Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Writing your memoir: “A lump in the throat and a deep, wordless feeling”

Prolific writer Frederick Buechner says that when he writes books, they “start—as Robert Frost said his poems did—with a lump in the throat . . . with a deep, wordless feeling for some aspect of my own experience that has moved me.” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)

Do you know that “deep, wordless feeling” that longs to find its way from within you and into black and white on paper?

If so, you’ll find encouragement and inspiration from Donald Murray’s words in The Craft of Revision:

If you haven’t yet begun to write your memoir,
begin today!

Write so you can discover what you want to say,
and then rewrite to make sense of that
“deep, wordless feeling,”
and share your story with others.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Family secrets and Michele Norris’s memoir: Not with anger, but with hope

Even family secrets—secrets you could hardly envision—helped shape you. 

Imagine Michele Norris’s shock when she set out to write a book about racism in America and stumbled upon layers of family secrets that, in their keeping, had a profound influence on her childhood, the person she became, and the way she raised her children.

Nationally recognized Norris, journalist and former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke at our local university’s dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy.

She learned from her uncle in 2008—years after her father’s death—that police officers shot her father during the ugly years leading up to the Civil Rights Act. Her father had never told her. 

After her uncle’s surprising disclosure, other relatives told more stories from that era, stories Norris had never heard.

That inspired her to research roles her family played, as a “non-confrontational family,” in America’s painful race-related issues. That investigation led to what she calls her “accidental family memoir,” The Grace of Silence.

She learned that the shooting occurred when her father, Belvin Norris, had just returned to Birmingham, Alabama, from World War II.

“He’d served in the Navy and he returned to a city full of Black veterans who had fought for democracy overseas and were eager to get a taste of it on their home turf. What they faced, instead, was a wall of white resistance. . . . They still faced old rules about segregation and carefully defined roles.”

In that era, too many Blacks were beaten, murdered, and denied voting rights.

Norris’s research revealed that only six days before her father’s shooting, another Black veteran, Isaac Woodard, still in uniform, was beaten and blinded by Batesburg, South Carolina, police.

“The story, subsequent trial, and swift acquittal of the officers caused a national sensation,” writes Norris in an NPR article.

“The Woodard case had a direct impact on President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the military.”

The events of that period led Michele’s father to turn his back on the past, move north, raise his children in a white neighborhood, and keep earlier racial incidents a secret—even from his wife.

Why would he hide it from his children?” asks Michele.

And why did her many relatives, all of whom knew the stories, keep them secret?

The questions haunted her.

“I’m pretty sure . . . that I would have ordered my steps in life differently had I known this,” Michelle says. “I might have been a different adult. I certainly would have been a different child.”

Over time, she came to understand that her father kept the secret “not with anger, but with hope.”

Her parents “wanted their children to soar, so they chose not to weigh down their pockets with personal tales of woe.”

Our parents tell us what they think we need to know,” she continues, “and my father didn’t think I needed to know that. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain, so he chose not to tell me about this. And that explains the title of the book . . . The Grace of Silence. That is the incredibly graceful act.”

“. . . I expect that the ones who came before us—
black and white—
had things they had to keep still about . . .
just like me and Miss Cora.
Things we had to do, whether we liked it or not.
And then we never speak of them again.”
(Augusta Trobaugh,

Do you know your parents’ stories?
Your grandparents’ and great-grandparentsstories?

Probably some of your ancestors,
like Michele’s,
made hard decisions and sacrifices
to ensure that their pasts didn’t hold you back.

Their stories, their choices, and their secrets
have profoundly shaped who you are today.

Michele concludes with something for all of us, especially memoirists, to think about:

“History is made in all kinds of little ways,
a hiring decision, a school bus ride . . . .
I bet that some of the elders
who sit at your family table
might be sitting on stories of their own.

“Those stories, those individual stories
are so easily lost if we are not willing to . . .
listen to those who might be willing to share their legacy
if only someone is willing to take the time to ask.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ponder: What’s the significance of the folks who came ahead of you?

