Thursday, December 13, 2018

The better thing: Keeping Christmas

Here’s a brief Christmas meditation for you. May you find within it blessings for your life and inspiration for your memoir.

Keeping Christmas
by Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

Roman, xiv, 6: He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord.
[“He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.” Romans 14:6, NIV]

It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. It helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life. It reminds man to set his own little watch, now and then, by the great clock of humanity which runs on sun time.

But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellow-men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy; to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness—are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Illustration in public domain
Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how  much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you keep it for a day, why not always?

But you can never keep it alone.

(From The Spirit of Christmas by Henry Van Dyke, in the public domain, courtesy of; emphasis mine.)

After this busy, busy season,
write your Christmas stories
make them fun and sentimental and charming
but also ask yourself:
"How can I include the meatier, deeper, truer
messages and applications of Christmas?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Your Christmas stories, part of God’s bigger stories

You have Christmas stories to tell. Oh, yes, I know you do!

And telling them might be more important than you realize.

“It is our personal stories that bring context to God’s bigger story,” state the good folks at Christian Grandparenting Network. “And part of the telling of those stories involves writing them down.”

Illustration in public domain
How true! Think about it:

Until you put your Christmas stories in writing, they are merely your memories,
your thoughts, your experiences.

Someone needs to know your Christmas stories—the sad ones, the happy ones; the normal ones, the unusual ones; the discouraging ones, the encouraging ones; the boring ones, the surprising ones—all part of “God’s bigger story.

This is a busy time of year so I’m not suggesting you sit down and write. Instead, as memories of Christmases past pop into your mind, jot down ideas and promise yourself you’ll write them as stories in the new year!

Your stories are important! 
God can use them as part of His bigger story 
to teach, inspire, and offer hope.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Of Sears catalogs and Bing Crosby and aluminum Christmas trees

If you stop to think about it, your childhood Christmases were significantly different from that of your kids and grandkids.

So, make time to search your memory for specifics so your words and scenes invite readers into your story with you.

Did you spend hours looking through the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog?

Did you ask Santa for a cap gun? Or a transistor radio? Or a poodle skirt?

I remember asking Santa for a walking doll. (Do you remember walking dolls?) And my little brother asked for, and received, a Howdy Doody doll. He treasured it for years.

If someone in your family got sick on Christmas, did the doctor make a house call?

Did you have a real Christmas tree or one of those new-fangled aluminum ones?

What unique Christmas traditions did your family carry out?

What were your favorite Christmas movies?

If you had a TV, did you watch Christmas specials? Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Pat Boone come to mind. To change TV channels, did you have to get out of your chair and walk over and turn a dial? Did you have a rabbit-ear antenna on top of your TV?

And don’t miss this blast from the past: Click on Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s 1957 TV Christmas special.

What were your favorite Christmas songs? Did you play 45s on an old record player? (Just curious: Do you remember Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer?) Because I grew up surrounded by Scandinavians, I have fond memories of one of them, TV personality Stan Boreson, and his classic performance of Vinter Undervare. Don’t miss this video clip! 

Did you and your family dress up in fancy clothes and go to church on Christmas Eve? Did your mother sew you a new Christmas dress each year? 

Or, if you’re a man, think back: Did your parents make you wear a tie to the Christmas Eve service? And did you use Butch Wax to keep your flat-top hair in place?

Did Santa leave a pack of Black Jack chewing gum in your stocking? Or candy cigarettes?

Did you usually stay home for Christmas, or did you join someone else—grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, or ….?

What was likely on your Christmas Day dinner menu? What did you or your mother or grandmother do with leftovers? If plastic wrap had not yet been invented, what did you use instead? And before plastic garbage bags were invented, what did you use?

When I was a kid, no one had a dishwasher. Do you remember helping mom, grandma, aunts, and cousins wash and dry dishes for hours after Christmas dinner?

Did your family take photos with a camera that used flashbulbs, or maybe flash cubes? The kind that left you with a glaring blind spot for half a minute or so? Were the photos black and white?

Because your childhood was so different 
from that of your kids and grandkids, 
such details will invite readers to a rich experience 
of your Christmases past.

