write down because you knew you’d forget them otherwise. Ask anyone who has lived through fires or floods; photos, slides, and journals were among the most deeply felt, non-living losses.

Next steps

1. Color code your memories into categories. For instance:

  • Yellow for cheerful events or people.
  • Green for those tough experiences that taught you something.
  • Blue for spiritual awakenings, or times you felt deeply connected to the world around you

2. Organize your stories into themes. As you are highlighting stories, you’ll probably find that certain topics or themes repeatedly emerge. Write these down and think of them as sections or chapters.

3. Start writing. Let the story write itself. You're already familiar with the content from reviewing and highlighting. Please don’t make an outline or a table of contents to adhere to. I find that the best stories are the ones that create themselves; those which are begging to be told while you are holding space for them, allowing them to be heard. It stifles your creativity to write to an outline. For me, that’s akin to teaching-to-the-test in grade school. You know what’s coming and just fill in the blanks without much thought. Writing to an outline takes all the fun out of the experience. You’re likely to miss the sweet aha moments that writers live for.

Finish the book!

Many start. Few finish.

If you’ve got a stack of journals filled with the stories of your life and you don’t know where to begin, that’s okay. Join the crowd. I scanned the last of my half-filled journals last year and have three different memoirs I want to write based on their contents.

Those who have the time and inclination will do very well with the instructions I gave here. But for those, like me, who need structure and some friendly accountability, I’m launching a new workshop to help you (me) write our memoirs from our journals. It's called Stacks to Stories: How to write a memoir from your journals. Contact me and I'll let you know as soon as registration opens for this online workshop.

I created more steps for this workshop from what you read here to make it fun and efficient. We'll meet regularly—probably every two weeks—to accomplish the task of writing your memoir without it becoming overwhelming. I sure would like the company and accountability to write one of my memoirs alongside you!

By the way, my sister company, Vintage Photo Scan, can digitize all those journals for you lickety split, if you need the help. I'll give y'all a discount. Just sayin'...