We mustn't waste our readers' time. We need to grab their attention from the outset, from the first sentence and the first paragraphs of our memoirs. How do we do that? By deliberately crafting an opening to draw them in. We need to make our readers curious. To hook them. To keep them reading. But most writers don't know how to craft an effective opening. In fact, many of us don't even know what, specifically, we want to communicate. So we scatter a few words and sentences across our computer screen and then we add or delete or move a few words—until we realize we're just flailing around. And we thank God nobody is reading over our shoulder because first attempts can be really embarrassing. But don't worry. Believe it or not, we are making progress. We are experimenting and, in the process, we're constructing scaffolding which will help us build a sturdy opening. Really. Our scaffolding gets us going, provides momentum, and helps us zero in on the story we want to write.
"As the tennis player rallies before the game begins,
so must the writer.
And as the tennis player
is not concerned with where those first balls are going,
". . . Sometimes the writer must write her way into the story, creating sentences that can't appear in the final version but do get the writer to where she wants to go. So the writer erects a scaffold to build the story, but dismantles it to let the story show through."
So then, scaffolding is temporary, a structure that supports the construction of what will eventually stand alone.
"Good stories . . . leap right to their subjects, perhaps not in draft one, or draft six, but at some point, the introductory apparatus is cut, seen for what it is: scaffolding. You put up the elaborate and complicated and even beautiful scaffolding and build the cathedral. When the cathedral is complete, well, you take the scaffolding down." (Writing Life Stories)
So begin writing, knowing that later you might delete some or all of those initial attempts. (And nowadays, deleting and rearranging and rewriting are so much easier than they used to be—back when we used typewriters, sometimes manual typewriters, and later electric. If you've never typed compositions or articles or books on a typewriter, you have no idea how computers have revolutionized writers' lives!)
Readers will like us and our memoirs better
if we remove the scaffolding.
Because they don't want us to dillydally around. They want us to get right to the point.
When we do, our stories have punch, focus, and power.
Look over your memoir's opening. Read it aloud.
And answer these questions:
What is my memoir's main point—the story's purpose? Its signficance?
Do my first few paragraphs focus on or aim toward that main point?
Do my readers need to know this information? Or is it scaffolding—did I write it only to find my way into my story?
Dismantle your scaffolding. Let your story stand strong.
for something bigger than you might realize right now.
In his devotional, Quiet Moments with God, Lloyd Ogilvie prays for God to help him be a communicator of His grace to others. He continues praying:
“All You have taught me on the mountaintops of victory or the valleys of trials has been to help me say to others, ‘I know what you’re going through—I’ve been there!’ Help me see life as a school of grace equipping me for a ministry of sharing. Thank you, Lord, for what I will learn . . . that will enable me to help someone who will need just what I’ve discovered.”
Those words are true for you and for me, too. So are these next ones:
Read the poem again, pondering each point. What experiences have you had, or have you witnessed in others, that illustrate the following:
Happiness came not necessarily from being free of sorrow and pain, but from God strengthening you to bear the grief and hurt that came to you. What Bible verses come to mind?
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-10, Paul tells us that “the God of all comfort . . . comforts us in all our troubles….” He tells of his “hardships . . . suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God….” (See also 2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 119:28; Isaiah 41:10; Ephesians 3:16.)
Happiness came not necessarily by making your paths (your life) easy, but because God enabled you to travel down potentially hazardous “paths” with strength and sturdiness, despite blows, overwhelming challenges, and unwelcome surprises. (See Psalm 40:2, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” Also see Psalm 56:13, 66:9, 73:2, 119:105.)
Happiness came not necessarily because God took hardships from you, but because—rather than cowering in fear—you trusted Him and moved forward, facing the fear. (See Isaiah 41:10, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Also see Psalm 56:3-4, Proverbs 3:21-26; Matthew 8:26, 10:29-31; John 14:27.)
Happiness came not because God gave you only days of “unbroken sunshine” (days and years with no hindrances, no hardships, no sadness, no loss) but because God put hope and joy in your heart despite experiences or people that were contrary, despite troubles, despite unkindness, despite sorrows. (See Habakkuk 3:17-18, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” See also Psalm 40:2-3, 42:5, 62:5-6; 96:1-4, Psalm 146; Jeremiah 29:11-13; Romans 12:12, 15:13.)
Happiness came not because God always made your life pleasant (see above for references) or because you focused on making your life pleasant,but because you did what God urges and desires: that we love others. (See Mark 12:28-31 when one of the teachers of the law asked Jesus which commandment was most important. “‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this . . . “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’” Such service to others is a result of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Such service is the overflow of our hearts. See also Romans 12:13; Galatians 6:7-10.)
Your stories are important. Think of them within the context of what Peter Mommsen said: “If we are going to live with courage and joy and integrity, we need honest, true-to-life stories to show us how.” Your stories can do that!