DIY Memoir by Catharine Bramkamp

CathrineBrankamp_DIY MemoirLet’s welcome back monthly columnist Catharine Bramkamp as she shares with us “ DIY Memoir.” Enjoy!


DIY memoir is a memoir based on crafts.  These memoirs are either historical — the author looks back and says, wow, there is a pattern here; I can construct a book around that pattern — OR the writer picks up a craft on purpose and as she creates each item — the cupcake, the sweater, each recipe in the cook book — she uses those projects as triggers and organizing memes for each chapter in her memoir.

Either approach can be very effective. And on first reading: easy.

All that is needed is a list of projects, to describe the emotional value of each project, and to write the story about that project —  instant memoir. Much like the directions to knitting a sweater, a DIY memoir can simply follow the pattern, apply some effort a bit at a time, and when the projects are finished, the memoir is done.

I tried this myself.

I  listed the crafts I did as a child:

  • Sewing
  • Quilting
  • Bread making
  • Embroidery
  • Craft of the month club
  • Painting
  • Baking cookies
  • Plants
  • Macrame
  • Cooking

I gazed at the list and made notes —

Sewing: Nothing more than straight stitches. My mother finished both the Girl Scout sewing badge outfit — a pull-on skirt and vest — and the red wrap dress for Sorority rush. What I learned was that zippers were the devil’s invention and I should become a Quaker.

Quilting: All the rage in the seventies, I made a doll’s quilt top. What I learned was that if I hoped to finish any quilt, smaller was better.

Bread making: My dad baked all our bread. We carted massive bricks called sandwiches to school every day. The only thing more worthless on the cafeteria lunch exchange than thick, homemade bread were raw carrots.

Painting: My mother was a talented painter. I tried many times, even took classes. When the instructor pauses over your painting and utters the encouraging words, “Well, you must feel very strongly about that color,” it’s time to quit.

Craft of the Month Club: My mother’s last ditch effort to involve me in the high art of home crafts. Every month a box arrived at the door bearing instructions for a seasonal project. A helpful postcard of the finished project was included. What did I make?

A garland made of a plastic pear, apple, and orange into which I stuffed miniature holiday items; A deer, a snowman and something equally small, plastic and festive into the pear.  Dangling from a fat green ribbon the whole contraption was suitable to decorate the front door.  And my mother did.

A turkey made of a glued felt head and plastic pineapple bottom. The pineapple head leaves stood in for turkey feathers. Sequins were involved.

A measuring cup turnstile to stain and glue together. The plastic cups were avocado, harvest and orange.

Two bunnies to cover with soft cotton, their centers hallowed out to hold easter eggs.

To this day, only the turkey survives. I have no emotional insights as to why.

Painting easter eggs: Every April my mother blew out the insides of a dozen or more eggs and spent hours painting beautiful patterns on the surface. She hung the finished eggs on a white painted manzanita branch for they were of course, stunning. I painted a few, using only colors I felt strongly about.

Plants: They died under my care. For years I believe that I would be a bad mother because I couldn’t even keep a hearty coleus alive. Fortunately  my two children survived, probably because they aren’t plants.

Macrame: I created a belt, but didn’t have the patience to create a purse.

Cooking: No one in my line of women cooked. No one experimented because failure was not, as they say, an option. It was better not to try, than to make a mess.

In the craft world, the things you create ideally match the photos in the instruction books. You follow the patterns for the belts, the dresses, the bread. If you faithfully follow the rules, all will turn out beautifully and suitable for a centerpiece or a Pinterest post.

What I learned from my list and the subsequent self-defeating responses was not that I did not have a memoir in me, but that I did not have that type of memoir in me.

What I love doesn’t photograph well enough to post on my Pinterest board.

What I love to do is very different than the abortive world of crafts my mother insisted I at least try. I could never make anything that looked like it should and never continued doing anything that was born under her watchful eye.

Which of course, is a theme in itself. But I don’t want to write about that yet.

Can you create a craft memoir if you have no craft? Of course.

What do you love? Hiking? Travel? The oboe? Water skiing?

Think outside the photos and instructions and consider what you do love to do, or what you were passionate about as a child. (Books, TV shows, god help you, dodge ball?)

Those too can be fabulous organizing principles for a book.

All you need to do is start with a list of the things you love.

Look for our upcoming book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, What we learned after four years and 200 episodes interviewing agent and authors, publishers and poets. Which could be considered a DIY memoir of a sorts.



Catharine Bramkamp, author

Catharine Bramkamp is the co-producer of Newbie Writers Podcast that focuses on newer writers and their concerns. She is a successful writing coach, Chief Storytelling Officer, and author of a dozen books including the Real Estate Diva Mysteries series, and The Future Girls series. She holds two degrees in English, and is an adjunct university professor. After fracturing her wrist, she has figured out there is very little she is able to do with one hand tied behind her back.

  • Deborah Thomson says:

    This took me back to high school and you were definitely not the DIY friend…lol!!! I would like to say however, that your imagination and creativity were brilliant!

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