“…Memoirs are much more than memories put to paper….
Memoirs are comprised of two important elements:
scene (narrative) and reflection.
Without reflection, you do not have a memoir—
you have a vignette or series of vignettes
that describes events,
but does not imbue the events with meaning and relevance.
Meaning and relevance come from reflection.”
The beauty of memoir shines brightest when the author reflects on the meaning and relevance of his or her experiences.
I’m talking about a willingness to make time to return to your story’s key events, to decode, to analyze, to rethink: What did you learn about yourself? How did the experience change your life? What new person did you become?
Your life’s story is much deeper and higher and wider than the story that’s on the surface. Probing and questioning 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.
In writing their books, at key points in the story memoirists step aside to write segments of reflection. Good writers avoid simplistic “and they lived happily ever after” fluff.
For the benefit of (a) your readers and (b) yourself, take plenty of time to discover the core—the heart, the soul—of the significant events in your story.
Keep this in mind, however: You might not know the real significance until you’ve written your story and have taken time to mull it over. That process could take days, or months, or even years.
Let me show you what I mean. Below are excerpts (for brevity’s sake) from a piece I wrote several years ago (for my memoir-in-progress with the working title, Oh, God, Don’t Make Me Go, Don’t Make Me Go!) I’ll stop along the way to make important points:
Rural South America
I trudged up the steep hill, dusty red. It was only 7:45 in the morning and already sweat ran down my forehead and back. I looked forward to reaching level ground at the top and turning left toward my office, but first I would stop at the post office.
Every day I delighted in peeking into our cubbyhole and finding mail from loved ones in the U.S. That had always been the best part of my day.
But today, like so many days recently, my stomach knotted at the thought of what I might find in our mail slot. Would today be the day? Would we get our financial statement from two months ago and learn the bad news?
I rounded the corner at the top of the hill and stepped into the cool shade of the post office. I reached into our cubbyhole. Yes, this was the day. My throat went dry as I unfolded our financial statement.
Two months earlier, my husband, Dave, had fallen mysteriously ill. There we were, at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere, working with Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). We had no doctor, but we had a nurse. Alarmed at Dave’s symptoms, she insisted he had to go to the capital city for prompt medical treatment.…
… The doctors eventually sent him back home to us, but not before he had run up a bill of $400. That was a huge amount back in the 1970s, and it was $400 more than we had.
We were not paid employees of SIL. Nobody was. Instead, we depended on donations from people back home, which they sent to our California headquarters and earmarked for our family. Sometimes people sent money every month but others sent donations only occasionally—so we never knew our financial status.
That was further complicated because it took two months to receive our financial statements from California and find out how much money we had. We’d always lived within our means, with a lot of effort, but we never had a surplus and certainly not the enormous amount of $400 for Dave’s doctor bills. And that’s why my stomach knotted on the way to work, wondering, “Is this the day we’ll get our financial statement and learn we have no money left for food and rent?”
Now that dreaded day had come. I stood in the post office, financial statement in hand. My eyes skimmed down the alphabetical list of donors. To my surprise, among the B’s was a name I’d never seen on our list before: Bill and Marion Best. I’d grown up in their church, and I’d babysat their kids a few times, but I hadn’t seen them for years. My eyes ran across the page to see the amount they’d sent. It was $400, the exact amount of Dave’s medical bills.
“Wait a minute,” I said to myself. “Dave’s bills were incurred two months ago.” I checked the date the Bests’ money had arrived in California: just days before Dave’s illness. How could they have known?
I fought tears. How could this have happened?
God tells us, “… Before they call, I will answer….” (Isaiah 65:24). Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). Yes, even before Dave got sick, even before we knew we’d have a need, God worked in the Bests’ hearts to meet our need.
I ended my vignette here the first time: I had discovered what God was doing on my family’s behalf in the midst of our worrisome experience. As a result, I no longer looked at those Bible passages from merely an academic standpoint because I had personally experienced the message of those words: I had experienced God at work.
A few months after I’d written that ending, however, I realized that deeper lessons awaited my discovery, hidden beneath the surface, so I dug down and here’s what I added to the original ending:
It’s important to understand that God doesn’t promise to solve all our problems even before we know about them. He says He knows what we need even before we do, and He even says, “Before they call, I will answer,” but His answer might be, “Wait a while for the solution,” because sometimes God needs to work in our hearts, and maybe other people’s hearts, before we are ready for His answer. God might not have nudged the Bests to send their $400 when they did. Or perhaps He could have nudged them, but they’d put it off for a couple of months. Or maybe God had altogether different ways of meeting our need, but here’s the point I learned: He hears our prayers and when His time is right, He provides.
That was my second ending, but a few months later, after writing other vignettes, I spent time pondering and reflecting—necessary ingredients in memoir—and to my surprise I recognized a pattern in my stories and therefore a pattern in my life. In doing so, I had discovered additional significant lessons, so I added to my vignette’s ending (which I’m still tweaking):
So why had my stomach knotted over our medical bills? Because I doubted God’s desire to help. Looking back over my life, I now see a pattern: Too many times I doubted God’s willingness to help me. I had been viewing God as a fair-weather friend—fickle, unpredictable—someone I could not always count on through thick and thin. Now I’m ashamed of that attitude. It must hurt God so much for me to doubt Him. And come to think of it, my attitude must deeply offend Him.
Imagine! Suspecting God of being untrustworthy! Yet He patiently keeps showing me that He is trustworthy. I am a slow learner, but a major turning point occurred once I recognized my pattern of doubting God. Since that day in 1978, my faith has been more settled than before: I am more relaxed in God’s love, and with His help I am trusting Him more and more.
That’s what I meant at the beginning of today’s post: The beauty of memoir shines brightest when the author reflects on the meaning and relevance of his or her experiences.
Recognizing God’s involvement in your life transforms you and deepens your faith for the future. But God also uses your stories to bless, heal, and encourage your readers.
Here’s the key: You must take time to reflect, to dig deeper:
What patterns did you discover—patterns you hadn’t noticed before?
What did you learn about God? Do you now have a better understanding of His involvement in your life? His purpose for your life? How did your experience strengthen your faith for future challenges?
As a result, what new person did you become?
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.