Thursday, May 29, 2014

So what?

In writing your memoir, pinpoint the “So what?” of each vignette you write.

Ponder this: Your memoir is about events that impacted you: you lost your job—or landed the job of your dreams; your house burned down; you made the college varsity team; your child died; you survived cancer.

After you’ve written a rough draft of a vignette, ask yourself:

  • Why was that event so important to me?
  • Why does this memory stand out when I’ve forgotten so many others?
  • What is the significance of that experience?

In other words, So what?

mulling over,
sorting out.

Peel off layers one by one until you can answer these questions:

How do you see the experience now, in retrospect?

What was going on beneath the surface?

How did it change your life?

And, if your memoir has a spiritual dimension, how was God:




holding the reins,


and arranging the details,

to carry out His best plans for your life?

Connect the dots: To what new place did God lead you? How did He shake you up, change your mind, melt your heart, revise your goals, and make a new person of you?

“Many memoir writers in workshops I’ve taught,” writes Victoria Costello, “encounter trouble with the reflective voice.… If this is a stumbling block for you, here are some phrases that can help ease you into a reflective voice:

  • There must have been…
  • Only later did I realize…
  • There was no way to know then…
  • The way I see it now…
  • It has taken me 10, 20, 30 years to understand that…”

Search your heart
for the deeper lessons
within your stories.
Only then can you pass on
those deeper lessons
to your readers.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Your memoir: Are you sure that’s what you’re writing?

What is memoir?

Because I recently gave a talk about writing memoirs, I’ve been reviewing the definition of memoir.

It’s good to remind ourselves of such specifics from time to time.

So here we go!

When people sign up for my memoir classes, I often hear, “A memoir class! Terrific! I love journaling!”

Yes, sometimes people confuse writing a memoir with journaling, or with writing autobiography, so let’s distinguish between them.

Your journal is private, but you write a memoir for others to read.

An autobiography documents your entire life, starting with your birth, but memoir focuses on a segment of your life—a specific theme or time period—which you explore in depth. A memoir is merely a slice of life.

In other words, a person can write a memoir based on a theme: my life as a public school teacher in Miami, or as a linesman at Wimbledon. My memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, covers a time period, my first four years in Africa.

Pondering, examining, unraveling, musing, and reflecting are necessary ingredients in a memoir.

Spiritual Memoirs 101’s theme is Deuteronomy 4:9, Always remember the things you’ve seen God do for you, and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!

In writing a spiritual memoir, you’ll examine what God was doing as you see it now, in retrospect. You’ll look for deeper lessons God had for you in the events—mostly everyday events—of your life.

Look for God's fingerprints all over your life!

Looking back, how did certain events, experiences, or people change your life? What new perspectives did you gain? What new person did you become?

Who or what changed the direction of your life? Who or what impacted your choices in career, marriage partner, parenting style, and financial responsibility?

Who or what comforted you, warned you, charmed, redirected, inspired, guided, informed, challenged, or enlightened you?

What patterns in your faith did you discover that you hadn’t noticed before?

What did you learn about God?

Do you now have a better understanding of God’s purpose for your life?

How did the experience strengthen your faith for future challenges?

In summary, your stories will capture how you remember God’s activities in your life—they can be everyday events—and what you discovered about both God and yourself.

Dig deep. Tunnel down below the surface.

Maybe coincidences and chance encounters were much more—they were God in action: orchestrating, arranging, and shaping your life’s direction.

Include your thoughts—even your struggles—to understand what was going on. Write out your delights as well as your doubts. Ask questions even if you have no answers.

Mull over,
sift through,
sort out.

What was God doing as you see it now, in retrospect?

A memoir can be a few pages or book-length, but I suggest you start by writing a collection of vignettes or short chapters.

I hope to make it easy to begin writing your memoir. Here are a few tips:

  • Start small: choose two or three occasions in which God acted on behalf of you or your family. For example, think back to turning points, answered prayer, decisions, or the happiest day of your life. For now, avoid traumatic or complicated stories; you’ll learn the craft of memoir more easily if you start with straightforward events.
  • Do you need a story idea? Look through your Bible or a devotional for phrases you underlined and notes you jotted in the margin. Such notations can help you remember a significant situation in your life.
  • While you write, ask yourself the above questions. Answers might not surface quickly but when they do, include them in your stories.
  • Include humor. (See links below.) 
  • Write rough drafts, three to five pages for each story. (You’ll revise your rough drafts a lot—everyone does—so don’t worry about perfecting them yet.) These will be chapters in your finished memoir. You can write stand-alone pieces or a series of related stories.
  • Enjoy your writing!

