Sometimes in the midst of writing our memoirs, we need to remind ourselves what a memoir is. This helps us focus correctly and work efficiently.
Since there’s some confusion about the genre of memoir, let’s pin down what it is not: 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 life beginning with the day you were born, but a memoir focuses on one segment of your life—(1) a specific theme or (2) a time period, a slice of life.
We can write a memoir based on a theme—for example, the theme of working as a seamstress in Asia, or a food vender at Seattle’s Safeco Field, or a step-mother to six kids. We focus on only that theme, leaving out other topics—such as the fact that we might be friends with Ben Zobrist (World Series MVP, in case you missed that last night) or met our future spouse at the local animal shelter.
Or we 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. Another person’s time period might be his teenage years, the years following a spouse’s death, or service in the Peace Corps. We focus only on that slice of our lives and leave out other topics.
We include only those details that pertain to our chosen window of time or our memoir’s theme.
Personal reflection is a key ingredient in memoir. Remember that. Most of us need to work on understanding what reflection is because, as Richard Foster observes, “The sad truth is that many authors simply have never learned to reflect substantively on anything.”
So, memoirists reflect in a deliberate way:
We look back,
peel away layers,
find the gems.
examine those gems,
and ponder their deeper meaning.
We look for God’s fingerprints all over everything.
We spend as much time as we need to make sense of what we discover.
We uncover the deeper, higher, wider, richer story.
In the past, we might have overlooked something of the utmost importance, so we make time to search for those profound lessons—insights, healing, blessings—that God inserted into the events of our lives.
In the process, we might need to do a “Doggie Head Tilt,” a phrase Michael Metzger coined. “If your head never tilts,” he says, “your mind never changes.” True!
Within reflecting, we answer these questions:
- What new things have I learned about myself as a result of the key events of my life?
- What new things did I learn about God? About significant people in my life?
- How have these discoveries made me into a different, better person?
Writing a spiritual memoir does not require that we have supernatural religious stories to write about, stories that would make the evening news and get tweeted around the world. Instead, we look for ways God was involved in our everyday lives.
We don’t have to write about God in every chapter of our memoirs. Whether we realized it at the time or not, He was with us, busy working out His good plans for His children—and from time to time in our stories we can spell out what He was doing. And let’s do so in a winsome way, rather than sounding holier-than-thou.
“Go tell your family everything God has done for you”
That’s why we write our memoirs!