Often when people hear the word “memoir,” they don’t know exactly what a memoir is.
At a sign-up for one of my memoir classes, one woman said, “A memoir class! Good—I love journaling!”
But memoir is not journaling. A journal is private—for your eyes only—but you write a memoir for others to read.
A memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography documents your whole life beginning with the day you were born, but a memoir focuses on one segment of your life—a specific theme or time period, a slice of life.
Let’s look at that more closely:
You can write a memoir based on a theme—for example, the theme of working as a missionary pilot, or an emergency room nurse, or the mother of quintuplets. You focus on only that theme, leaving out other topics—such as the fact that you directed an award-winning movie or served as mayor of your town. (Those topics could be the stuff of another memoir.)
Or a person can write a memoir based on a time period. My memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, covers a time period—my first four years in Africa. Your time period might be grad school, your years in the Marines, or as a mother of toddlers. You focus only on that slice of your life and leave out other topics—such as an experience you had in middle school or a camping trip with the Boy Scouts.
Include only those details that pertain to your chosen window of time or your memoir’s theme.
Writing is so much more than just telling stories,
and passing on tales from the past:
Reflecting, examining, unraveling,
pondering, and musing
are requirements for writing a memoir—
as are untangling, mulling over, sifting through,
analyzing, and sorting out.
Here at SM 101, our memoirs are based on Deuteronomy 4:9, “Always remember what you’ve seen God do for you, and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!”
With that purpose in mind, ask yourself what God was doing as you see it now, in retrospect.
Think about turning points,
Look back on a time God or someone significant
shook you to your core,
melted your heart,
knocked you to your knees,
changed your mind,
took your breath away,
stretched you to the breaking point,
revised your goals,
opened your eyes,
made you cry buckets of tears,
gave you new perspectives.
Look for deeper lessons and meanings God had for you in the events of your life. (Writing a spiritual memoir does not require that you have supernatural, astonishing stories that would make the evening news and get tweeted around the world.)
Peel back the layers: What did you learn about yourself? How did the experience change your life? What new person did you become?
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 His purpose for your life? How did your experience strengthen your faith for future challenges?
Dig deeply to discover what God has done for you, in you, through you—every day, every step of the way, through the best of times and the worst of times.
Your life’s story is much deeper and higher and wider than the story that’s on the surface. Probing and questioning and reflecting and unraveling will help you discover significance you probably missed earlier—and discovering that can be life-changing for you as well as for your readers.
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.
Your job is to notice God in the midst of your gatherings and activities and responsibilities and relationships and homes.
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.