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.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Must-know info about your memoir’s theme

If not, you’re missing a lot of helps and inspiration!

By definition, a memoir has a theme. A memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir is only a slice of life—a segment of life—related to a specific theme.

Think about themes illustrating universal values or struggles, timeless truths, or quests:

  • forgiveness
  • compassion
  • justice
  • integrity
  • generosity
  • faith
  • courage
  • respect
  • honesty
  • receiving and giving grace and mercy
  • faithfulness, commitment, keeping promises

For example, you might write a memoir about working as a chef in a fancy Scottish castle, an experience which caused you to discover (or to re-think) how important honesty is.

Or you could write about your life as a set designer in Hollywood and how that taught you the difference between fair-weather friends and true friends.

Another idea: You could write a collection of vignettes based on the same theme as Spiritual Memoirs 101, “Always remember what you’ve seen God do and be sure to tell your kids and grandkids” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Alternatively, you could slice your life in a different direction and write about a specific time period. My first memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, covers my first four years working in Africa as a journalist-missionary. Within that time period, the book includes universal struggles relating to family and faith.

Strive to include timeless values, struggles, and quests that resonate with a variety of people. And, like Jeff Goins says, a good memoir “always connects the reader’s heart with a deeper truth. . . . Memoir is about something that is bigger than you. It’s about a part of life we can all connect to.”

Your memoir’s theme will convey the message you want readers to take with them. Your theme presents lessons they can apply to their lives.

So, the question is: Do you know your memoir’s theme?

If you’re still writing your memoir and don’t have your theme pinned down yet, don’t worry.

Not yet, anyway.

That’s because—and this is delightful—it’s amazing what we discover, what our stories become, in the process of writing.

While writing, we will probably notice a broad theme. Then, as we continue writing, we recognize more specific themes hidden in those words and chapters. Our stories can take us to places we could never have imagined!

Take note: By the time you finish your first draft of the whole memoir, you should know what its main theme is (and what its secondary themes are).

Dr. John Yeoman says that this way: “. . . Write a story that works. Then stand back from it and ask, ‘what does this story mean?’ And strengthen the latent theme . . . that’s already there.”

Dr. Yeoman also says, “If you can’t sum it up in a proverb, you don’t have a theme.”

Are you looking for proverbs, universal truths you’ve lived?
Wisdom quotes you’ve lived? Bible verses you’ve lived?

The living of them qualifies you to write about them!
Your story is important.

If you’re struggling to find a theme for your memoir, here are a few one-liners and quotes that might give you great ideas:

“If things are tough, remember that every flower that ever bloomed had to go through a whole lot of dirt to get there.” Barbara Johnson

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“What if this is a critical moment? What if this very thing, this very decision, is the most important piece of the puzzle comprising my purpose?” Beth Moore

“In the moment, it can be hard to see where God is leading us, but looking back we often see his fingerprints.”  Richard Stearns

“If you live gladly to make others glad in God, life will be hard, risks will be high, and your joy will be full.” John Piper

“. . . Reframe setbacks as opportunities. . . .” Sarah Young

“If you were to think of yourself the way I [God] think of you, how different you would be. . . . If you were to think of yourself as I think of you, how glad, how healthy, how satisfied you would be.” Marie Chapian

“There’s a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Ecclesiastes 3:4

“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” Arthur Golden

“Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading.” Oswald Chambers

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. . . . The Lord your God goes with you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

“Do it trembling if you must, but do it!” Emmet Fox

“Write today’s worries in sand. Chisel yesterday’s victories in stone.” Max Lucado

“What we resist in life is often our biggest opportunity to learn and grow!” Jody Stevenson

“Sometimes your medicine bottle has on it, ‘Shake well before using.’ That is what God has to do with some of His people. He has to shake them well before they are ever usable.” Vance Havner

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul in Philippians 4:12

“Our loving God will turn your mourning into joy, He will comfort you and exchange your sorrow for rejoicing.” Jeremiah 31:13

You’ll find rich material in these links relating to a memoir’s theme:

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Your memoir, "an instrument of transformation for others”

“Don’t get rid of the pain
until you’ve learned its lessons.
When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully,
you are in a very special liminal space.
This is a great teaching moment
where you have the possibility of breaking through
to a deeper level of faith and consciousness.
Hold the pain of being human
until God transforms you through it.
And then you will be
an instrument of transformation
for others. . . .”

(Richard Rohr, adapted from 
The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered)

That’s what 2 Corinthians 1:4 is about:

“[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (NLT).

That’s what your memoir can do for others.

How amazing is that?!

Be sure to check out these related posts: