Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Photos: A rich resource for writing your memoir


Photos can play a big role in your memoir. Among other things, they help you, the writer, remember details. But they can also help you recognize big stuff, the deeper story, the weighty repercussions.


Don’t believe me? I discovered something profound in an old photo, something I’d never noticed before, which propelled me into writing my most recent memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir. (More about that next week.)


Because of that experience, I encourage you to dig out a key photo related to your story. Examine it and jot down what comes to mind.


Let’s start with the easy stuff: 

  • When was the photo taken?
  • Why were you in that place?
  • What did you do there?
  • What was the weather?
  • Who was with you? If it’s a main character in your memoir, note his or her relevant characteristics: physical appearance, quirks, tone of voice, attitudes, values, talents, endearing qualities, maybe even odors.
  • What emotion does the photo stir up?

Jot down sensory details: What did you smell? What did you hear? Taste? Touch/feel? See?


Next, dig deeper. Look at those photos with fresh eyes. Read between the lines. What’s lurking (or percolating) under the surface? What are the vibes? Is there an elephant in the room?


How did the event or place or person in the picture:

  • change you?
  • or prepare you for the future and make you the person you are today?
  • warn you?
  • inspire you?
  • make your dreams come true?
  • break your heart and your spirit?
  • send you in an altogether new direction?


But don’t stop there. What’s the bigger picture?


Does the photo symbolize or capture the theme in your memoir? —the central idea or meaning or message? Ask yourself, What is the big picture here? What’s my story about?


For a few days, think about the photo and what it represents. It might hold more significance than you now recognize.


Here’s my experience: Years ago, I used three-ring binders to compile photos of our family’s three years in South America, and the stories that went with the photos, as keepsakes for my kids.


I assumed I had tied everything together and that the story was complete. But I was mistaken.


“Sometimes you think a story is completed

and all wrapped up.

But then, decades later, something happens

and you realize that it’s not done yet,

it’s still in process.”

(Lawrence Kushner,

Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary)


Decades later, I looked at one of the photos—one of my favorites, one I’ve framed, one I’ve used in speaking engagements. That day I looked at it and saw something I’d never noticed before.


Why had I never seen it?


And suddenly I knew there was much more to my story than what I’d included in the scrapbook for my kids. 


Come back next week and I’ll tell you how that old photo took my three-ring binder accounts and transformed them into my recent memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make MeGo: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir.


Between now and then,

look at a couple of photos pertaining to your memoir.


Perhaps you, too, will find clues that shout,

“Your story is not yet finished!”




Tuesday, August 2, 2022

When you didn’t even know God was there: Discovering His fingerprints


As you compose your memoir, take special note of what God was doingeven if at the time, His role was under the radar.


Maybe what you thought was a mere coincidence was much more—it was God Himself intervening.


Lloyd Ogilvie writes about the parable of the Good Samaritan and the phrase “now by chance” in Luke 10:31-35:


“Now by chance a priest was going down the road,” as was a Levite after him, and a Samaritan after him.


Ogilvie writes:


“The Greek word translated by the word ‘chance

means ‘coincidence.’

But not even that word gets at the core of the meaning

of the Greek word. . . .

It means a confluence of circumstances

which seem to happen by chance

but are really events interwoven

by divine providence

for the accomplishment of a greater purpose.”

(Silent Strength for My Life)


Read that again.


In writing your memoir, look for occasions when something seemed to happen by chance or seemed coincidental. Ask yourself: Were they, in reality, “events interwoven by divine providence”—by God’s foresight and guidance and plan?


Give yourself plenty of time to search for answers.


Remember what makes memoir so rich, so special. A memoir goes beyond writing about what happened.


It involves discovering the significance of what happened

and what you did about it or with it.


Reflection is a key ingredient in writing a memoir. Most people need to work on reflecting because, as Richard Foster observes, “The sad truth is that many authors simply have never learned to reflect substantively on anything.”


The remedy?


To reflect in a meaningful, deliberate way.


Take a closer look at the incidents in your life, your decisions, your relationships:


  • Consider
  • Ponder
  • Contemplate
  • Deliberate
  • Ruminate
  • Cogitate
  • Wonder
  • Mull over
  • Chew on
  • Wonder about
  • Think about
  • Weigh
  • And study



Spend as much time as you need to make sense of what you discover—to pinpoint those aspects of your life that were indeed not just coincidence, not just something that happened by chance, but were in fact the work of God.


