Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How can you hand your readers a coherent, organized story?

If you’re in the beginning stages of writing your memoir, now is a good time to think about how you will structure it—that is, how will you organize it?

Before we continue, click here to review the definition of memoir. A memoir focuses on a segment of your life—a specific time period or theme

If you choose a time period for your memoir, you’ll probably use a chronological format. (More on this in a future blog post.)

But if you’re basing your memoir on a theme, you’re writing a collection of stories pertaining to that theme. (See our recent post, Must-know info about your theme, by clicking on that link.)

You might base your theme on a Bible passage or a poem that means a lot to you. In that case, you’re writing vignettes (stories, chapters) to illustrate key phrases within that passage.

For example, you could use this Thomas à Kempis prayer as an outline—as a structure or framework for your memoir:

Give us, O Lord, steadfast hearts
that cannot be dragged down by false loves;
give us courageous hearts
that cannot be worn down by trouble;
give us righteous hearts
that cannot be sidetracked
by unholy or unworthy goals.
Give to us also, our Lord and God,
understanding to know You,
diligence to look for You,
wisdom to recognize You,
and a faithfulness
that will bring us to see You
face to face.
      Thomas à Kempis

If you were to use that prayer, you’d have your structure pinned down from the get-go.

  • For example, our first vignette/chapter would illustrate something you experienced—or watched someone else experience—about maintaining a steadfast heart and refusing to be pulled down by “false loves” (which could take many forms). Be sure to include specific the ways “false loves” presented themselves and how you fought to remain steadfast.
  • Your second vignette/chapter would illustrate something you experienced or witnessed about living with courage despite enduring ongoing troubles. Be specific about those ongoing troubles about how they threatened to break the person. And tell the story of choices made to defy fear and choose courage.
  •  Continue through each phrase of the prayer, using examples of personal experiences or those you witnessed in other people.

Another example might be If by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor walk too wise. . . .

Don’t miss the rest of Kipling’s poem—it’s so inspiring! Read the rest of it by clicking here.

And, just like the example above, use each phrase of the poem to write a vignette/chapter about personal experiences, or those you witnessed in other people, to illustrate the validity and power of each. What a powerful memoir that would be to inspire and guide others!

Your goal is to hand your readers a coherent, organized, satisfying story. Your memoir’s structure can play a big role in making that happen.

Come back next time for more help on structuring your memoir.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Don’t start writing your memoir until. . . .

“Do you love?” asks Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. “Are you still learning to love?”

“It’s a question . . . we must repeatedly ask ourselves, especially when we’re writing memoir.”

Beth, an award-winning author of 23 books, including several memoirs, says that if we don’t know what we love,

if we’re not capable of loving,

if we’re focused too much on self (“if we’re stuck in a stingy, fisted-up place”),

if we’re too angry,

if we haven’t allowed grace to take the edge off disappointments,

if “we haven’t stopped hurting long enough to look up and see the others who hurt with us,”

if we “only have words . . . for our mighty wounds and our percolating scars,”

then it’s likely too soon to begin writing a memoir.

Instead, Beth offers this starting point:

Make a list of little things that bring you happiness, those things that embrace beauty and goodness and love.

Beth’s not suggesting you cover up your sorrows and wounds.

She advises, “Rest assured you’ll be given a chance to tell the whole story soon. But start, for now, with love.”

Her suggestion reminds me of Philippians 4:8, “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.” (The Living Bible)

The Message says it this way: “. . . You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

You’ll no doubt include many kinds of stories in your memoir—adventure stories, sad stories, funny stories, heartbreaking stories, heartwarming stories.

By incorporating Beth’s suggestions in each of them,
by including love and gratitude,
writing your God-and-you stories
is a way to thank Him for all He has done for you.

Beth’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir is an excellent, rich resource for you. Consider adding it to your library. And check out her new website, Beth Kephart Books

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: What are you doing with those stories that are so much a part of you?

What are you doing with those stories that are so much a part of you?

Adventures you had,
lessons you learned,
truths you discovered—maybe the hard way,
dreams you pursued,
causes you joined,
heartbreaks you survived,
leaps of faith you took,
hard decisions you made,
the people you love and those who love you.

maybe you know stories about other people
living with courage and integrity.

What are you doing to share those stories with others?

If you haven’t yet started writing your memoir, or if you haven’t yet finished writing it, let these words inspire you:

“. . . Story has immense power,” writes Katie Ganshert. “All of us are living our own. But when we open up a book, we get to live another. We get to put on someone else’s skin—see the world through new eyes. Experience their struggles, their triumphs, their beauty. And where there is struggle and beauty and triumph, there is always hope.”

