I’ve been trying to write a memoir for over ten years about the time I spent living on a sailboat with my family when I was a teenager. I haven’t been working on the memoir continuously though. When I started writing it so many years ago I wasn’t concerned with plot, character or theme. I just wanted to get the story down. I wrote about a hundred pages and made the mistake of showing my very rough draft to a writers’ group that I belonged to at the time. Of course, the other writers wanted to know what is the theme? What is this story about other than a faithful recounting of events? These were good questions that I just wasn’t able to answer at the time.
On the surface, living on a sailboat and sailing from Canada to Florida and the Bahamas sounds like a fantasy to most people. There were great time, but there were also some very difficult times. My parents got divorced just a few years after our trip and I have no doubt in my mind that the challenges of living on a small sailboat had a lot to do with that.
Last year, I decided to do NaNoWriMo, even though I was really writing a nonfiction memoir, although at the time I was calling it a novel. I achieved the 50,000 word goal just after the deadline. But without a deadline hanging over my head, I stalled and didn’t touch my memoir for months. Two months ago, I began seriously reading over what I’d written and was seriously bored. It was a faithful recounting of what had happened and each port of call we visited, but was all it was. There was no emotion in the story, no tension, no theme, no real story. I had an overwhelming urge to chuck everything I’d written and start over again. But how?
I dug Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer out from my bookcase and started reading it again. In Chapter 4, I came across an exercise to “divide your life by pivotal events.” This sounded promising. The idea is to write down the pivotal events in your life. The second part of the exercise is to write down “I wanted” and think back through the different stages of your life and write down what you wanted at each stage. These exercises were meant for helping someone craft an autobiography of an entire life, but it got me thinking about how I could reframe my memoir of a short slice of my life, albeit one that has had a huge impact on my life. I though back through the trip and began listing on index cards the key memories that had the most emotional impact for me, instead of the places we visited. I want to write a memoir about my experience of living on a sailboat as a teenager, not a travel log of where we went.
After writing each memory down on a separate index card, I pinned them up to a cork board, organizing them chronologically. In separate columns, I pinned up the index cards on which I jotted down ideas for theme or description. Looking over my cards, I instantly felt better about where I’m going. I now have a rough path through my book. Plus, the index card methods makes it infinitely easy to add and subtract ideas or rearrange my thoughts. I’m a visual person, so this method is useful to me.