This week search for any of God’s fingerprints you might have overlooked in the past. Put in writing how your life changed as a result. How did God use the event to prepare you for the future? Deepen your faith?


Think about what Jacob said in Genesis 28:16,


God was in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

When has that happened in your life?


Uncover the richer, higher, deeper, wider, broader story,

the story of what God was doing.


Discovering that will change your heart and life

in ways you can’t imagine!


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

“Before you can write clearly, you have to be able to think clearly”

You labor and toil to write your memoir and place it in the hands of others. I know you do—because I’ve done it myself. Twice. I want to encourage you: If you persevere, in the end, you’ll find your effort worth it!


Remember significant motivations for telling your story: You want to bless your readers in any number of ways—you want your story to inspire them in their lives:

  • to never give up, never quit fighting, and always hope
  • to make good choices and be trustworthy people of integrity
  • to speak up when something’s not right
  • to always love, always forgive, and always extend grace
  • to grow in their faith
  • to laugh and love—to love God and others. 

The list goes on and on.


But all that depends on whether they can understandreally understandyour message. That’s why lately we’ve been talking about clarity. We need to write clearly and concisely if we want readers to (a) read our memoirs and (b) understand them—to get all the richness and wisdom and blessing out of them.

That means you and I need to findhave a good grip on—that clarity ourselves first.

Sometimes that’s a problem.

I’ve read thousands of passages

written by others in rough draft form

and it’s very revealing. And convicting.

Because here’s the deal: In reading someone else’s writing, we spot all the gaps in communication, the ambiguities, the words and sentences that leave us confused.

When that happens, I stop and re-read sentences, paragraphs, and maybe even pages, trying to make sense of the writer’s message, trying to figure out what his point is.

Here’s what I’ve learned: The writer doesn’t always know what he’s trying to say. (And by the way, that makes it pretty much impossible for me to edit or critique the person’s writing.)

Jesse Hines says it this way: “Before you can write clearly, you have to be able to think clearly. A big reason [writers fail to convey] their message is that they were not focused on a clear message. Good writing usually stems directly from clear thinking.”

Ask yourself, then, “Am I thinking clearly?”

  • Do you know the point of the paragraph you’re writing? What purpose does it serve?
  • Where do you want it to take your readers—that is, does it take readers from one significant point to the next significant point? In the right order?
  • Does the passage hold relevance for the main point of the larger vignette or experience?


If you’re confused, your readers will be confused, too.

Outlining your paragraphs

(the ideas and points within each)

should help you think more clearly,

rearrange words and sentences, and delete others.

Figuring out what you want to say is only the first step. Next, you need to write with clarity.

“Take great pains to be clear,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Remember that though you [can] start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t. . . . It is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something he wants to knowthe whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.” (C.S. Lewis, Writing Advice, “To a Schoolgirl in America”)

Think clearly, write clearly.


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

In penning your memoir, don’t “discount simple writing”


Last week we considered how important it is for you to communicate clearly with your readers. (If you missed it, click on Put yourself in your readers' shoes.)

This week I have tips for you on how to accomplish that.


Years ago, when I studied journalism, instructors taught us to aim our writing at eighth graders—that is, to write material that eighth-grade students can easily understand.

Recently I saw the same advice so it must still be the best practice.


What’s true for journalists is true for memoirists: Aim at an eighth-grade audience.


Ken Follett, Welsh author, says his goal is to make his prose “utterly easy to understand.” He calls it “transparent prose.”


I’ve failed dreadfully,” Follet says, “if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant.”


Write clearly.





Shane Snow says it this way: “We shouldn’t discount simple writing, but instead embrace it. . . .


“We should aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible.


We won’t lose credibility in doing so,” Shane says. “Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people.”


“Writing text that can be understood by as many people as possible seems like an obvious best practice,” write Rebecca Monteleone and Jamie Brew. “But . . .


“ . . . from news media to legal guidance to academic research, the way we write often creates barriers to who can read it. Plain language—a style of writing that uses simplified sentences, everyday vocabulary, and clear structure—aims to remove those barriers.” (Read more at “What Makes Writing More Readable?”)


Read your manuscript aloud.

Listen for words or sentences or paragraphs

that could confuse readers.


Rewrite them,

fixing anything that’s not precise.

Make your writing easy to understand.

Your readers will thank you.


Come back next week. We’ll look at additional ways to write your memoir with clarity.


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Tuesday Tidbit: Put yourself in your readers’ shoes


A few days ago, I was reading an award-winning book when I got stuck on a paragraph—only two sentences long—that made no sense.