“. . . All the folks who came ahead of us
are like the brown roots of a big old vine
growing close to the porch,
and even though those roots are way down
deep in the ground
where we can’t see them,
they’re still there. Always.
And we grow from them, our whole lives,
and then, if we’re lucky, others grow from us.”

Think about such things. 
(Philippians 4:8B)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

For you: Marty Duane’s “The Writer’s Prayer”

Many things will distract you from writing your memoir, and they might even be good things. For example, I just attended a women’s retreat and it was refreshing and inspiring. I also stocked up on groceries, went to church, monitored coronavirus cases,  emailed friends, spent a few hours with my granddaughter, texted my kids, watched a Hallmark movie, and carried out the inevitable cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, and laundry.

All good things. But I didn’t do much writing.

When life gets busy, busy, busy, let’s remember: Writing a memoir is a ministry. Like the Psalmist said, “O God, let each generation tell its children of Your mighty acts; let them retell stories of your power” (Psalm 145:4). (See also Deuteronomy 4:9 and Luke 8:39.)

Your stories can shape the lives—including the spiritual lives—of your children, grandchildren, great-grands, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, colleagues, and even people you’ll never meet. Therefore, focus, exercise self-discipline, and manage your time well. Figure out priorities. Maybe for a while writing can’t be a priority, and that’s okay.

But because writing your memoir is a ministry, make it a prayer priority.

Make prayer your first writing assignment every day,” Bob Hostetler says.

Lloyd John Ogilvie acknowledged that in his ministry he faced “soul-sized issues,” so he prayed:

“Sovereign Father. . . . You have given me . . .
an imagination able to envision Your plan
and purpose for me,
and a will ready to do Your will.
. . . I know You will go before me to show me the way,
behind me to press forward,
beside me to give me courage,
above me to protect me,
and within me to give me wisdom and discernment.”
(Quiet Moments with God, Lloyd John Ogilvie)

Your family has soul-sized issues today, and as new generations join your family, they, too, will encounter soul-sized issues. God has a plan and purpose for you, a role to play in your family.

As you carry out that plan, God will go before you, behind you, beside you, above you, and within you. You can count on Him!

You probably have no idea just how much God can use your stories to impact soul-sized issues in the lives of those around you, so today I share with you Marty Duane’s “The Writer’s Prayer, a humble prayer for himself and for all writers:

Dear Author,
Today, the words I use, let them be Your words.
Words of Hope, of Love, of Faith.
Allow me, with trembling hands, to be Your voice. . . .
Let me never forget, the words I write today
May change the life of one, maybe two.
But as the Psalmist says, I bring You all my sheaves,
They may not be many, but they are Yours. . . .
You gave to me
this small talent of writing,
and it is through this talent
You have given my heart a voice. . . .”

Take delight in what God has put on your heart.

Recognize He has given your heart a voice.

Focus. Be single-minded. Pray. Write.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The secret to writing better than you are capable of writing

If so, you’re not alone. We all get discouraged from time to time, but author Bob Hostetler has a remedy for us.

In his blog post, “Your First Writing Assignment,” Bob tells of his own experience—getting burnt out on writing. Undone.

But then—and I’m sure it was a God-thing—he got a writing assignment that required him to pray—and it was prayer that refueled him and saved his writing ministry.

“I pray before I write. I pray while I write. And then I pray after I write that God will even further transform my offering through the work of godly publishers, editors, designers, artists. . . .

I pray, not to change God or others but to change me. I pray for wisdom to manage my time wisely, for discipline to apply my mind to my writing and my butt to the chair. . . . For some writing projects, I’ve assembled a prayer team to support my writing with their prayers. . . .”

Bob encourages all of us to “ . . . make prayer your first writing assignment every day. Before you sharpen your pencil or turn on your computer, before you outline, before you jump into a writing exercise or research task, pray.

“Whatever it takes,” he says, “if prayer is not your first writing assignment every day . . . you’re cheating yourself, your readers, your editors, and even God, who will partner with you in your writing . . . for the asking.”

You’ll be inspired by Bob’s post, “Your First Writing Assignment.” It will take only a minute or two to read it, and it will be well worth your time.

it could revolutionize yours, too.