 Writing your memoir is a grand undertaking!

Your stories will help shape the spiritual lives of your children,
grandchildren, great-grandchildren,
and anyone else who reads them (your “spiritual children”).

Your memoir could be the finest gift you’ll ever give,
so pray for God’s help!

Related posts:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Memories: They help your memoir’s characters come to life

Have you ever forgotten something specific about a person dear to you? And then someone reminded you of that characteristic? That happened to me recently.
Mom and me, Mother's Day 2004

It was during my mother’s memorial service last Saturday. During the time for sharing stories, my brother Douglas told about Mom’s inflatable, life-sized woman’s body from the waist down. She would put pantyhose, shoes, and a skirt on it and slide it part way under our guests’ cars. Her prank always got squeals and guffaws.

One time she pushed it part way under our youth minister’s car. After Mark’s visit, he descended the dozen front stairs, only to burst through the front door a few seconds later, a blubbering, sobbing mess.

“I think I killed someone! Call an ambulance! Call the police!”

Mom explained it was just a prank, but he persisted.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he bawled, “but I ran over a woman in your driveway! I think she’s dead!”

Eventually Mom calmed him down and showed him they were fake legs. Poor dear guy. I wonder if he ever forgave her.

My brother’s story during Mom’s memorial service made me laughed out loud. I’d forgotten about that segment of her life.

I remember the time Mom, an elementary school teacher, sneaked into the principal’s office when he was out of the building, and into his private bathroom, and stretched plastic wrap over his toilet bowl. (I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.)

Don’t get me wrong: My mother was more than a prankster.

Washington State Teacher of the Year
She was named Washington State Teacher of the Year. She went on to become a finalist for National Teacher of the Year and enjoyed a reception on the White House lawn with First Lady Pat Nixon.

She was on a first-name basis with our governor and first lady.

She held state-wide and nation-wide positions on various boards and commissions.

She founded a museum.

But all that’s kind of dry, isn’t it?

If you were reading stories about my mother, wouldn’t you enjoy knowing that beyond her professional accomplishments, she was also a prankster? Doesn’t that information make her seem more real and alive? More fleshed out? (I’m pretty sure I know your answers.)

Mom visited us in the middle of nowhere in South America
Are you trying to flesh out one of your memoir’s key characters?

If so, strike up a conversation with someone who knew him or her well. Start telling stories to each other and see what memories come to mind.

Also, look over photos. Photos can trigger your memories, too.

Memories 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 want—lifeless, “cardboard characters.” (Carly Sandifer)

Your readers will thank you for making your memoir’s significant people come to life.

Related posts:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Your stories can do all that, and more

Your stories can have a profound impact—
on individuals,
on marriages,
on children,
—maybe even on governments,
and society.

Your stories can entertain,
help solve problems,
open doors,
and help dreams come true.

Your stories can break down barriers,
fortify timid hearts,
and soften hard hearts.

Your stories can right wrongs,
stop prejudice and evil,
share wisdom,
and inspire hope.

Your stories can do all that— and more!

Write your stories!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Your memoir and 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.…

“Summer time is here wake up and come alive,
Put away a scarf and glove.
Here come summer sounds,
The summer sounds I love.”
(excerpts from the song Summer Sounds, Roy Bennett/Sid Tepper)

The day my mother died a month ago, my daughter Karen sent me those song lyrics in response to a picture I’d posted of her and her brother, Matt, with their grandma last summer. 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 lots of 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 the kids can still hear her singing those words.

Matt, upon seeing the picture and reading Karen’s words, 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 50 miles of the Seattle-Spokane trip.”

When I read my kids’ memories, I could picture my mom behind the wheel singing at the top of her lungs—and she’d 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’s energy and intensity reminded me that she sprinted through life. If the phone or doorbell rang, she leapt to her feet and jogged to see who was there.

And that led me to another memory: Her fellow school teachers used to call out during recess, “No running on the blacktop!”—but they weren’t hollering to 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, all those memories were generated by that one photo.

Photos 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 calls “cardboard characters.”

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

Rediscover that person’s quirks, gestures, body language, habits, appearance, talents, strengths, and weaknesses.

What relationship did you have with that person?

What emotions does the picture bring to mind?

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

Then let your photo help you dig deeply into your story. Let yourself revisit your relationship with the person.

Think back: Who were you back then?

Let the picture remind you of sights, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds.

What was going on under the surface? What difference did that person make in your life? What if you hadn’t had that experience with that person? How would you have turned out differently?

Write life and personality into your memoir’s main characters. Create multi-dimensional, memorable, compelling characters. Your readers will thank you.

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