Katie has experienced those words she wrote—they’re not just good-sounding but empty words. She knows struggles, triumph, beauty, and hope. And she knows the power of story. Click here to read more about her.

Your stories matter.


For many reasons, but here are a couple of the biggest motivators:

Always remember what you’ve seen God do,
and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!
Deuteronomy 4:9

Jesus said,
“Go tell your family everything God has done for you.”
Luke 8:39

That means writing a memoir is a holy work. It is a ministry.

As a memoirist, you have the privilege of working with sacred stories—stories which are for the most part stories of day by day events and average people—but nevertheless it’s a holy calling to tell the next generations about God’s involvement in their lives and their families’ lives (Psalm 145:4).

Such stories need not be dry and boring.
They can and should include charm
and humor and adventure and intrigue.
Write stories that are winsome and fascinating to read.

Write your stories and let God use them to touch others.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Must-know info about your memoir’s theme

If not, you’re missing a lot of helps and inspiration!

By definition, a memoir has a theme. A memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir is only a slice of life—a segment of life—related to a specific theme.

Think about themes illustrating universal values or struggles, timeless truths, or quests:

  • forgiveness
  • compassion
  • justice
  • integrity
  • generosity
  • faith
  • courage
  • respect
  • honesty
  • receiving and giving grace and mercy
  • faithfulness, commitment, keeping promises

For example, you might write a memoir about working as a chef in a fancy Scottish castle, an experience which caused you to discover (or to re-think) how important honesty is.

Or you could write about your life as a set designer in Hollywood and how that taught you the difference between fair-weather friends and true friends.

Another idea: You could write a collection of vignettes based on the same theme as Spiritual Memoirs 101, “Always remember what you’ve seen God do and be sure to tell your kids and grandkids” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Alternatively, you could slice your life in a different direction and write about a specific time period. My first memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, covers my first four years working in Africa as a journalist-missionary. Within that time period, the book includes universal struggles relating to family and faith.

Strive to include timeless values, struggles, and quests that resonate with a variety of people. And, like Jeff Goins says, a good memoir “always connects the reader’s heart with a deeper truth. . . . Memoir is about something that is bigger than you. It’s about a part of life we can all connect to.”

Your memoir’s theme will convey the message you want readers to take with them. Your theme presents lessons they can apply to their lives.

So, the question is: Do you know your memoir’s theme?

If you’re still writing your memoir and don’t have your theme pinned down yet, don’t worry.

Not yet, anyway.

That’s because—and this is delightful—it’s amazing what we discover, what our stories become, in the process of writing.

While writing, we will probably notice a broad theme. Then, as we continue writing, we recognize more specific themes hidden in those words and chapters. Our stories can take us to places we could never have imagined!

Take note: By the time you finish your first draft of the whole memoir, you should know what its main theme is (and what its secondary themes are).

Dr. John Yeoman says that this way: “. . . Write a story that works. Then stand back from it and ask, ‘what does this story mean?’ And strengthen the latent theme . . . that’s already there.”

Dr. Yeoman also says, “If you can’t sum it up in a proverb, you don’t have a theme.”

Are you looking for proverbs, universal truths you’ve lived?
Wisdom quotes you’ve lived? Bible verses you’ve lived?

The living of them qualifies you to write about them!
Your story is important.

If you’re struggling to find a theme for your memoir, here are a few one-liners and quotes that might give you great ideas:

“If things are tough, remember that every flower that ever bloomed had to go through a whole lot of dirt to get there.” Barbara Johnson

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“What if this is a critical moment? What if this very thing, this very decision, is the most important piece of the puzzle comprising my purpose?” Beth Moore

“In the moment, it can be hard to see where God is leading us, but looking back we often see his fingerprints.”  Richard Stearns

“If you live gladly to make others glad in God, life will be hard, risks will be high, and your joy will be full.” John Piper

“. . . Reframe setbacks as opportunities. . . .” Sarah Young

“If you were to think of yourself the way I [God] think of you, how different you would be. . . . If you were to think of yourself as I think of you, how glad, how healthy, how satisfied you would be.” Marie Chapian

“There’s a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Ecclesiastes 3:4

“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” Arthur Golden

“Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading.” Oswald Chambers

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. . . . The Lord your God goes with you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

“Do it trembling if you must, but do it!” Emmet Fox

“Write today’s worries in sand. Chisel yesterday’s victories in stone.” Max Lucado

“What we resist in life is often our biggest opportunity to learn and grow!” Jody Stevenson

“Sometimes your medicine bottle has on it, ‘Shake well before using.’ That is what God has to do with some of His people. He has to shake them well before they are ever usable.” Vance Havner

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul in Philippians 4:12

“Our loving God will turn your mourning into joy, He will comfort you and exchange your sorrow for rejoicing.” Jeremiah 31:13

You’ll find rich material in these links relating to a memoir’s theme:

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Your memoir, "an instrument of transformation for others”

“Don’t get rid of the pain
until you’ve learned its lessons.
When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully,
you are in a very special liminal space.
This is a great teaching moment
where you have the possibility of breaking through
to a deeper level of faith and consciousness.
Hold the pain of being human
until God transforms you through it.
And then you will be
an instrument of transformation
for others. . . .”