Have fun!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Let’s not miss the true joy of Christmas

Have you put up Christmas decorations yet? I’ve begun to set ours up and hope that tomorrow I’ll find another couple of hours to finish. For the past few years, I’ve minimized our decorations but this year I’m looking forward to getting out old family favorites and enjoying them.

And I’m listening to lots of Christmas music—and my husband plays many of my favorites on his guitar, too—and I sing along as I putter around the house.

And yet, and yet. . . . Christmas is about so much more than decorations and songs.

Like Lloyd Ogilvie, I pray, “Dear Father, I don’t want to miss the true joy of Christmas. I long for the authentic quality of joy that’s an outward expression of an inner experience of Your grace.”

Ogilvie goes on to pray this Christmas prayer: “Help me to receive the full measure of Your unqualified love that will result in a day bursting with joy.

“I hear the words of the angel . . . ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, among men in whom He is well pleased’ (Luke 2:14).

“ . . . ‘For You did not send Your Son into the world to condemn me, but that through Him I might be saved’ (John 3:17).

“My heart leaps. Joy is the ecstasy of heaven for those who know they are loved and forgiven.” (Lloyd John Ogilvie, Quiet Moments with God)

If your memoir includes stories about Christmas,
how can you pass on to your kids, grandkids,
great-grands, and other readers the true joy of Christmas?

Be intentional.
You can’t likely imagine how many years
your stories will live in the minds and hearts of your readers.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Hill fire and the Woolsey fire

The Hill fire and the Woolsey fire in southern California have significantly impacted our family so my post today will be brief, and I will take a break from blogging until December.

In the midst of unspeakable, ongoing destruction and loss, I think of Mr. Rodgers’ mother. She told him that when sad things happen, look around for the helpers. You can always see helpers, she said.

That’s what the Bible teaches us—to be “helpers” by feeding the hungry, providing drinks for the thirsty, welcoming strangers who need shelter, giving clothes to those who need them, and caring for the sick. (See Isaiah 58:7 and Matthew 25:34-40.)

During these exhausting, frightening days of fire, 
my family has witnessed countless acts of kindness and generosity

Those people are living, breathing, hugging, smiling helpers
real people God is using
to answer thousands of prayers. 

May God bless them all!

See you in December. 

In the meantime, enjoy writing your memoir!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California

Today I won't publish the usual Thursday blog post due to the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California.

Please keep the victims and their families and friends in your prayers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Is your story arc eluding you?

If you’re struggling to pin down your memoir’s story arc, please don’t be discouraged. (If you missed Thursday’s post, it’s a must-read. Click on Do you know what a story arc is? And why it’s important?)

Most of us struggle to find our story arc, but we’re here to tell you this: You can figure it out!

Rebecca Ramsey’s experience will give you hope. She spent years searching for her story arc. (And writing and editing her memoir, The Holy Éclair, took ten years! It's on my list of books to read. How about putting it on your list?)

She says to ask yourself this about your memoir’s rough draft:

What is your journey, the big change you experienced that you want to share with the world?

What were the little struggles and big struggles that got you from the beginning to the end?

Rebecca says, “That wasn’t clear at first to me . . . [but] the writing itself revealed to me my own transformation.”

That can happen to you, too. Keep writing and revising. 
  • Dig deep and deeper.
  • Reflect.
  • Inspect.
  • Analyze your experience and yourself.
  • Stand back and ask yourself what God was doing.
  • Discover details you might have overlooked before.
  • Pray for God’s help.
  • Join a critique group (in person or online) and ask for help.

You can do this!

Remember, you don’t want to miss Thursday’s post, Do you know what a story arc is? And why it’s important?

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Happy writing!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Do you know what a story arc is? And why it's important?

Recently we looked at using a poem or Bible passage as a theme for your memoir, which is nifty because it automatically hands you an outline—a structure, a framework—for your memoir. (Click on How can you hand your readers a coherent, organized story? and Must-know info about your memoir’s theme.)

But not all memoirs are based solely on themes. Some are based on your experiences set in a time period with beginning and ending dates.

For example, a lady in one of my memoir classes wrote about several years when she worked as a chef for a prominent senator and served dinner to, among others, the President and First Lady.

