Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Write your memoir “on the cutting edge of what’s going on in God’s heart”


“In Raise Up A Standard—A Challenge to Christian Writers,

Michael Phillips asks,

‘Do we want to write

the sensational or the significant?

He challenges Christian writers

‘to be on the cutting edge, not of trends,

not of what’s going on in publishing . . .

but to be on the cutting edge

of what’s going on in God’s heart. . . .

If you believe in your message,

don’t give up on it.

Don’t water it down.

Don’t sensationalize it

just to get published

or to try to make it a best-seller.

Stand firm, in integrity and truthfulness,

for what God has given you to communicate.’”

(Eureka, CA: Sunrise Books, pp. 29-31).”

 (From Marlene Bagnull’s Write His Answer:

A Bible Study for Christian Writers.)


I like that: In writing memoir, let’s “be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in God’s heart.”


After all, here at SM 101, we consider our writing to be a ministry, not a hobby. (Be sure to click on Do you think of yourself as an ordained writer?)


Remember what Deuteronomy 4:9 says: “Always remember what you’ve seen God do and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren.”


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


Accomplishing that, however, can be a daunting task.


How can any mere human do what Michael Phillips said:

to know, and then to write, on the cutting edge

of what’s going on in God’s heart?


Henri Nouwen tells us how to begin, how to end, and how to accomplish everything in between. He uses the word “solitude.”


“. .  We are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God. . . . We need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear.”


We need, he says, “a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow His guidance. . . .


Solitude begins with a time and a place for God,

and God alone. . . .

We need to set aside a time and space

to give God our undivided attention.

(Matthew 6:6)”

(Henry J.W. Nouwen, Making All Things New and Other Classics) 

(Also click on “Bringing Solitude Into Our Lives,

Excerpts from MAKING ALL THINGS New”.)


Always remember: Your story is important. God can use it to shape the lives of your children, grandchildren, great-grands, and anyone else who reads your story, including the “spiritual” children God has given you. Not all of us have children, but we all have “spiritual” children who look up to us and model their lives after ours—more than we realize.


You know from experience

how powerful other people’s stories can be.

Many of them inspired you,

opened new worlds,

sent you in different and better directions,

and made you who you are today.


Believe this:

Your story can impact your readers

in the same way.


While you write the rough draft of your memoir,

ask God to show you what He wants you to communicate.


Set aside time for listening to God for His answer.


Take Henri Nouwen’s advice:

Make time to spend quality time with God,

in solitude with Him.

Give Him your undivided attention.


And then write your stories.


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

More inspiration for beginners: And then I remembered the weevils . . . .

“I didn’t know you had these pictures, Mom!”

Matt’s face beamed. He grinned his biggest grin, spellbound by the photos he held in his hands.

Hushed, he studied one snapshot after another.

“These will be great, Mom, to show my girls the people and places I’ve been telling them about all these years.”

Matt was talking about pictures I took in South America when he was age six through nine and our family lived in a remote mission center at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere. 

Because of Matt’s delight in discovering those old pictures, I scanned old slides by the hundreds, getting prints, scrapbooking them, and placing them in three-ring binders among written stories from those years. (And eventually, I wrote a memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir.)

What are the takeaways for you?

Point #1: Include photos with your memoirs. Your children and grandchildren will be at least as delighted as my Matt was to see our old photos.

Point #2: Photos can help you discover, and then add, detail and richness and depth and breadth to your memoir—and those are important ingredients for (a) capturing readers’ interests and (b) helping them live your stories with you

Readers can get inside your stories when you recreate them through the five sensessight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Photos can help you do that. (Remember Peter Jacobi’s words, “No story has a divine right to be read.”)

For example, here are two photos of the little commissary at our mission center in South America. That's me in the red shirt. (Oh, my, I was much younger then. And slenderer.  Sigh . . . .)

When I stumbled upon those pictures many years later, I remembered the commissary’s smells: ripe, tropical fruit. Powdered laundry detergent. Broccoli. And rancid bread—if the bread man had come.

And then I remembered the burlap bags. Since we had no paper bags, one of our options was to lug groceries home in colorful locally-made burlap totes. They were coarse and scratchy and had a dried-grass-burlap-ish smell.

