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6 Keys to Writing Your Spiritual Memoir

  • Leslie Leyland Fields Author
  • 2020 21 Apr
6 Keys to Writing Your Spiritual Memoir

No matter who you are or what your age and stage of life, your story matters.

From the tiniest details to the most dramatic events, your story is worthy of attention and remembrance. God encourages us throughout Scripture to remember his mighty acts in our lives. Just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, God instructs them, “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you don’t forget the things which you have seen with your own eyes. Don’t let them fade from your memory as long as you live. Teach them to your children and grandchildren” (Deuteronomy 4:9, God’s Word translation).

Over the last 30 years of writing my own life stories and teaching others, I’ve seen the life-changing difference it makes in people’s lives when they stop to remember, write, and pass on their stories to their families. Anyone can do it. Here, then, are six keys to writing your own spiritual memoir.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Tom Merton

  • 1. Begin by mapping your life.

    1. Begin by mapping your life.

    This may sound like clichéd advice, but there are good reasons to begin here.

    We seldom take the time to step back and consider the scope of our lives. When we do, we’re often amazed at both the detail and range our memories hold. Try mapping places that hold special signifi­cance: your childhood house, your neighborhood, your summer camp. Draw as many maps with as much detail as you like. One detail, like the swing over the lake, will often evoke others. You might get some poster paper so there’s lots of room to draw your map. Keep going as far and wide as your memories take you.

    Another memory hook is a timeline. You might create a timeline for every decade of your life. As you mark the major moves, don’t forget some of the smaller moments that yet may hold great emotional weight: like, for example, when your 12-year-old daughter knit you a pair of purple slippers.

    Another means of remembering is to choose a metaphor that depicts some aspect of your life. You might choose a road to image your faith journey toward God. It may be a swervy, bumpy road with turnoffs and obstacles. Have fun with this stage. The more time you invest in surveying your life, the more material you’ll have to write from.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund

  • 2. Don’t try to tell your entire life story.

    2. Don’t try to tell your entire life story.

    After all that mapping, you might feel overwhelmed. How can you possibly write about everything that’s happened? You can’t. If you try, you may end up with something that begins like this: “I was born in County Fair hospital in Macon, Georgia, in 1942 and given the name Harvey Henry McHenry by my well-meaning parents. My first few years were blissfully happy, spent in our front yard with my sister by the chicken fence.”

    Will your reader make it through every up and down of your life? Probably not. While there is immeasurable personal merit in pondering the expanse of your life, most of us are not telling our stories for the history books or for the local museum. Most of us don’t need to account for every bump, swerve, and trip along the long road of our lives.

    Out of all that you’ve experienced, begin by choosing the most essential stories you want to record and share with your family. The turning point moments. The moments that pull at you still: when you proposed to your wife. The accident. Your Rocky Mountain bike trip. Your baptism. The birth of your first child. When your faith was severely tested.

    Rather than thinking of this as a book that chronicles your entire life, think of it as a collection of vivid life stories.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Koldunova Anna

  • 3. Don’t let the grammar police win!

    3. Don’t let the grammar police win!

    For most of us, when we sit down to write, we’re not alone. In that opening sentence, suddenly, unbidden, our 8th-grade grammar teacher shows up at our elbow warning us against dangling modifiers, run-on sentences, and the improper use of the semicolon.

    Our literature teacher goads us on the other side, reminding of the Literary Greats. An hour later, still sweating and laboring over the third sentence, we give up.

    Don’t let perfection silence your story!

    Don’t aim for perfection. Write messy and fast, especially as you begin. Remember, this is rescue work. Every story you write is a story saved from the Closet of Forgetting. It is priceless and precious, no matter its grammatical state. Address craft and editing in the next draft, as you revise. If grammar and mechanics still stress you out in that later stage, ask for help.

    4. Recreate the outer story through vivid scenes.

    As you begin to capture your essential stories, start with the outer story. The outer story is the event itself, what happened: when you took your family on a missions trip and the van broke down in the middle of Mexico City. When your husband survived his heart attack. The inner story is the deeper story that reflects upon the event. (More on this in #5.)

    Take the reader with you on that mission trip or to the recovery room. Don’t tell your reader what happened, show them: Take them there directly so they can experience it along with you. How? Create scenes that are rich in sensory details. Help them see, smell, hear, feel what happened in those dramatic and quiet moments.

    The best memoirs read almost like novels. Readers are drawn into the scenes, the setting, the experience, the characters. Keep them turning the pages.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Motortion

  • 5. Discover wisdom by developing the inner story.

    5. Discover wisdom by developing the inner story.

    The best memoirs deliver not only active scenes and experiences, but they also deliver wisdom.

    One of the biggest misconceptions about writers is that they sit around thinking up Important Wise Things and when they’re done, they simply spill out all their genius on paper. The real truth? I know dozens of writers, and we all write not because we already know Important Things but because we don’t.

    We write to find out.

    How? One way is to begin with that outer story first, simply to remember. Then we write inside those events to discover the inner story, that deeper story. We’re writing now to find and make meaning from those events. Your stories of summers on the lake might actually be about loneliness, or your search for God. When you fell and broke your ankle at the track-and-field nationals, take us inside your pain and disappointment. And how do you process that now?

    Writing the inner story, then, is the active seeking of wisdom, truth, and understanding.

    We’ve often lived our lives with such speed that we’ve missed the presence and the whispers of God. Jesus invites us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Writing is a profound means of asking, seeking, and knocking.

    Here is one way to write into your inner story. Begin with this prompt: “For once I want to understand the truth about ___________.” You might write about your marriage, the track accident, the day your daughter ran away. Write quickly, freely, down through the layers of memory and thought, seeking truth. When we seek him, God promises to show up. He will.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/opolja3

  • 6. Don’t shy away from the harder parts of your story.

    6. Don’t shy away from the harder parts of your story.

    It may be easier to focus on the bright and happy times, but in truth, for most of us it’s the hard times that have made us who we are. Those places of struggle still offer healing if we allow it. Through writing into those hard places, we have another opportunity to reclaim and revise our understanding of those events. The healing that comes is not for us alone.

    The apostle Paul tells us that we are comforted in all our troubles “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

    How do we write toward our pain and struggles? Prayerfully and humbly. Often our pain involves people who have wounded us. We must write honestly into those events and relationships, desiring to speak truth, but also desiring to understand larger truths: the truths of our offender’s life, and God’s own truths.

    Writing into my father’s life began as a recitation of all the ways he had hurt me. But as I wrote further, exploring his own life and then heeding God’s call to mercy and compassion, the words under my own pen led me to forgive him. Both our lives were changed because of it, and as that story went out into the world, many others were changed as well. This can happen for you, too.

    With these guidelines in place, you’re ready to start. You can write your stories fast or slow. You can make them beautiful or simple and plain. You can make them long or short. Don’t let guilt or perfectionism steal the joy, wonder, and relief of finally writing. I promise you’ll be delighted and changed by the process. Others may be as well.

    Make it fun, make it yours, and you’ll soon create a treasure that will be passed gratefully from hand to hand.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/YakobchukOlena

    Leslie Leyland Fields is the award-winning author of twelve books. Her most recent is Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life. An eight-session teaching DVD is also available, Your Story for His Glory, filmed with Ann Voskamp in Alaska. Leslie speaks and teaches around the world on faith, culture, and writing, and is the founder of the annual Harvester Island Writers’ Workshop on her family’s island in Alaska.