(Richard Rohr, adapted from 
The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered)

That’s what 2 Corinthians 1:4 is about:

“[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (NLT).

That’s what your memoir can do for others.

How amazing is that?!

Be sure to check out these related posts:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Find healing through the process of writing your memoir

If you’re just starting to write your memoir, I have important advice for you.

When a friend of mine began his memoir, he started by writing about the most traumatic year of his life. Whoa!

I’ve seen other people begin by writing super-painful stuff, only to become overwhelmed all over again with the devastation—and soon they gave up writing altogether. Don’t let that happen to you!

Please hear this: Begin your memoir by writing your easy stories—the happy stories, the funny incidents, the fascinating experiences. That way you can ease your way into both writing and the reflecting that memoir is.

My heart wants you to fall in love with
and pondering
and discovering all the good stuff you didn’t recognize in the past,
and with making sense of what used to mystify you,
and with writing,
            and with choosing just the right words
                        to fashion your story as a gift for others to read.

Here's some good news: You don’t need to write your chapters/vignettes in the same order they will appear in your finished memoir. Write them in any order that’s easiest for you. Later you can organize them in the best way.

For now, give yourself permission to start with easy stories. Tackle your hard stories later.

Also, keep this in mind: Even if you’re not physically putting your painful story into words (with pen and ink or on a computer screen), you are working on the story. I can’t explain how that works but, behind the scenes, your heart and brain are working on how to write your troubling scenes.  

So, let your heartache marinate for a few more weeks or months. One day you’ll be vacuuming out the car, or playing catch with your grandson, or folding laundry when out of the blue, your heart and brain will speak to you (or maybe it’ll be God who speaks to you—I’d like to think it’s Him), and that voice will offer insights into your hurtful experience. Listen, and jot down notes to yourself: You’ll be mining treasures. Later you can use those notes to compose your difficult story’s rough draft

Also, remember: Your rough draft is for your eyes only. Write it all—the seared, charred, blistered parts, the questions you never had the courage to ask aloud, the doubts you never admitted before, the anger you kept bottled up.

Work out the pain—
work through the pain—
by writing with God beside you.

Wrestle with God
and with yourself
as you write.
Go ahead and cry.
Because God can bring healing
through the process of writing.

And be gentle with yourself, extend grace to yourself: Reliving those emotions and writing those scenes and conversations can be overwhelming.

I know of no anguish-free way to get through that writing process, but I can encourage you with this:

Write your story as a prayer to God
and He can use the process of writing
to help you make sense of events that
knocked the air out of you,
left you broken,
maybe even paralyzed—
and He can help you work through your grief.

If you’ll give it the needed time and if you’ll peel back enough layers and dig deep enough, writing your stories can lead to new insights, to answers that too long evaded you, and to resolution—to getting un-stuck so you can move on to healing and forgiveness and peace and hope for the future. Writing your story changes you.

If you stick with it, at some point you'll find the most profound, redeeming part of writing your story:
  • You'll discover that God was beside you all the while, bringing you people and opportunities and Bible verses and Bible studies and sermons, working out His good plans—many details you probably didn't recognize in the midst of the incident, or saw only dimly, and
  • you'll also discern how far you've come, how much you've healed.
  • That, in turn, makes you overflow with gratitude toward God,
  • and that solidifies your relationship with Him.

Mick Silva says it this way: “I’ve discovered that…protecting and preserving our stories is about discovering God’s story.” I call that your “God-and-you story.”

In that way, writing a memoir can be a journey of personal healing—even if you originally set out to write it for others.

And this is important: At some point, you’ll revise your manuscript. Your first draft, that for-your-eyes-only draft, will remain what it is. But use that rough material to craft a rewrite of your memoir for others to read.

Let God transform you 
through writing that painful first draft, 
and afterward, 
your God-and-you story can help others heal.

P. S. Did you read Tuesday’s post about Kathy Pooler’s experience writing her memoir? If you missed it, click on “Unveiling all the painful truths.” Since most memoirists must write about something painful, you don’t want to miss Kathy’s wisdom and encouragement.