And then I remembered the flour I bought at the commissary, hand-scooped (by someone, somewhere—I probably didn’t want to know the specifics) into tiny little plastic bags, usually a bit grimy. 

And then I remembered the weevils that lived in that flour.

And then I remembered that at first, I didn’t know what to do about the weevils. I must have led a very sheltered life because I didn’t even know what weevils were, let alone that they could live in flour.

When I first arrived at the mission center, no one taught me that I could (a) put the flour in the freezer and freeze those little critters to death, or (b) spread the flour on a cookie sheet and bake them to death. Then all I had to do was sift out their lifeless little bodies.

And then I remembered that before I knew how to murder weevils, I fed them to a big crowd. I was asked to bring cinnamon roles to an event and, you guessed it—they were speckled inside with little black, crunchy dots—dead weevils. (You can read more in my memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir.)

See what I mean about the value of photos? I knew those stories—but I had forgotten them. I needed to rediscover them. Taking another look at those photos did that for me. And then I could include them and their stories in my memoir.

Sharon Lippincott, too, knows the value and joy of old photos. Reading her "Photographic Memory Jolts" was pure enjoyment for me. From only one photo, she listed dozens of memories.

Take, for example, Sharon’s memories of saddle oxfords. Her post reminded me that every morning before school, I spent a lot of time polishing my own saddle shoes—the white part and the black part.

And I’d forgotten all about my Ivy League saddle shoes with the oh-so-cool little buckle in the back.

And then there was Sharon’s memory of Natalie Wood using Scotch Tape to keep her bangs in place while they dried. Yes, I did that too.

Sharon’s post is a fun read, a treasure trove of history especially if you’re around my age—and all from just one photo!

How about you? Pull out an old photo related to one of the stories in your memoir.

  • What emotions does it stir up?
  • What songs were popular at that time?
  • What styles of clothing, eyeglasses, hairstyles, shoes, furniture, and architecture does the photo capture?
  • Does the photo raise questions?
  • What happened just before the photo was taken? Just afterward?
  • Was something significant brewing at the time, even if you didn’t know it until later?
  • In later years, what happened to the people in the photo?
  • Does it remind you of additional stories?

Go beyond looking at your old photos. What smells come to mind? Textures? Sounds? Tastes? Sights?

Listen. Smell. Feel. Taste. 



I have a hunch you’ll discover details 

that will add gusto to your stories.

Have fun!


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

More tips for beginners: “Each photo has a prologue, a theme, and an afterword.”


A young man I know was looking at pictures his friend took of their childhood neighborhood thousands of miles away.


He held up just one. “Of all your pictures, this is the one that makes me tear up.” He went on to tell a whole story related to that one picture.


Just one photo—so powerful!


Notice the expanding memories my daughter, Karen, had upon looking at a picture taken when she was age four, sitting on a porch with friends:


“I remember that day, and it looks as fun in the picture as I remember—the sweetness of childhood, friendship, and ice cream. And the foggy beauty of contentment and excitement from long ago. I remember the color of the floor inside, the voices of moms, the sliding back door, and the thrilling smell of someone else’s bedroom and toys, and the tingling of imagination, and ‘Let’s pretend. . . .’”


A few years ago, my kids and I messaged back and forth about the photo below of my son, Matt, holding a piranha (piraña) he had just caught in South America.


Matt: “Nice. I still have the teeth from that very fish. Sweet hair, too.”


Karen: “I love so many things about this photo.”

Mom: “Me, too, Karen—a glimpse of the Branks’ house, the steep hill, the basketball hoop.”


Karen: “ . . . the hair, the facial expression, how un-steep the hill looks now. . . .”


Matt: “Hill still looks steep to me.”


Mom: “The sunburnt, blistered, peeling nose, the gigantic freckles.”


Using that one snapshot and the memories it stirred up, I wrote the following in my second memoir, Please God Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir:


The three boys [Matt, Glenny, and Tommy] went fishing, too, catching pirañas and barracudas. One day Matt came home with a piraña on a line dangling from his hand—a piraña more than ten inches long. A dead piraña. “Let me take a picture,” I called, running for my camera.


