5 sources for cultivating raw material for life stories (and 3 books to help)

Sitting around binging on Netflix during a pandemic will eventually get you thinking, “This is all there is?” (You also might think, “I could write a better screenplay than that!”)

And that’s when writing a book (or screenplay) crosses your mind—the perfect use of free time during an apocalypse that requires you to stay home and lay off handshakes.

But where to begin? When one thinks of one’s entire life and ponders writing a memoir, the sheer volume of experiences might cause writer’s block.

The didactically chronological will begin with birth, but that’s the long way around. Even writing about a few life changing events can provide yourself and others with insight on living this life. I encourage inexperienced writers to begin there, with a few important moments imbued with great emotion rather than a boring date-by-date list.

Here are five sources of raw material for your life stories that will help get you started and three books to inspire you:

  1. Copy a favorite book. After reading I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, my uncle wrote a piece about thirteen incidents, big and small, in his life “that could have easily ended my struggles on this earth.” Talk about emotional punch. Brushes with death!
  2. Peruse your old diaries. I wrote an autobiographical novel based on the year I turned 15 and learned to kiss. Entries like this one inspired whole scenes in my book: “Scott (of all people) said I have nice fingernails. Freak my mind away! (That’s Amy’s saying.) We were in science doing some stupid mountains. Wow! Now I have a whole list of guys I like.” As an adult, I can admire and/or lament my simplistic language while massaging the content for actual emotion.
  3. Copy and paste your Facebook posts. My mother once visited Guatemala for a mission trip. She kept me, my sister and her friends apprised of her progress building a school with posts on Facebook. Every day was a little story with gems like this, “We saw a smoking volcano near our highway today. It was very warm and we hope it is cooler in the place we will work (higher altitude). We waded in the Pacific Ocean today, which was very warm here.” When she returned home, she used her posts inspire photo captions in her scrapbooks.
  4. Take advantage of an online prompt provider. Google “online writing prompts,” and you’ll discover 81,200,000 results. Over at ThinkWritten.com, there’s a list of 365 prompts (this year, you would have had to come up with one of your own for February 29). The suggestion for today, the 91st day of the year, is “Family Heirloom: Write about an object that’s been passed through the generations in your family.” What a great prompt for writing your life story! You could write about the family Bible, or a piece of jewelry or even family trauma.
  5. Cull old blog entries. My latest book, Church Sweet Home, is drawn from the blog I wrote while my husband and I renovated an old church into our home. Every night, I wrote a little story about what happened that day while it was still fresh in my mind. If you don’t already have a blog, consider starting some sort of record of your experience with COVID-19. This might make useful fodder later.

And here are three books to inspire writers of all sorts, but especially writers of life story:

  1. Writing Down the BonesWriting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg was first published in 1986, but I recently picked it up and I’m loving it. She combines the concepts of Zen meditation and writing to get writers past the terror of the blank page. With suggestions like “What autumn was it that the moon entered your life?,” “When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment?” and “How long did you wait for your first bike?,” you’ll be off and running on stories from your life. The book is written in such as way so you can read it straight through, or simply turn to any chapter for inspiration.
  2. Skills FINAL EBook Cover after Proof NOOKSkills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise by personal historian and blogger Dan Curtis includes chapters on “The 50 Best Life Story Questions” “The 50 Best Questions to Ask Your Mother” and “Powerful Ways to Recall Forgotten Memories.” Written for professional personal historians, this book might also inspire you to write other people’s life stories. Like Goldberg’s book, you can read this one straight through or readers can pick and choose where to dive in.
  3. Eating An ElephantAuthor Patricia Charpentier provides encouraging words and clear examples in Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time to walk you through writing your life story. I took an insightful editing class from Charpentier and enjoyed her style. She even mixes in a little Cajun French and offers insight into South Louisiana culture in her examples in her book.


Teamwork makes the dream work

Thanks to modern technology, we can bring new life to old photos.

Photo Before

A client brought me this photo of her mother and her mother’s basketball team. Based on the date on the basketball, the image was 87 years old, and it was showing its age: curling, creases, tears, abrasion, discoloring. Fortunately, the mother’s face was unmarred. The client wanted to share copies of this photo with her siblings at the summer family reunion.

I scanned it in, and returned the original image as is. That’s one of the luxuries of scanning: The original in most cases can be retained if desired.

Then I ran through a rudimentary photo editing software, of which there are dozens on the market. Free photo editing software will only get you so far; you can crop and enhance the color but usually that’s about it. If you need to do extreme editing (as in this case), you’ll need to spring for some software or enlist a photo organizer in your endeavors.

I cloned in some corners, softened some of the abrasions, knitted together the rips and, per the client’s specifications, retained the sepia tones (an even more extreme makeover would colorize the image). Here’s the result:

Photo After

It’s by no means perfect, but it’s better. An observer can see smiles first now instead of photo damage. Imagine it on display at the family reunion, affixed in an album or framed to enjoy. Oh, the conversations it will inspire!

The best part is I sent the electronic copy straight to the local drugstore where the client was able to pick up prints for herself and her siblings. Those prints are now 2019 versions that will last another 87 years.

Connecting the dots

“You know, we can tell these stories. We can share these stories. We can connect some of the dots, but I don’t know how else to ask people to see our humanity as Indigenous people other than through storytelling.”

I heard this quote this week from Ryan McMahon in a National Public Radio story about his podcast that illuminates the opioid struggles of Thunder Bay’s Indigenous, or First Nations, population.

It caught my ear because he used the word “storytelling” to describe connecting the dots. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do when we tell stories, especially stories about our lives?

Twists and Turns

By conjuring up a story about our first love or the failure of a marriage or the struggles of parenting or how much we admire a hero, we are forced to create a beginning, a middle and an end to the story. This is true whether the story is off the cuff or carefully prepared, whether it’s oral or written. We need to connect the twists and turns of the story in a logical way. That process of creation informs the listener or reader but it also informs the storyteller.

I’m working on a story about my grandmother who died last month at age 104, and I’m reminded how difficult it is to define the “dash.” The dash comes from a poem by Linda Ellis who quite beautifully describes the dash between one’s date of birth and date of death as what matters most: “What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.”

Storytelling, not obituary facts, is how one best describes a life. It’s hard work to tell a good and complete and truthful story, but that hard work is worth it for the recipients of the story but especially for the storyteller.

Tell your stories.


How to display photos at a funeral

There is no wrong way to display photos at a funeral.

If you’ve landed on this page looking for ideas, be assured: Whatever you do to evoke memories of your loved one when he or she was living will be appreciated.

Begin with a view towards celebrating your loved one’s life. Think about how you might display photos at a graduation or wedding, and then translate those ideas to the funeral.

My 104-year-old grandmother died recently, and here’s how our family handled it. Grandma had four children, so each family created a board of photos they’d collected from their own archives. We used poster board, bulletin board and tri-fold displays. These were displayed on easels. Everyone brought a few framed photos, which were set on a table.

grandmas photo display

Some of the photos were labeled, some were not. In general, I’d lean towards more labels rather than less if you can. Even just a “circa 1980” helps the viewer place the image.

It’s also nice if you can display photos that show the person’s whole life rather than just the past few years.

And in general, less is more. A few carefully edited photos bring just as much meaning to a celebration of life as a thousand random ones (however, if you do have a thousand random ones, one idea is to toss them down the center of the funeral luncheon tables as conversation starters). An album or two is nice, but 10 albums is probably too many images to fully appreciate.

My father, who works as an attendant for a funeral home, meaning he attends a lot of services and helps move people and flowers and caskets from place to place, says only about 10 percent of people actually look at the photo displays, so to put a lot of pressure on yourself to create the perfect one seems ill advised. If you were very close to the deceased person and very broken up about it, you might want to delegate the responsibility to someone who is less emotionally fraught. But if you just can’t pull it together by yourself, some photo organizers (yes, it’s a profession) do photo displays for a funeral on a tight time-frame.

For lots of good inspiration, use Pinterest. Try searching “how to display photos at a funeral.”

Tidying up an ugly pile of negatives

If you’ve Marie Kondo-ed your upstairs storage closet, you might decide your negatives aren’t “sparking joy” and it’s time to dump them.

Not so fast.

It seems like everyone is crazy for Kondo-mania. Marie Kondo is the guru of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and now Netflix reality show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Her process of sorting through your stuff to lighten your load in life is so widespread it has turned into a verb: Kondo-ing.

The last step in her method of decluttering is to tackle sentimental items, which would include photos and, presumably, negatives.

Back when people used film to takes pictures, prints came back from the processor with negatives. When you run across them in your photo collection, they probably won’t spark any joy; they’re difficult to view without a negative viewer, the images are small, and the negatives themselves are hard to handle—thin, awkwardly curved, slippery. You might be tempted to throw them straightaway.

But wait. These negatives are a backup to your printed photos and can be saved in case of damage to the original prints.

The most important thing to do with negatives: Store them separate from your prints. If something tragic were to happen to those prints (think: house fire or water pipe break), the negatives could be used to recreate the print if they are stored somewhere else.

Consider your negatives an insurance policy on your photos; insurance doesn’t usually spark joy either, but it’s nice to have in case of an emergency.

If you’re sorting through a mountain of family photos and come across a bunch of negatives, set them aside. The plastic sleeves in which some negatives come from the processor are likely photo-safe plastic (i.e., polyethylene) so it’s fine to keep them in those sleeves or — if the negatives are loose — the original photo envelope. Negatives don’t have to be sorted and edited as meticulously as a print collection unless or until it becomes necessary, as in the case of one of the aforementioned tragedies.

negs blogStore your negatives in the same way you would store your prints. Use photo-safe materials, and keep them in a cool, dry place (i.e., not the basement or attic) or better yet, the house of a good friend or relative.

If you handle your negatives in this manner, you’ll spark the joy of knowing you’ve mitigated risk without having to invest a lot of time going through every last negative strip and you’ll have tidied up your photo collection. Sweet.

New Year’s resolution: How to sort through digital images on your computer

It’s that time of year again when people vow to exercise more, spend less and do something about their photos.

I’ve heard and seen a number of different photo-related resolutions this year. Scrapbookers are committing to using up the supplies they’ve already invested in before buying more. Cell phone users are promising to streamline all the images on their camera roll. Digital image fans are thinking about making some physical prints.

Yup, me too. I’m a photo organizer, and even photo organizers sometimes let their collection of photos get away from them. I committed to sorting through every folder on my computer hard drive to get rid of the junk. A lot of my folders are filled with boring Word docs and PDF files, but there’s that one folder that means the most and needs a little love: My Pictures file. I began my purge-and-backup project there.

I’m one of those unique cell phone camera users who doesn’t use her phone for storage. I move all the pictures I take off my phone to my desktop computer every week or two. I don’t just copy them, I move them over and delete the ones on my phone. First of all, I hate showing people pictures on my tiny screen. The truth is, people will take your phone and look at your pictures politely, but they don’t really get anything out of the exercise other than to acknowledge how much you care about the pictures. And second of all, I hate paying for iCloud storage for a bunch of pictures I don’t particularly care about, and the truth about your phone pictures is that about 90 percent of them are junk.

Protest if you must, but I’m just being honest here. If you’re truly a good photographer, you’re not using your cell phone to take pictures. And even a good photographer needs a good editor.

In any case, as consistent as I am about moving my photos off my phone to my computer, I’m not so good about consistent folder naming practices or sorting through the photos I want to save. If you’re trying to clean up a mess of photos on your computer hard drive this year, too, here are a few tips:

Be methodical

I started at the top level, and I’m looking at every photo in one folder before moving on to the next. I’m committed to doing one folder a day so I don’t get overwhelmed (I’ve already gone through 20 folders in four days, so I’m ahead of the game!). Keep notes so you remember where to begin again when you get back to sorting.

Look at every image

I look at most of the photos in “Extra Large Icons” size, but sometimes I open up a photo to screen size and page through them that way. If you just move folders around, you’re not doing yourself any favors. You need to look at the pictures to determine if they’re worth keeping.

Use a combination of sorting by years (or months) and topic

With digital images, it’s fairly simple to sort photos in chronological order. Just list by “details” and move blocks of photos to folders listed by year or month (if you use months, name them with the year first so they list chronologically, i.e. 2018.01 for January 2018). Think about how you might look for photos later.

photo folders

For example, in my Family Photos folder, I have folders of photos for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. I also have folders for each of my stepchildren, my new granddaughter and my dog (and a couple of others). Where to put photos of my stepson’s graduation, for example? I decided to leave them in the appropriate year’s folder inside another folder named “Caswell’s High School Graduation.” That way, if I forget which folder they’re in, I could do a search for “Caswell” or “graduation” and find them again.

Adopt an attitude to delete

I’ve already saved at least three gigabytes of space on my hard drive by deleting more than 1,000 images in four days. To be sure, I’ve saved probably 3,000 images, but my point is, I got rid of a lot of pictures. This is important for saving memory space, sure, but it also makes it much easier to find pictures later in your smaller inventory of images. Here’s what I dumped:

  • Pictures of food (for some reason, I take a lot of pictures of food; there’s probably a psychological reason for this, but I’ll save that for a therapist). You might be obsessed with something else that no longer holds meaning to you like bouquets of flowers, birthday cakes or interesting cars you see on the street.
  • Blurry images.
  • Pictures of people with their eyes closed (especially me).
  • I encourage people to get rid of at least some of the pictures of sunsets (we tend to take a lot of these), but I gave myself a pass on this.
  • I got rid of at least two folders of photos that were exact duplicates. I never would have noticed this without looking at every image.

Consider a second or third pass

Take advantage of your intuition as you sort. Right away, I could see I had a lot of pictures of food that I no longer needed or cared about. I deleted without inspecting them. You might feel that way about 10-year-old vacation pictures or landscape pictures or pictures of a finished work project. Dump them.

But for some other photos might need more care and attention (we took an epic trip to Croatia three years ago–I’m not ready to delete any of these yet and they probably should be turned into an album at some point). Give yourself permission to go back through those at a later date, when you’re done with the initial sort. At that point, you will have seen your entire collection of photos and you’ll be better informed to prioritize your next steps.

Back up

I use Carbonite to back up the files on my computer automatically. Once I’m finished sorting, I’ll be moving the oldest photos to both an external hard drive and thumb drives.

Be kind to yourself

chloe smaller

The late Chloe

If you lost someone recently, don’t start with those photos. It’s just too hard to delete those images and it might even be difficult just to look at them. My dog died last February, and it’s taken until now for me to be able to look at those pictures without crying. And even now, I could hardly delete any of them, even the blurry ones. But every image I have of my dog is now in one single folder. I’m pondering my next move. I want to print some of the pictures. I may create a storybook for my granddaughter using the images, but I’m also thinking about creating some sort of framed picture or pictures. Whatever I decide, I share it here.

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Do you have more tips? Share them in the comments. Good luck achieving your photo resolutions in 2019!

If it’s the photos on your phone, instead of on your computer, that are making your twitchy, check out this post I wrote two years ago about “Good cell phone photo hygiene.”


5 ideas for fun photo gifts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … to turn your photos into gifts.

My email inbox is flooded with offers from photo retailers right now. We’re quickly ticking down to the day it is too late to order a customized photo gift and actually receive it in time for Christmas. But we’re not there yet! There’s still time to make treasured gifts for your loved ones with photos. Here are a few ways I’m turning pixels into presents:

  1. 2018 events into Christmas cards: I think of my Christmas cards as little gifts to my friends. I try to make them lovely to hold with nice paper and interesting to read with the KISS principle (keep it simple, sister, no need to write two pages in the age of social media–if they really care that much, they already know). I did my Christmas cards this year with pictures of weddings and graduations at Minted, which promotes itself as offering “fresh designs from independent designers.” Their interface is fairly simple to use, and I also was able to order pre-addressed envelopes, saving me lots of hand cramps.
  2. Snapshots into calendars: In the past, I’ve created custom calendars for my mother-in-law (maybe this year, too, if I get my act together). It’s a great way to show off pictures of the grandkids (and now great-granddaughter) in a printed format. With quality cell phone images, I can print them nice and big so she can actually see the detail she misses on a tiny phone screen. I can even snag images from text conversations, meaning I don’t always have to depend on my own photography. Anyone who prints photos nowadays does calendars, too. Come prepared to your project with a list of relevant birthdays and anniversaries because many vendors can print those, too, in a calendar.
  3. cute dogsFacebook image into luggage tag: Did you know you can download images from your friends’ Facebook timelines? Well, you can. And I did. My friend posted the world’s cutest image of her dogs, and I turned it into a luggage tag for her at Shutterfly. I added the phrase, “There’s no place like home,” which is perfect for a world traveler, I think. I didn’t even have to wrap it. Shutterfly shipped it right to her door for me.
  4. Family photos into fishing lures: My 15-year-old nephew is an angler extraordinaire, so I’m having the local copy shop turn pictures of his brothers into fishing lures. What teen wouldn’t want to turn his brothers into bait?
  5. Picture into puzzle: I’m having the same local copy shop turn an image of my stepson and his girlfriend into a heart-shaped puzzle. How adorable is that?

If you’re not so great at technology, consider visiting your local photo or print shop for help. No need to know the difference between jpegs and pngs or uploading and downloading. The store that usually prints boring paperwork for me (saving me hours of frustration with my inkjet printer and dozens of print cartridges) also does all kinds of photo gifts including Nos. 4 and 5. I emailed my images to them, but I am sure I could have walked in there with my phone and they could have secured the image for me and turned it into a gift.

Good luck and get going! Time’s a-wasting!