I stopped and re-read that paragraph, but I still couldn’t figure out what it meant.


I read it again, and again, but it still made no sense.


On about my fifth try, I realized the word “him” was referring to a different male than I originally thought. Also, the author had used a noun that had several definitions, and I had interpreted the word in a different way than she intended.


The experience reminded me how important it is for us memoirists to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes.


Because . . .


“It has long been a guiding principle of writing that,

if there is any possible way

for readers to misread

and misinterpret

what you write,

they will.

The purpose of laborious

and tedious editing

is to make the writing so precise

that it cannot be misread

and misinterpreted.”

(Kendall Haven)


That means that, for the sake of your readers, you, the writer, must, clarify.


Choose words carefully.


Give specific details.


Be accurate. Unambiguous.




Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.


Ask yourself, “Will they understand my story? Is it clear?


Refine your story. Enhance it. Polish it. Make it shine.


And enjoy your writing!

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How to craft the best chapter titles for your memoir


Recently we looked at:


Today we’ll look at how to develop excellent chapter titles.


You could take the easy way out and just give your chapters numbers. But how boring is that?!?


Instead, create curiosity in your readers, entice them to keep turning pages. Increase their enjoyment of your book by crafting intriguing chapter titles. You want to hook your readers—make them want to know what comes next without giving it away in your title.


Keep in mind that with each new chapter, you’re introducing either new information or a shift in information. A new chapter can indicate a change in time, location, topic, perspectives, plans, emotions, success, well-being, and so on. Your chapter title can signal to readers what to expect and help them transition into it.


Use chapter titles to propel your memoir’s story arc (narrative arc)—the trajectory of your account. (What’s a story arc? you might be asking. “A well-written memoir utilizes the same elements of a novel, including . . . a beginning-middle-end structure,” writes Cate Macabe. “A story arc moves the main character . . . from one situation to another, one state of being to another.” Learn more by clicking on this link to our earlier post, “Do you know what a story arc is? And why it’s important?”)


Tension and foreshadowing (a setback, disaster, or danger) captivate and motivate readers to keep reading. For example, in my recent memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir, I entitled one chapter “Terrorism was to affect our lives very significantly.” Here’s another title from my memoir: “A matter of life and death.”


A chapter title can be a phrase from within the chapter. For example, again from my memoir, “Three vulnerable women, three small children—easy targets.”


Or you can use a quotation or proverb that highlights the significance of the chapter’s contents. For example, I used this Winston Churchill quote for one of my titles: “Failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Another quotation I used is this from Walt Whitman: “Happiness, not in another place but this place. . . .”


You can also fashion a title from dialogue within the chapter, such as this one from my memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir: “We’re coming back later and if you’re here, we’ll kill you.”


And sometimes it’s okay to choose a title that simply tells readers what the chapter will be about. It might seem boring but I encourage you to develop a title that makes them wonder what they might miss if they don’t keep reading. Get creative with your word choice—add a little spice or sparkle—or maybe even a shock. I entitled such a chapter “Another bomb threat, and a dead pig on the kitchen floor.”


Give yourself time to craft just the right chapter titles. Experiment as you write your rough draft. You will probably change your titles several times during the rough draft stage. That’s good.


Here’s a bit of advice from memoirist Matilda Butler:


“Try writing four titles for each chapter. Then ask your writing group, or even friends, to tell you the ones they like the most and why. Even if you don’t take their advice or suggestions, you will learn a lot about how readers of your memoir may react to your titles.”


Your goal, then, is to create chapter titles that will:

  • grab your readers’ interest,
  • enhance your story, and
  • add to your readers’ enjoyment.


Creating chapter titles can be fun.

Enjoy the creative process!


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

“Give your chapter endings extra love”

The other day I turned in a library book without finishing it. . . . Sigh. . . . Have you ever done that?

I almost gave up on that book several times but kept telling myself to give it one more try, and then one more try, but eventually I just couldn't keep reading.

Why do we stop reading some books? There are several reasons. It has to do with the story itself, but it also has to do with how the author writes that story. Last week we looked at how to begin your memoir's chapters (Your chapter openings: Do they intrigue readers?) and this week we'll look at how to end your chapters

We all know this: Readers have a choice at the end of each chapter. They can turn the page and begin the next chapter . . . or not.

We want to prevent that "or not."

We must write chapter endings

that motivate readers, that compel them, 

that propel them forward into the next chapter,

and then into the next chapter.

