How to Use Short Vignettes to Create a Mosaic of Your Life
While most of my clients share their stories in a series of one-on-one personal interviews (which we then transcribe and edit into a larger narrative), some have already written—or are trying to write—their memoir. It’s usually when they are stuck that they seek our help, but it’s my goal to empower everyone to be able to write their life stories for the next generation, whatever route you take.
Since one of the most debilitating fears I hear is, “How would I even begin to tell my story?!” I often advise: Start anywhere—just start small.
“What is a vignette?”
vi·gnette | \ vin-ˈyet , vēn-\
a : a short descriptive literary sketch
b : a brief incident or scene (as in a play or movie)
A vignette is a recollection of a memory or an episode from your life told evocatively. It is a snapshot of a moment.
You may describe it in your own voice, or using dialogue reconstructed as best as your memory allows, using language to recreate your sensory experience—what did you smell, how was the light, what textures might you have touched?
“Vignettes are tiny essays, story placards, postcards of injustice, single-image stories, little wisps of big ideas,” Tamara Pearson writes in Red Wedge Magazine.
The best life story vignettes transport the reader to the scene and elicit reactions—feelings.
There are two primary reasons I encourage people (non-writers, particularly) to begin with a vignette:
It is a lot less intimidating to write one scene than “the story of your life.” And any writer will tell you: Just write. The words will not begin flowing unless you start.
If you don’t have to worry about traditional story structure—beginning, middle, end; plot, conflict, resolution—the writing process becomes more straightforward.
So don’t worry about story structure and especially, don’t think about the BOOK. Simply think about your memories.
“How do I create a life mosaic from a series of vignettes?”
Assembling shorter pieces into an extended work is more than copying and pasting the vignettes together in one document. It’s more, indeed, than even thematically grouping them.
Editing the stories, finding the narrative in order to group the vignettes for impact and cohesion, revisiting and embellishing some and discarding others—all of these tasks should come on the heels of writing.
While I have referred to the resulting narrative of assembled vignettes as a mosaic, Tristine Rainer, director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies in California, calls it a quilt. “When you follow the quilt model of assembling a work, you spontaneously write and collect pieces that seem to you thematically related. As you proceed, a pattern or story begins to link the pieces. Certain areas will easily cluster, but you won’t have the whole picture until it is all in place.”
Additionally, I prefer to enhance the written words with photographs that help bring them to life—that allow readers multiple entry points to engage with the text. Imagine a coffee table book about the Civil War sitting beside a 1,000-page tome void of any pictures—which would you pick up? Even if the stories of my ancestor were highlighted in each of these books, I would undoubtedly look at the coffee table book first.
How material is presented makes it more (or less) accessible, and I take the viewpoint that you are writing these stories so they will be read (ideally, often). So let’s invite people in! Taking the time to design a mosaic of these stories cohesively—and beautifully—ensures that they will live on. That your legacy will be recounted and woven into the fabric of your progeny’s lives.
“What if I can’t get past writing the vignettes?”
When you have written a series of vignettes from your life, you will have created a wonderful legacy for generations to come. If taking the next steps seems daunting, consider hiring us to edit, compose, and package your stories into a cohesive heirloom book.
Even if you’re not ready for that, though, remember, as Lois Daniel asserts in How to Write Your Own Life Story: “You may be able to enhance your stories by the way you arrange and connect them, but you can’t diminish them, so move ahead with confidence.”
And no matter what, share your stories with those you love—please.
Stay Tuned for More In-Depth Posts on Memoir-Style Vignette Writing
We’ll be rolling out more helpful content over the coming weeks to help you get down to the nitty-gritty of writing your life stories. Check back for:
Writing Prompts for Life Story Vignettes, Part I: Using the Senses
Writing Prompts for Life Story Vignettes, Part II: Self Interview
Writing Prompts for Life Story Vignettes, Part III: 300 Words in 30 Minutes
The Vignette: What to Read to Be Inspired