Then Tommy and Glenny’s dad, George, moseyed over to inspect the prize. “Ah,” he smiled. And paused. Did I catch a hint of a gasp?


“Those teeth are sharp enough,” George said, “and those jaws powerful enough, to slice off a man’s finger with just one bite.”


And suddenly I looked at my son, and myself, through different eyes. What kind of mother would let her child do such a dangerous thing? I tried not to make a scene, but I couldn’t help glancing at Matt’s fingers. They were all there. I could only pray silently, Thank you, God, for keeping my boy safe.


But Tommy, George, and Glenny took it all in stride. “Now Matt,” Tommy said, “cut off its head and bury it in the dirt. Come back in a day or two. Only the jaws and teeth will be left—ants will eat everything else. You’ll have a great souvenir.”


Tommy turned to me. “You can fry that fish for dinner. It’ll have lots of bones, though.” We did, and it did. But that was okay. The memories were worth it. All these years later, Matt still shows those razor-sharp teeth and jaws to his daughters and nephews.


When you look at photos, roll back the layers beneath the event and the people. Go high. Go wide. Keep in mind what Julie Silander says:


“As we crack open the dusty albums of our memories, we take a few minutes to stroll through the snapshots that comprise our lives. Each picture has a story. A prologue, a theme, and an afterword.”


Julie also finds words for what you and I know so well but might not want to admit: “We would like the smiling snapshots to represent the total picture of who we are. Yet there is more….”


How true.


While you read what Julie says next, think of a specific photo related to your memoir. Better yet, hold it in your hand while you read:


“Veiled behind the surface, there is always a deeper story. The argument that happened hours (or minutes) before the picture was taken, the deeper ache just below the surface of the smile, the unexpected turn of events that was to come just around the corner.”


What is your photo’s prologue?


What is its theme?


What is its afterword?


What is the deeper story that pops out of your photo?


Give yourself plenty of time 

to ponder that deeper story and,

when you discover it, put it in writing!


Tuesday, March 19, 2024

More tips for beginners: The power of photos


“Listen to the music of the carousel,

The tinglelingle, lingle of the ice cream bell,

The splishing and the splashing of a moonlight swim,

The roaring of the waves when the surf comes in. . . .


Summertime is here, wake up and come alive,

Put away the scarf and glove.

Here come summer sounds,

The summer sounds I love.”

(excerpts from “Summer Sounds,” Roy Benett/Sid Tepper)


The day my mother died, my daughter Karen sent me those song lyrics in response to a picture I had posted of her and her brother Matt with their grandma a year earlier.


To my surprise, that photo generated one of Karen’s most vivid memories of happy times with her grandma.


Several times when my kids were little, Mom loaded them into her car and drove across the state to Spokane, Washington, to visit their great-grandmother and other beloved relatives.


Mom sang all the way across the state and the kids sang with her. Especially memorable was “Summer Sounds.” All these years later, my kids can still hear her singing those words.


Upon seeing the picture and reading Karen’s words, Matt wrote, “When I hear this song, I can also smell Grandma's Mercury Bobcat and hear the crinkle of brown paper sacks that had rewards in them for each fifty miles of the Seattle-to-Spokane trip.”  


My kids’ memories led me to other memories: I could picture my mom behind the wheel singing at the top of her lungs—and she would be leaning forward. She rarely sat back against the seat, being the high-energy, intense person that she was.


And that led me to another memory. Mom sprinted through life. If the phone or doorbell rang, she jumped up and jogged to see who was there.


And that led me to another memory: Her fellow schoolteachers used to call out during recess, “No running on the blacktop!” But they weren't hollering at students—they were calling out to Mom. She hurried through life at a trot—until she had one leg amputated, but that's another story.


Just think!

That one photo generated all those memories.


Pictures can trigger your memories too,

memories that are crucial in the development

of your memoir’s significant people.


That's important because you don't want—

and especially your readers don't wantlifeless characters,

what Carly Sandifer callscardboard characters.”


So, find a photo of a prominent person in your memoir. Take time to study it and let it stir up memories.


Rediscover—and find words for—that person's quirks, gestures, body language, habits, appearance, and talents.


Let the picture remind you of the five senses: sights, smells, taste, feels, and sounds.