That's why we need to learn to write effective chapter endings.

Book chapter endings aren't supposed to resemble composition endings we penned in college freshman English. Back then we concluded with a summary that tied everything together and provided a satisfying end. Our composition endings brought a sense of closure. Resolution. We might think that's how to end our memoir chapters, too, but that's not the case.

Rebecca Belliston writes, " . . . if we end every chapter with a resolved scene, readers might leave for those Oreos and find something else to do. When it comes to holding reader interest, knowing when to end a chapter matters almost as much as knowing what content to include within the chapter."

Look over your memoir's rough draft. Examine the endings of your chapters. Ask yourself if each compels readers to turn the next page and keep reading.

Here are a few techniques:

Mystery, tension, emotion: Time pressures, threats, or risks motivate readers to keep reading. A sudden death. An unexpected kiss. A forced change of plans.

Surprise: You realize the good guy is the bad guy.

Suspense: End a chapter where a main character is still striving toward a longed-for goal that's been out of reach, but he/she is getting closer and closer.

Ask a question that captivates the reader and makes her want to read more. For example, in my second memoir, Please, God, Don't Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger's Memoir, I ended one chapter this way:

"But what if Dave's idea wasn't just youthful, half-baked idealism? When he burst through that door with that goofy grin and said, 'We are moving to Lomalinda,' did God burst through with him? With a big grin?' (Please, God, Don't Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger's Memoir

Drop a new twist into your story—a new conflict, a secret, or something terrifying or dangerous. For example, also from my second memoir:

"Swimmers also admitted their fear that pirañas might chew on them, but that didn't keep them out of the water—unless they had sores on their bodies. With powerful jaws and teeth like razors, pirañas have a reputation for eating a man in a couple of minutes, leaving only a skeleton—but Lomalinda's didn't bite unless they smelled blood, and thus the need for those with an open sore to stay out of the lake. (Pirañas only nibbled on a mole on Dave's knee.)

"And let me tell you about boa constrictors."

Reveal a tidbit of information—maybe good news, maybe bad news—that hints at (foreshadows) the future and creates curiosity. For example:

"The policeman returned and told Will he'd requested reinforcements. 'We will be ready for the terrorists if they come back,' he said. They didn't come back—not that night anyway—but our people remained in the guerrillas' crosshairs for decades to come. Later Will summed it up: 'It was obvious that some who opposed us ideologically were willing and able to kill to remove us from the scene. . . . Terrorism was to affect our lives very significantly for the next several years." (Please, God, Don't Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger's Memoir)

Another technique is to give readers a candid look into your heart. Be vulnerable, transparent. For example:

"Now I look back on my first few days in Lomalinda and shake my head. I still get an ache in my heart when I remember. But in the years since then, I've learned to extend grace to myself. I can even smile a little. But I wasn't smiling back then." (Please, God, Don't Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger's Memoir)

Humor is good. Make 'em laugh.

Or make 'em cry.

Here's another tip: End a chapter in the middle of a conflict (real or emotional), or the middle of a critical conversation, situation, or event.

Ashley Martin says, "Look for places in your story where something BIG happens. Once you've found that big event—rewind. When you've found the apex—the point where your character is teetering on the edge of that pivotal moment—FREEZE. Stop your chapter there, and don't reveal what happens until the start of the next."

We call that a cliffhanger.

Aaron Elkins makes this important point: ". . . A cliffhanger ending to a chapter doesn't have to be an action scene. As long as it leaves the reader 'hanging,' you're in business."

Here's another important tip: End your chapters in a variety of ways—mix them up. Be unpredictable.

"One of the best things an author can hear

from a reader is,

'I'm so exhausted.

I stayed up until four in the morning

to finish your book.'

. . . If they're willing to give up sleep,

they must have really liked the book."

Rebecca Belliston

Whatever you do and however you do it, hook your readers. Leave them with irresolution—make them curious to know what will happen next. Compel them to turn the page.

K.M. Weiland says, "Many a book has been declared dead to its reader and cast aside never to be remembered—and all because the reader reached a chapter break and didn't care enough to keep reading."

Weiland continues, "That's the bad news. The good news is that when chapter breaks are done right, many a reader has kept scrabbling through the pages, deep into the night, because he simply couldn't look away from the enticing hooks the author kept planting at the ending  . . . of each chapter."

So, if you don't want your memoir to sit on a shelf and collect dust, invest time in crafting intriguing chapter endings. In the words of K.M. Weiland, "give your chapter endings extra love."