How to Write About Your “WHEN”

Remember when…?

Do your stories often start out, “When I was little…” or “When I traveled to X that summer…” or maybe “When we lived on the ranch…”? Master outdoor humor writer Patrick McManus wrote many books set during the WHEN of his growing up years with his best friend Crazy Eddie. If you haven’t sampled his stories try this one, The Grasshopper Trap.

Your WHEN, like the other memoir keys, will overlap with the other  aspects of your story. However, this one serves as the large, solid master key in jump starting your memoir. You get to decide when to focus your story. Spend time reflecting on the times that have stayed fresh in your memory, what stands out? When does your mind like to travel back to? If you’re not sure, talk it over with friends or family and try to narrow down your story to an impactful time frame. Often when we talk our story out with others or ask them what stories they hear us tell the most, we will find our WHEN. You may be surprised at the feedback  others give you about the stories and events they find most intriguing  in your life.  Remember, the decision is yours but don’t be afraid to explore a bit before you settle on your WHEN.

Memoirs can be narrowly focused on a short time period and be as short as a personal essay or book length. They can also cover an entire life…the choice is up to you. What stands out most to you as you think back over your life and times? Think about where the story lies, what grabs your heart, mind and soul?

Photos are great tool for narrowing down your WHEN. Go through your collection and set aside a few extra photos that illustrate this well for you. It’s good to have choices and your memories will be prompted by different images, see where they take you.

If you’re working on someone else’s story what memories tend to come up repeatedly when you’re talking with them? The answer to this question will help you focus your WHEN. Your chosen time might be dependent upon a memorable historical event or season. For example, the novel The Grapes of Wrath focuses on one family during the Great Depression. The Journals of Lewis and Clark cover one massive exploration event. The Diary of Anne Frank is constrained not only in its “when” but its location.

Look for the key moments and pay attention to what else was going on in the world at that time. This will often help shape the other sections of your memoir, especially the WHY.  Explore  the nature of your story’s WHEN, one story at a time. If you’re working with a grandparent or other elder, or perhaps even someone who’s no longer alive, this technique works well. Good questions to ask might be related to technological advancements like a lunar landing, world shaking events like wars and  natural disasters, or the rise or fall of a world leader. Just as we’re sharing stories of our experiences during this worldwide pandemic, others did the same thing during the 1918 flu epidemic. These are universal human experiences full of story.

If your WHEN covers childhood, mine the events of that time for relevant material, they are some of our favorite recollections. There are countless television shows, movies, and books written about childhood memories. Remember the much-loved Wonder Years television series? Or  The Waltons? These story lines did an amazing job of tying in larger societal events in the context of their impact on the characters. Memoirs work the same way. Your impressions and reactions to the events you witnessed at that specific point in time are unique to you but will resonate with others in the universal human language of emotion.

Perhaps your story will center around  coming-of-age or a season of loving a favorite pet.  The book Rascal, by Sterling North tells the delightful story of one young boy’s pet racoon. Fiction uses the same technique, think about the narrow time setting in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The stories we tell around the family dinner table or at holiday gatherings often start with the phrase “Remember when…?” Revisit these conversations in your mind and as you review your photographs, it will help you define the time setting of your story. Think both broad and narrow; your WHEN might involve personal or family life events that charted the course of your own days. Or historical events you witnessed may call you to share your perspective. You were there, you lived it, share your memories. Brainstorm what you felt, saw and heard. You get the idea, free write everything you can think of.

Remember your first love? That first car or job or when you first moved out on your own? Your wedding day or the birth of your children?  Take your pick, there’s a wealth of memories lying behind the door your WHEN key will unlock. Involve your senses as you take notes and prep for working on this part of your story. What did the flowers look and smell like? How about the food that was served? Maybe the smell of fresh tilled fields always takes you back to that childhood summer on the farm. Do you remember the first time you went to the fair; the smell of corndogs and cotton candy mixed with the livestock barns? Unforgettable! Remember…the smell of a summer rainstorm, walking a favorite dog and hugging his soft side, the taste of Grandma’s fresh chocolate chip cookies, the smell of your great uncle’s pipe tobacco, the stories heard while spending time with a loved grandparent.

Pay attention to what stands out as you write down or record your memories, note the emotions and thoughts that rise up repeatedly. This is most often where your story lies – its the WHEN key under the mat, the sign post for your memoir. Give the future a gift of memories, personal and world history from your perspective.

Spend some time choosing your WHEN, you’ll be glad you did. This key will unlock doors and the stories will come tumbling out.

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Not Crafty? 5 Ways to Make Vision Boards Work for You

Mind Maps or Vision Boards for your memoir or writing project are a tool to help you focus on what’s important. They can be a tremendous help in finding your theme and direction.

How you create your mind map or what it looks like aesthetically doesn’t have any bearing on how well it will work. Use whatever technique makes sense to you!

Want to find out more? Take a look at this post to find out how boards can help you:

IF you have the Martha Stewart crafty gene in you, make your vision board as pretty as can be. Add pieces of fabric, paint an abstract background with your favorite colors, or dig out your long lost scrapbook supplies and utilize those beautiful printed papers and fun stickers.

However, if you don’t have a crafty gene nor have the desire to develop  a crafty side

or if you’re male and want a more masculine look – have no fear: you can still make a no-frills mind map or vision board that suits your style and that will work!

1. Bulletin board. Buy an inexpensive cork board and use thumbtacks to attach your photos. Using tacks makes it especially easy to move your photos around or to take some off after you’ve settled in on your theme or reached specific goals.

2. Vision books. If you have multiple goals for different parts of your project, then creating a vision book keeps all those goals on separate pages but still together in the same book. A simple journal or a larger scrapbook serves the purpose. However, to keep the creativity flowing be sure to keep it out where you can see it and look at your book every day.

3. Digital vision boards. For those who can whiz around the internet at the speed of light, digital vision boards are time savers. Search for a free template or use Canva’s grid template.

Simply upload your photos and quotes to your chosen template and save. Save it as your wallpaper on your computer and phone. This can prompt great ideas and help you use down time to add to your project. You can use a note taking app or good old pencil and paper to capture those ideas before they’re gone. Go one step further and have your vision board professionally printed on photo paper at your local photo shop. Post it up at home to remind you of your project goals. Here’s an example to get you started:

4. Hang a single photo. Hang a photo that inspires you, that’s your project “why” or one that perfectly illustrates your theme where you can see it every day. Keep that goal at the back of your mind, it will simmer away in your subconscious and help you come up with creative ideas and clarity.

What photo inspires you?

5. Write a vision statement. For those who are born wordsmiths, forget about the pretty pictures and write out your goals instead. However, write it as a letter to yourself, 10 years into the future. Describe what you’re doing and where you’re living, among other things, as if you’ve been living that life for 10 years and are giving an update to your long lost friend.

Creating a non-traditional mind map or vision board or writing a vision statement is just as powerful as a traditional outline. Maybe more so! The most important point is voicing your goals and taking action to achieve those goals. How you package up your vision is completely arbitrary. Have some fun and make it work for you!

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    Karen Ray Photo

    Karen Ray

    Address: 2877 Willow Creek Lane, Las Cruces, NM, 88007

    Phone: 575-323-1048


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