Set the picture aside and let your brain and heart work in your subconscious for a day or so.


Then get the photo out and let it inspire you to dig deeply into your story.


Who were you back then?


What was going on under the surface?


Find words to describe the person’s heart, mind, character, and faith.


What difference did that person make in your life?


What if you hadn't had that experience with him or her? How would you have turned out differently?


What emotions does the picture bring to mind?


Photos can help you write life and personality and depth

into your story’s key people.  


Create multidimensional, memorable, compelling characters.


Your readers will thank you.


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Encouragement for beginners: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”


“First drafts are a writer’s agony and ecstasy,” writes K.M. Weiland.


“This is where your glistening ideas spill onto the page. This is where you get to play around with your ideas, see your characters grow and your themes mature.


“First drafts are fun. They’re your creative playground,” she continues.


“But,” she says, “when you start overthinking your first draft, that’s when everything starts feeling much more difficult.


“Our words on paper rarely measure up to the sparkling perfection of the ideas in our heads. . . . We want so badly to get our first drafts right. . . . And this is where we can run into problems.


“We can become obsessed about creating a perfect rough draft and end up totally psyching ourselves out.


“. . . You sit there and think about How to Be an Awesome Writer . . . [but] this is not a good plan,” she says.


If her words describe you,

I encourage you to relax.

Take a deep breath.


Later, you’ll revise and rewrite and edit,

but that’s not on your to-do list in the beginning.

And when you do revise and rewrite and edit,

don’t think it’s punishment!

Instead, think of it as polishing and beautifying your work.


Prepare to write several renderings

before you publish your memoir.


Your original version is merely your preliminary sketch.


That’s true for every writer.


“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Terry Pratchett


It’s your starting point.


For now, take in these words from Jane Smiley—comforting, encourage words:


“Every first draft is perfect,

because all a first draft has to do is exist.”


Shannon Hale looks at it this way:


“I’m writing a rough draft

and reminding myself

that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box

so that later I can build castles.”


Let’s think about that—about building castles.


“The turrets and spires . . . do not have to be built [in your rough draft]. All the little details can come later in your writing process. . . . Perfection is never expected,” says Makenna Myers.


“ . . . Don’t worry about your grammar or punctuation; let the words flow freely. . . .


“Sandcastles are wonderful because they are malleable. . . . If [later] you determine one of your main points isn’t working, that is no problem. Take it out and smash it like a tower of sand!


“Next time you feel overwhelmed by your first draft, tell yourself . . . you’re building a sandcastle. Don’t stress over the lack of perfection the first time around.” (Makenna Myers)


Even award-winning authors

write rough drafts.


For now, just get something in writing.


And keep in mind that your initial version

is for your eyes only.


Think of it as a foundation for what will one day be your completed memoir. 


Remember the old Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


Taking that single step might be the most difficult, the most challenging, the most intimidating. After all, you’re facing the unknown, standing on unfamiliar ground.


But you need a starting point.

That point is the day you write your first draft.


And when you do,

celebrate your victory! Pat yourself on the back!


You’ll enjoy Janice Hardy’s words:


“There’s something exciting and rewarding about a first draft.  The story that’s been in our heads is finally down on paper. . . .”


Some of your initial work will sparkle.

Other parts might be awkward—maybe even a bit scruffy.

Perhaps you’ve written incomplete sentences.

A few memories are a bit fuzzy.

Grammar and spelling need help.

But that’s okay.


Your main goal is to get something in writing.


Later you can stand back and make fixes—

sometime in the future.


And be encouraged: Once you’ve penned one vignette, you’ll find that writing others will be easier.


Beginning your memoir takes courage. It requires commitment.


Once you take that first step

you will have embarked on a remarkable,

rewarding journey.


You will learn so much personally in the process of writing

 and, one day, when your memoir is complete,

your readers will find blessings, encouragement,

and inspiration for living their own lives.


Let your journey begin!


Tuesday, March 5, 2024

For beginners: How do you start? Where do you start?


If you’re a beginning memoirist, and if you’re puzzled about how to start and where to start, this post is for you.


When Lisa Tener interviewed Richard Hoffman, an award-winning author, she asked his advice for beginning memoir writers—specifically, how and where to begin.

“Wherever you can!” he answered.