What about you?

  • Perhaps a whole new world opened when you worked your way through college as a farm hand in Wyoming.  
  • Did you serve in the military?
  • Did you battle post-partum depression?
  • Did you work in a foreign culture?
  • Did you face a crisis or natural disaster that threatened to undo you?
  • Did you find joy in an unexpected place or relationship?
  • Did a seemingly insignificant event change the course of your life?
  • Did a heartbreak turn into a blessing?

The ideas are endless. All the above examples would have a beginning date and an ending date. Such a memoir would then be based on a slice of your life or a snapshot of your life (compared to an autobiography which begins with day one and covers everything).

If you write a memoir based on a specific time period, you need to learn about a story arc, sometimes called a narrative arc.  

Do you know what a story arc is?

Author Adair Lara wrote: “When I began work on my memoir . . . I didn’t know a thing about arcs. I thought, I lived this story. I’ll just write it down the way it happened. . . . It was as if I decided to build a house and just started nailing together boards without giving a thought to blueprints. I put up some strange-looking houses that way, in the form of inert drafts filled with pointless scenes. I would have saved myself a lot of time if I had drawn an arc.”

But, she explains, “Back then, I hadn’t even heard of an arc. Now I know it’s the emotional framework of a memoir.”

Many memoir teachers will tell you to structure your story this way:

Act I or The Beginning,
Act II or The Middle,
and Act III or The Ending.

Act I, The Beginning: You introduce yourself to your readers and tell them, specifically, what you wanted or needed or planned—but you also write about a problem or a challenge that surfaced and threatened to mess everything up. Perhaps you were hit with a financial setback, had a psychological issue, a spiritual need, or a relationship struggle. Maybe something or someone threatened to undo your career or destroy your reputation. Maybe, like me, you learned your husband developed different goals in life than you had.

Act II, The Middle: You tell readers that obstructions piled up, your struggles intensified, and issues got complicated—either internal or external—and they seriously threatened to keep you from achieving your goals, meeting your needs, and/or making your dreams come true.

Adair Lara explains it this way: “You try a lot of things to solve your problem, with mixed results. You have setbacks, you make mistakes and you push on, until you either get what you wanted, or you don’t, or you stop wanting it. . . .”

Act III, The End: You detail how hurdles, hindrances, and complications came to a climax.

Dr. Linda Joy Myers writes: “In act three, the threads and layers of complexity reach a peak—the crisis and climax of the story. Here the character is tested, where the true depth of learning and transformation is revealed.”

This is where you, the protagonist, had to make decisions:  Did you battle on and overcome? If so, how did you go about it? Or, instead, did you have a change of heart because you recognized the unexpected Plan B was better than your Plan A?

Dr. Linda Joy Myers continues, “The crisis may be thought of as a spiritual challenge or a ‘dark night of the soul,’ where the deepest beliefs and core truths of the character are tested. The climax is the highest level of tension and conflict that the protagonist must resolve as the story comes to a close.

“There’s an aha at the end,” she says, “an epiphany when the main character has learned her lessons and can never return to the previous way of living.”

How do you do that—how do you discover that epiphany?

In true memoir form, you reflect on what happened to you. Peel back layers and dig deep.

That might take a long time but doing so is probably the most important part of discovering your real story.

Take a closer look than you ever did before. Recognize—maybe for the first time—the ways you changed. Then tell readers what you learned, how you transformed, how you became a stronger, better person.


People read memoirs
to learn how to handle similar situations
that arise in their own lives.

In that way, you become a role model for them,
an inspiration,
an answer to prayer.

For more info about story arc, click on Cate Macabe’s post, “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc,” and Adair Lara's post, The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Don’t leave your memoir blowing in the wind

“. . . A piece of creative writing without structure is like bread without yeast," writes Charlotte Rains Dixon. “Or a pen without ink. Or coffee without caffeine in it.”

“Structure is what makes the writing hold up,” she continues. “Picture a clothesline with the string between two poles all loose and wavy. No way you can hang clothes on it.

“Now think of that same string as pulled taut, and it accepts your shirts and shorts and underwear just fine.

