3 places to find raw material for life story and 3 sources of inspiration

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

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

  1. Peruse your old diaries. I’m writing a memoir based on the year I turned 15 and learned to kiss. Entries like this one inspired whole scenes in my work-in-progress 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 langauge while massaging the content for actual emotion.

2. Copy and paste your Facebook posts. My mother recently went to Guatemala for a mission trip. She keep 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.

3. Take advantage of an online prompt provider. There are many, but one I like comes from WordPress (where I host this blog). Every day, I get a one-word prompt in my email In Box. Today’s word is pensive, for example. Imagine all the vignettes pensive might inspire. When was the last time you were pensive? What life changing events made you pensive? When should you have adopted a more pensive attitude before taking a big leap? What are you pensive about right now? These ideas from the Daily Post are meant for blog writers, but they work just as well for budding memorists.

 

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.

The right box for storing printed photos is designed for storing photos

 

As a photo organizer, I’ve seen a lot of containers for keeping loose photos. Frames (frames are designed for displaying one photo, not for storing several). Cardboard boxes (cardboard is useful for Amazon and UPS, not most photographers). Plastic containers of every shape, size and design.

The worst container I’ve ever seen was a laundry hamper. Laundry hampers are designed for dirty clothes, not photos. Even if the material of the hamper was photo safe, which is certainly possible, the size alone was damaging the photos because none of them could lie flat. The photos were a jumbled mess inside — folded, curling, bent and torn.

Not good.

Here’s what happens to photos stored in container meant for other things:

curled photos

Curled photos can be fixed, but it isn’t quick or easy. Better to store them flat in the first place. And a cover can go a long way to prevented fading; eliminate light and you eliminate a lot of discoloration.

There are a lot of boxes in the world for storing printed photographs, and a family historian can get overwhelmed if you don’t know what to look for.

flat photo storage

Even if your photos aren’t labeled as those here, they’d be better off lined up in this box than one that’s not made for photographs.

The first thing to look for in a good photo storage box is one actually designed for photos. You can spend a lot or a little, but if you get a box made for photos, you’ve covered the most important elements. To begin with, a properly sized box will help you keep the photos flat. Also, they’ll be easier to get at when you want to enjoy them or scan them or share them (remember that laundry hamper? Think about how hard it was to get to the photos on the bottom — impossible!).

Second thing to consider: Material. When it comes to boxes for storing your photos, look for acid-free material or photo-safe plastic containers. Avoid recycled materials. Choose opaque when possible, rather than clear, because opaque materials keep out light.

Third: Choose a container with a cover. Covers keep out light, air pollution and dust.

And finally, when it comes to storing your photos, where you put the box matters. Avoid moisture and high temperatures, both of which hasten photo aging. So consider the environment and climate in which they will be stored; find a cool, dry place in your home, such as an upstairs closet.

 

LegacyBox

The Legacy Box

My favorite box is the Legacy Box (inside pictured above), available through most reputable photo organizers (including me). It’s big (stores up to 2,300 photos), beautiful, made with acid-free and lignin-free materials, and designed to keep photos flat and easy to label and see.

Your phone is not a photo storage device: How to find your DCIM and manually move your photos to your computer

Trained photo organizers urge photographers to backup their digital images two or three ways.

Unfortunately, some users don’t backup their images even once. Let’s be clear, if you leave all your digital images on the device with which you take them, they’re not backed up. If the disc in your digital camera corrupts or you drop your phone in the toilet, your images will be gone. And you’ll be sorry.

Cloud storage helps some cell phone photographers. If you use cloud storage. And if you’re backing up your phone properly.

I use an iPhone, and I’m not a fan of iCloud. Honestly, I’m not willing to pay for storage space for most of the photos I take with my phone. Why? Well, let’s just call me frugal. Also, I take a lot of junk images which aren’t worth saving, let alone backing up. But the most important reason is because I manually back up my images so I know I’m saving what’s worth saving, and I know where to find the images later.

I recently changed phones and used iTunes as my backup. For reasons I cannot explain (because some things are unfathomable like that), the images I found on my new phone were not the same ones I had on my old phone. If I hadn’t backed them up manually, I would have been very sorry.

If you want to avoid similar sorrow, here’s a quick step-by-step to finding your images on your phone and backing them up manually:

  1. Plug your phone into your computer. [I have an iPhone and a Toshiba computer with Windows 7 (right, I’m not a fan of Windows 10, either) so the screen shots I share here are what I see. No matter what phone or computer you’re using, you’ll see something similar.]

2. Find your phone on your computer. Sometimes, I have to unplug and replug in the phone to see it. You should see a window like this; you can see “Monica’s iPhone” in the left column and under “Portable Devices.”

phone-camera on desktop

3. Double-click to open your phone. Now you’ll see something like this, “Internal Storage.”

phone-internal storage

4. Double-click to open “Internal Storage.” Now you’ll see the DCIM folder. DCIM stands for Digital Camera Images. If you’ve found it, you’ve found gold. This is the designation for almost any digital camera or phone for photo storage.

phone DCIM

5. Double-click to open the DCIM folder. You might see another level of folders, as I do on my iPhone: 100APPLE. If you have a lot of photos on your phone, you might see 100APPLE, 101APPLE and so on (in Apple’s system, there are 1,000 images in each folder). Open each folder to find your digital images, usually jpgs you can view as thumbnails.

phone Apple100

6. Now you can copy the images you see onto your computer (or another drive). I move them to labeled folders such as “2016 blog photos,” “2016 charitable donations” (I always take pictures of donations to Goodwill for tax purposes) and “2016 family photos” (with sub folders labeled by topic such as “Las Vegas” and “Caswell’s Graduation”).

At this point, you may choose to permanently delete images from the DCIM folder, depending on if you want to access them later from your phone. I usually delete them because I am loathe to show people pictures on my tiny phone screen and I prefer to spend my available phone memory on music files, but that’s me.

Now, in a perfect world you’ll back up your computer files on an external hard drive or the cloud (or, optimally, both which give you two backups to the original images).

Good luck!

6 steps for making a milestone album for someone special

I’m sharing these popular instructions again — reprinted from two years ago — for photo album makers thinking of making a meaningful gift this year.

As you look to the year ahead, think about whether the most important people in your life may be celebrating a milestone.

Is your mother turning 60?

Are your sister and your brother-in-law celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary?

Is your father finally retiring?

If someone special is celebrating a milestone in the near future, it’s time to think about making Special Someone an album.

Such a gift requires a little bit of planning, a lot of cooperation from Special Someone’s friends and a few hours to assemble an album, but the result will be worth every bit of effort.

I made such an album recently for my mother-in-law when she turned 70. My husband and his brother hosted an open house for about 60 of her friends and family, and I made her a beautiful keepsake full of memories and birthday wishes for her to enjoy until her next milestone birthday.

Nina album cover

Cover

Here’s how I did it:

1. Plan ahead. Three months in advance, we sent “save the date” cards to everyone in Special Someone’s address book (we had my mother-in-law participation, but you could do this on the sly if you’re a good detective or if you have an inside man). The cards included this message:

We’re creating a memory album for Special Someone to present to her at her birthday party. Please share a memory and/or photo of Special Someone so we can include it in the book.

What to contribute: Send a message (a story, memory or birthday wishes) and/or photo(s) to Special Someone’s daughter-in-law, Album Creator. Email or snail mail accepted. If you can’t bear to part with a printed picture, mail it, we’ll scan it and send it back to you.

Don’t delay! Send your message right now, while it’s fresh in your mind.

Include your email and mailing address.

About 15 invitees sent me something during the next 8 weeks.

2. Remind: We sent invitations six weeks in advance. Included in the invitation was this message:

Don’t forget! If you want to contribute a memory, good wishes or a photo to Special Someone’s memory album, send it NO LATER THAN DATE to EMAIL or ADDRESS. Thanks to all those who’ve already contributed.

A couple dozen more people responded, including my mother-in-law’s brother who had an abundance of photos. In my situation, the only people I had to bug to contribute were my mother-in-law’s 20something grandchildren.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

3. Decide format: I scanned all hard copies (including handwritten notes) so I could create a digital photo book. I chose to print with Shutterfly because of its fast service (when complete, the album was delivered within a week).

album black and white

4. Select a design: One theme throughout a book ties different subjects together, so I recommend sticking to one color scheme or coordinating designs. Here, using a classic background, black and white images blended beautifully with color images on other pages.

Early years

Early years

5. Organize: I used a roughly chronological approach to the album, so friends from high school (with pictures of high school) went in the beginning, messages from her card club friends in her current life went in the middle and messages from her grandchildren went at the end. It wasn’t perfectly chronological though; images of she and her brother were near the beginning, whether they were toddlers or retirees at the time.

I tried to put similar people together on the same pages (co-workers, for example, and aunts).

Album Chris

I got a lot of family reunion photos (because, of course, that’s one of the places Special Someone often sees those who contribute to such an album, so I grouped them together here with an image in the background of South Dakota, where many relatives live(d).

6. Print and present: We put my mother-in-law’s album on display at her party so all the contributors could see their own contributions and others’ in print. But we presented the album to her a couple of days before so she could absorb all the wonderful things people said about her and remain composed at the party.

In the end, her book was 50 pages long and covered almost every important achievement and person in her life. One life. One book. Amazing.

album wedding

I sprinkled appropriate quotes and titles throughout the book, but the theme I used was sewing because my mother-in-law is an accomplished seamstress (she sewed the gown I wore to marry her son and many contributors mentioned her talents and gifts). One of my favorite quotes was this:

Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread and held and carried by a hundred others.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Users of former Creative Memories software may want to migrate to Forever

If you’re a user of Storybook Creator or Memory Manager, two software products I’ve recommended in the past, take note: Panstoria.com, the Panstoria Store, and the Panstoria Print Shop are closing on Jan. 31.

Storybook Creator and Memory Manager were products that came from the former Creative Memories. When that company went bankrupt, Panstoria picked up the slack and offered compatible Artisan and Historian programs. But now Panstoria is going away, too, and those old Creative Memories programs will no longer be supported and cannot be updated or reinstalled on a new machine.

However, a new company – Forever.com – is picking up where Panstoria left off.

Everything to love about Panstoria – including Artisan, Historian, digital art, and a catalog of print products – are now available at Forever.com.

Forever and Panstoria joined forces in September 2014 because Panstoria’s products fit into Forever’s vision of helping people capture, save, and share their photos and memories for generations.

If you’re still using Creative Memories Storybook Creator or Memory Manager, they will continue to work, but they will no longer be supported and cannot be updated.

Solution? Upgrade to Forever Artisan ($29.95) and/or Forever Historian ($59.95). Still have questions? Forever has a good Q&A here.

No. 1 rule for taking better landscape photos

Real fans of landscape photography probably own several types of lenses and pairs of good hiking boots. They already know how to take good landscape photos.

The rest of us tend to take pictures of what we see outside our car window.

Which is why, when I’m winnowing a lifetime of photos for someone, I usually put a lot of landscape photography in the C pile–the trash Can. Most of it is just bad.

So the best tip I can offer you for taking better landscape photos on your next vacation or visit to the county park is this:

Don’t be lazy!

Walk around. Squat to get close. Climb to get a better view. Try a perspective that’s different than the one that’s easiest to get to. Get up early or skip happy hour (sunrise and sunset are great times for landscape photos). Move a little, and you’ll find better shots.

Here are a couple personal examples.

Bad

IMG_6155

Note the power lines. And the fence. And the lack of any sort of anchor. The clouds passing over the dunes are beautiful. But this photo is not.

Better

IMG_6137

This image required me to scramble over two, yes two!, berms. I also had to get up early enough to catch the sun in some position other than overhead; my positioning tells the story of a blindingly bright day in the desert.

I know I can do better so I will continue trying. I know I will be rewarded for s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g a little out of my comfort zone, and I bet you will, too.