"Think of a spiderweb. You can hook that first thread anywhere and it will hold.


“The important thing is to not think in linear terms at all when you’re writing.”


Instead, he says, “Write scenes. Write pages of reflection. Write what’s available to you to write today.


“Memory’s mercurial; 

if something offers itself to be explored, 

explore it while it’s ‘live.’ If you shoo it away 

because you’re convinced that today 

you’re going to work on, say, Chapter 7, 

it might not come back!


“Write modularly in the order that presents itself to you. . . .


A book is read from the upper left-hand corner to the last page—but that’s not how it is written! At least not in my experience.


“Composition happens only later, when you’ve turned over every rock and shaken every tree.


“The next stage, fashioning a story, a narrative, from the parts comes pretty late in the process.” (Richard Hoffman)


Please be underwhelmed by the task of writing a book.


I recommend you even avoid thinking “book.” Instead, concentrate on individual short stories (vignettes).


For the next several months, take easy little steps.


Review the definition of memoir and then compose a few accounts—maybe three to five pages each. These rough drafts will eventually become chapters in your finished memoir.


Start with stress-free topics. You’ll learn the craft of writing more easily that way.


I’ve seen too many beginners 

start with a traumatic story, 

only to have their still-raw emotions sidetrack them. 

Their writing causes too much pain. 

And the discouragement leads them to abandon 

not only that story—

they give up on writing any of their stories at all. 

Don’t let that happen to you.


Consider comfortable, uplifting events:

  • spending time with loving, gentle, affirming people
  • the chapter in your life when God brought you a best friend
  • the time God showed you a beautiful sunset or a snowcapped mountain
  • a stranger’s generosity
  • something hilarious
  • a prayer answered and a dream come true.


If a vignette is refusing to come to life, set it aside and work on a different story—something fun for you. That thorny story might blossom another day.


Embrace what Richard said:

Write what you can today.


Happy writing!


Award-winning Richard Hoffman authored the celebrated memoir, Half the House, as well as short story and poetry collections.



Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“Don’t write words, write music”


Recently we've been focusing on ways to craft your memoir's sentences.

Why? Because . . . 

  • you want to draw your readers in,
  • you want to entertain them, 
  • you want them to keep reading.

We started by looking at short sentences and sentence fragments—they offer impact and punch. (Click on “Sentences are a little like purses” if you missed it.)


Next, we looked at using long sentences. (Click on The beauty of long sentences as well as Especially for wordsmiths, ink-slingers, and painters of words.)


Today we’ll look at the importance of varying sentence length—that is, writing short, simple sentences, medium-length sentences, as well as long, complex ones.


Don’t write words, write music,” writes author Gary Provost. “Great writing moves you effortlessly through the words; reading becomes as quick as thought. 

Part of mastering flow, this ‘music’ in writing, means understanding the interplay between short sentences and long sentences.”


Provost explains the importance of finding such harmony in his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing:


“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.


“Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings.


“It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.


“I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.


“And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.


“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.” (100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Gary Provost)

Monica Sharman says this about Provost's sentences, above: “See what he did there? . . . By simply varying sentence length, he gave it life.

“Hear the pulse? Don't flatline your writing. Give it a heartbeat, a rhythm, a singing pulse. Make the sentences undulate, like verdant rolling hills or sea-blue waves or a dancer’s movements.

“Then watch your story danceor hear it sing.”

Henneke asks: “Do you know whether your writing jigs or jives? Waltzes or boogies? Struts or strolls

“. . . Writing can stutter and stumble. Writing can flow so softly, it almost sends you to sleep. Writing can hop and skip, putting a smile on your face.


“Rhythm is one of the most underrated aspects of writing. . . .


Rhythm creates a mood. Rhythm can make you rush ahead, or slow you down to quietly enjoy reading. . . .


“In writing, rhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier. . . .” Don’t miss Henneke’s article, Rhythm in Writing: How to Make Your Words Swing and Swirl. 

Look over your memoir’s rough draft

and analyze the way you structure and combine sentences.

String words together with rhythm, with texture.

Make em sing.

Read your rough draft aloud

and listen for smoothness and cadence and melody

or thuds. Or clunks. Or choppiness.