Structure allows your scenes and characters and plot points a place to hang on. Otherwise, they are just dangling in the wind,” she says.

Be sure to come back Thursday when we’ll continue looking at various ways to structure your memoir. In the meantime, look over these recent related posts:

Related posts:

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Do you need to rethink your memoir’s strategic sequence?

"Most people embarking upon a memoir,” writes William Zinsser, “are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never written at all” (from his article, "How to Write a Memoir").

Lots of memoirists struggle to find the best structureorganization, framework—for their stories.

If you’re one of them, don’t worry. With (a) experimentation and with (b) help from other writerly types, you’ll eventually figure it out.

But first, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves:

By definition, a memoir is only a slice of life—a segment of life, a snapshot of life—focused on a specific theme or time period.

Last week we looked at one way to structure a memoir—on a poem-based theme. See our recent post, How can you hand your readers a coherent, organized story?

Amber Lea Starfire has this added info for a theme-based memoir, “Themes may include any elements that the scenes have in common, such as relationship conflicts, illness, geography, or repetitive historical events.”

Amber continues, “The scenes do not have to occur in chronological order and, in fact, can jump all over the place in time as long as the transitions between jumps are strong and do not confuse your reader.” (See more of her post at How to Choose Your Memoir’s Structure.)

Keep this in mind, too:

Your task is to write a memoir
that illustrates universal values or struggles,
timeless truths or quests
that your readers can apply to their own lives.

When structured well, your memoir will
tell a complete and satisfying story.

Getting that structure just right can cause writers a lot of angst. I re-structured my current memoir several times, but nowadays at least we use computers to copy and paste. I’m so old that for much of my early life, to make even a slight revision I had to retype—sometimes on a manual typewriter—entire chapters, often entire l-o-n-g documents. Hooray for computers!

Maybe your collection of stories is, like Zinsser described, “defying you to impose on them some type of order,” yet you long to write a memoir that will have maximum impact on your readers.

William Zinsser to the rescue! He suggests that once you’ve written a number of vignettes, “spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursuing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take. Then all you have to do is put the pieces together” (from Zinsser’s article, "How to Write a Memoir").

Yeah, right, you might be muttering. Easier said than done.

If you struggle to find your memoir’s structure, Judith Barrington offers this encouragement: “You must rely on blind faith that sooner or later it will appear. You may need and enjoy the freedom of relative formlessness for a while—but not forever.”

And then, even when you think you’ve discovered the right structure, “you must be willing to adapt it, revise it, tinker with it, or entirely rethink it” (from Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir).

You might need to rethink your memoir’s structure.
I had to rethink mine.

I gave myself permission to take the time
to rethink my memoir’s structure.

And I sought advice from trusted writerly types
the pros like Zinsser and Barrington and Starfire,
and especially my critique partners.

Doing that meant 
my publication date is going to be later than I hoped,
but I’d rather have the structure just right.

How about you?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: What’s the big deal about a memoir’s structure?

Have you pinned down the right structure for your memoir?

You might be asking: What’s the big deal about a memoir’s structure?

“Knowing how to choose your memoir structure
is essential to your book’s success.


Full stop.”

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

If you missed our October 18 post, click on

And be sure to come back Thursday for more help
with your memoir’s all-important structure.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How can you hand your readers a coherent, organized story?

If you’re in the beginning stages of writing your memoir, now is a good time to think about how you will structure it—that is, how will you organize it?

Before we continue, click here to review the definition of memoir. A memoir focuses on a segment of your life—a specific time period or theme

If you choose a time period for your memoir, you’ll probably use a chronological format. (More on this in a future blog post.)

But if you’re basing your memoir on a theme, you’re writing a collection of stories pertaining to that theme. (See our recent post, Must-know info about your theme, by clicking on that link.)

You might base your theme on a Bible passage or a poem that means a lot to you. In that case, you’re writing vignettes (stories, chapters) to illustrate key phrases within that passage.

