Writing a Compelling Spiritual Memoir

Among the top sessions for me at Calvin’s Festival of Faith & Writing was “Writing a Compelling Spiritual Memoir” with Christine Lubbers Berghoef and John Suk.

When I’m not procrastinating on one of my YA novels or jotting down flash fiction stories, I toy with the idea of writing a memoir. There are quite a few true stories that live inside me. Every now and again, they want to get out on the page. Blogging has certainly helped me realize that my writing doesn’t have to be limited to fiction, but I’m still just in the toying stage with writing memoir. After all, I should probably finish one of my other projects first before I get into a new project, right?

The following are the notes that I took during the session. Hopefully they’ll help you as much as they help me. Enjoy!

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Before you begin, know that in a marketplace saturated with memoir, yours must be excellently written. From page one, people should be asking, “How in the world is this going to end?” It should contain complicated events, believable surprises, and a good resolution (a solution to the main problem, not necessarily the end of the writer’s life).

As you explore your book idea, gather your memories. Literally gather the photos, emails, calendars, and news stories from the time in which your memoir is set. Read your old journals (if you keep them). Physically go to the places from your past. Talk to your relatives about their impressions. And where your memories may differ from the realities as revealed in your research, aim to be emotionally true (if not always factual) to your memories. Also, if you plan on including anyone you know in your book, be sure to talk to them ahead of time (and be prepared to change some names to protect the innocent).

As you write, remember that this is a spiritual memoir. While everyone wants to get to Easter, no one wants to live through Good Friday, but it is your responsibility to take them there. Readers need to hear about the thorns in the flesh, the fall, sin. Real people want to read about real people. And few things can turn lives around like a well-told true story. So if your story is worth telling, tell it well and it may help others.

Remember to include some structure. Here are the basic elements of memoir:

  • Act – Something is done.
  • Scene – It is done somewhere.
  • Agent – Someone did it.
  • Agency – They did it in a certain way.
  • Purpose – They did it for a reason.

Many spiritual memoirs put too much importance on the agent and the act, but forget completely about the scene. Scenes are important because they constrain the act. And each element impacts the others. Aim for a well-balanced structure.

When you are finished with your work, expect some criticism. Be true to your experience and be gracious with those who criticize you. For as many negative voices as you hear, there will be others who will tell you that they were afraid to say aloud the very thing that you addressed. Your writing will give them an empowered voice.

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