Saturday, May 26, 2012

Modules add zing to your memoir

What comes to mind when you hear the word module?

When my husband and I worked on the mission field, we collected modules to use in speaking engagements when we returned home.

On the field, we kept our ears alert for coworkers’ stories that would serve as a cultural module, an IIWIA (Is it worth it all?) module, a spiritual need module, or an end result module.

Modules are short accounts (in contrast to stand-alone stories that have a beginning, a plot, and a conclusion) that, combined with other information, comprise a complete story.

In other words, a module is part of a story.

I hadn’t thought about using modules in memoirs until last year when I taught the memoir class at New Tribes Mission’s training center in southern Missouri.

I had been stressing the importance of intriguing beginnings and strong, satisfying conclusions when a missionary asked if her memoir could include a paper on name-giving traditions practiced by the African group she worked with.

She was puzzled because she recognized her naming paper was not a story—it had no beginning, plot, or conclusion.

At the same moment, I recognized she was talking about a module. It was a Eureka! moment for me.

“Yes!” I told her. “Yes, you’re talking about a module—a rich cultural module. Use it!”

Yes, modules work in memoir. Include them in your vignettes, especially if you have written several about the same incident or timeframe or locale.

Here’s an excerpt from a cultural module about a trip my husband, Dave, took with a fellow missionary, Peter, to a remote indigenous tribe in South America. (I changed names for security reasons.)

The ABC people’s culture is laced with taboos to separate them from the outside world. They dwell in scattered mountain villages and only rarely venture outside to buy salt, machetes, or cloth. 

When an ABC man returns from the outside, he and the articles he brings are considered contaminated and must go through the witch doctor’s purification ceremony, lasting four days or longer. 

Especially taboo is paper, so much so that the ABCs believe it cannot be purified, so paper is banned completely.… 

An ABC can be purified, but an outsider is always an outsider—and always impure—so when Dave and Peter called on ABC families, they spread a banana leaf over the bench to preserve its purity. When the visit ended, they took with them their contaminated banana leaf. 

Similarly, the ABCs scurried for trusted banana leaves to cup candies Dave offered them in payment for photos he snapped. The leaves protected the people from contamination until the witchdoctor worked his cleansing magic.…

Note that this account has no plot; it isn’t a story. It is a module that enriches the story of Dave’s visit to the ABC village.

The module helps readers understand the setting and the conditions.

It helps them feel the vibes.

It helps readers experience Dave’s trip with him.

There are many kinds of cultural modules.

Think about family cultures. Each family has its own traditions, manner of speaking, table manners, assumptions, and expectations—and taboo topics for discussion.

Think about city or neighborhood cultures. If you are from Seattle, you instinctively know the difference between living in Medina (where Bill Gates lives)  and Forks (the setting for the Twilight series), but your readers—grandkids, great-grandkids—might not understand the nuances the way you do. A cultural module could make all the difference in helping your readers live your story with you and grasp your deeper message.

A dizzy American is a workplace cultural module about my years in Africa. 

Here’s a historical module:

Land sold for thirteen dollars per acre in his hometown. You could buy a dozen eggs for twenty-seven cents, a loaf of bread went for nine cents, milk was twenty-two cents a quart, delivered to your door. And you could buy a ready-to-wear man’s tailored suit for fifteen dollars.… 

Woodrow Wilson had just completed his first term as the twenty-eighth president of the United States.… The year was 1917, and William Cameron Townsend was twenty-one. 

Had he been interested … Cameron Townsend could have heard for the first time in history, jazz music on phonographs. (from A Thousand Trails: Personal Journal of William Cameron Townsend, Founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, compiled and edited by Hugh Steven.)

Look for ways to include brief modules in your memoir’s vignettes.

Take a few days to think about the possibilities. Look for a cultural module, an IIWIA (Is it worth it all?) module, a spiritual need module, an end result module, or a historical module. (I haven’t included examples of IIWIA, spiritual need, or end result modules but if you’d like more info, leave a comment below.)

Can you think of other types of modules?

Modules add texture and zing and flavor and richness and depth and pizzazz—and isn’t that what we all enjoy in stories?


  1. Oh my. I've been writing "modules" for the last few years and I'm now putting them in my memoirs. Very encouraging post!

    1. Hi, Berta, I'm glad you found inspiration for writing your memoir. Good for you! Keep up the good work!

      Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Linda,

    When I hear the word module, I think of a clearly defined unit of study about a specific topic. So the concept of using these units to enrich our memoirs makes perfect sense. It seems like another way to deepen the story by weaving in details that"show vs tell" about the character, time,place,events,etc. I appreciate how you provide a specific framework for making our stories come alive on the page. Thanks!

    1. Hi, Kathy, I appreciate your definition of module. It works for many situations, including memoir. You're right, modules can deepen the story, and I hadn't connected them with "show vs. tell" -- good observation!

      Happy writing!


  3. Great post! I guess I use modules but never knew that's what they were. For instance, including descriptions about one of the great disease epidemics during the time I'm writing about what my ancestors were experiencing in daily life, or the big flood that devastated the city they were living in. Not sure this is the same thing. Explaining the Catholic rituals that my family lived by-- would that be considered a module? Thanks for this.

    1. Hi, Bettyann, yes your module ideas would add texture and richness to your stories. "Module" is a term I use, but I have not heard other memoirists use the term. Setting, place, etc. -- these are things "modules" provide.

      Keep writing, Bettyann, and thanks for stopping by! :)