For example, you could use this Thomas à Kempis prayer as an outline—as a structure or framework for your memoir:

Give us, O Lord, steadfast hearts
that cannot be dragged down by false loves;
give us courageous hearts
that cannot be worn down by trouble;
give us righteous hearts
that cannot be sidetracked
by unholy or unworthy goals.
Give to us also, our Lord and God,
understanding to know You,
diligence to look for You,
wisdom to recognize You,
and a faithfulness
that will bring us to see You
face to face.
      Thomas à Kempis

If you were to use that prayer, you’d have your structure pinned down from the get-go.

  • For example, our first vignette/chapter would illustrate something you experienced—or watched someone else experience—about maintaining a steadfast heart and refusing to be pulled down by “false loves” (which could take many forms). Be sure to include specific the ways “false loves” presented themselves and how you fought to remain steadfast.
  • Your second vignette/chapter would illustrate something you experienced or witnessed about living with courage despite enduring ongoing troubles. Be specific about those ongoing troubles about how they threatened to break the person. And tell the story of choices made to defy fear and choose courage.
  •  Continue through each phrase of the prayer, using examples of personal experiences or those you witnessed in other people.

Another example might be If by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor walk too wise. . . .

Don’t miss the rest of Kipling’s poem—it’s so inspiring! Read the rest of it by clicking here.

And, just like the example above, use each phrase of the poem to write a vignette/chapter about personal experiences, or those you witnessed in other people, to illustrate the validity and power of each. What a powerful memoir that would be to inspire and guide others!

Your goal is to hand your readers a coherent, organized, satisfying story. Your memoir’s structure can play a big role in making that happen.

Come back next time for more help on structuring your memoir.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Don’t start writing your memoir until. . . .

“Do you love?” asks Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. “Are you still learning to love?”

“It’s a question . . . we must repeatedly ask ourselves, especially when we’re writing memoir.”

Beth, an award-winning author of 23 books, including several memoirs, says that if we don’t know what we love,

if we’re not capable of loving,

if we’re focused too much on self (“if we’re stuck in a stingy, fisted-up place”),

if we’re too angry,

if we haven’t allowed grace to take the edge off disappointments,

if “we haven’t stopped hurting long enough to look up and see the others who hurt with us,”

if we “only have words . . . for our mighty wounds and our percolating scars,”

then it’s likely too soon to begin writing a memoir.

Instead, Beth offers this starting point:

Make a list of little things that bring you happiness, those things that embrace beauty and goodness and love.

Beth’s not suggesting you cover up your sorrows and wounds.

She advises, “Rest assured you’ll be given a chance to tell the whole story soon. But start, for now, with love.”

Her suggestion reminds me of Philippians 4:8, “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.” (The Living Bible)

The Message says it this way: “. . . You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

You’ll no doubt include many kinds of stories in your memoir—adventure stories, sad stories, funny stories, heartbreaking stories, heartwarming stories.

By incorporating Beth’s suggestions in each of them,
by including love and gratitude,
writing your God-and-you stories
is a way to thank Him for all He has done for you.

Beth’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir is an excellent, rich resource for you. Consider adding it to your library. And check out her new website, Beth Kephart Books

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: What are you doing with those stories that are so much a part of you?

What are you doing with those stories that are so much a part of you?

Adventures you had,
lessons you learned,
truths you discovered—maybe the hard way,
dreams you pursued,
causes you joined,
heartbreaks you survived,
leaps of faith you took,
hard decisions you made,
the people you love and those who love you.

maybe you know stories about other people
living with courage and integrity.

What are you doing to share those stories with others?

If you haven’t yet started writing your memoir, or if you haven’t yet finished writing it, let these words inspire you:

“. . . Story has immense power,” writes Katie Ganshert. “All of us are living our own. But when we open up a book, we get to live another. We get to put on someone else’s skin—see the world through new eyes. Experience their struggles, their triumphs, their beauty. And where there is struggle and beauty and triumph, there is always hope.”

Katie has experienced those words she wrote—they’re not just good-sounding but empty words. She knows struggles, triumph, beauty, and hope. And she knows the power of story. Click here to read more about her.

Your stories matter.


For many reasons, but here are a couple of the biggest motivators:

Always remember what you’ve seen God do,
and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!
Deuteronomy 4:9

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.

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.

Write your stories and let God use them to touch others.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.