My New Book: Witnesses of Hope, Faith, Love and Healing

Cover of my new book
My new book, Witnesses of Hope, Faith, Love and Healing, is available at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle. It is a compilation of testimonies of faith journeys by fifty-one members of my church, Chapel for Peace, Springfield, Missouri. 

In requesting testimonies, I made no restrictions on topic or length and did not censor the submissions. I edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and clarity.

The Witnesses
The shortest testimony is four sentences by a young single mother who thanked God for her one-year-old daughter. “Sometimes I stray, but my faith brings me back,” she wrote. She had never testified in public.

The longest testimony is fourteen pages by an experienced storyteller and grandfather who tells of many times he encountered the Holy Spirit. “I must continue to listen with greater purpose and meaning,” he wrote.

Other witnesses:

“Suddenly, a giant hand swept across the room and my hatred was gone. Vanished.”

“I received an unexpected blessing because of my bad haircut.”

“I can’t see God in anything that is going on. It hurts.”

“The cancer was so rare that only about 100 of this type surgery had been done each year in the United States.”

The Pastor
Pastor Ted L. Tinsman wrote in his Foreword:

"This book includes testimonies of God’s physical protection; the meaning of baptism; conversion experiences; how congregations help us love, learn, and grow; and how God may slow us down to really see the beauty in his creation. It includes testimonies of love, hope, fear, and dreams of an imperfect people in an imperfect world doing their best to know, love, and serve a perfect Creator. The testimonies are as diverse as the personalities and faith journeys of the witnesses who shared them."

The Author
My thanks to members of Chapel for Peace for stepping out in faith to share their witness of God's infinite love through Jesus Christ. Like the single mother, some had never given a public testimony; others did not know they had a testimony. The results of their struggles and willingness to share for the first time, combined with testimonies of experienced storytellers, produced a unique and permanent record of God's blessings.

I have been deeply blessed to participate in this amazing project. Throughout, I was reminded of what God said when he entrusted his great work to Abraham: “I will bless you . . . so that you will be a blessing.” (Geneses 12:2)

Photo courtesy Chapel for Peace.

What motivates you to write about your faith?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 12 of 12: Ernest Hemingway Did It 39 Times

Ernest Hemingway
12. Edit, edit, edit

How-to author and memoir-writing coach Sharon Lippincott: “Write like nobody will ever read it. Edit like the whole world will.”

Blogger Derbhile Dromey: "Good editing is a bit like gardening. You cut back the dead wood to allow the flowers to bloom."

Author Jeff Goins: "It’s never beautiful at the outset. Before your work can reach its potential, it will first have to be bad."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) said he rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, “To get the words right.”

These experts are saying simple proofreading is not enough. Your computer’s spellchecker will find some spelling and grammar errors—not all of which you will agree are errors—but it will not help find your emotional story. You will have to reread your manuscript several times and rewrite sections several times in order to get satisfying results your audience will want to read. 

Profile of a book editor
Long ago in a galaxy far away, staff book editors were an essential part of traditional publishing at the big publishing houses. Their job was to take a manuscript with potential and polish it into a sales-ready product. Not anymore. With the explosion of self-publishing and print-on-demand vendors anyone without a lick of sense can become a published author. Publishers are more discriminating in what they will consider. Authors no longer can expect publishers to clean-up their manuscripts. In order to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, authors have to have more than a great story; they must submit manuscripts that need little or no fixing.

A professional book editor may:
  1. Check for spelling and grammar errors.
  2. Spot conflicting sections.
  3. Identify sections needing improved flow and feel of the story.
  4. Flag facts that need checking. 
  5. Prepare an index.
  6. Design the interior including layout, font and text size.
  7. Select illustrations.
  8. Secure permissions for using material from other sources.
Some of these require individual expertise and teams of editors may work on the process. With few exceptions you are expected to do these tasks, or see they get done, before you submit your manuscript. 

How to find an editor
Ask your librarian for the name and contact person of a writers’ group near you. One or more professional editors may be members of the group. Ask for credentials and references.

Talk with the head of the English department at a college or university in your area. Some institutions have literary publishing divisions whose staff may be available for outside editing work, or they could recommend a contractor with whom they have had success. If a student or college employee is suggested be sure their skills and results can be proven.

Search the web for freelance editors. Talk with them and get references of satisfied and unsatisfied customers.

Galleycat lists Best Book Editors on Twitter, with links to and comments from the editors.

A directory of professional associations for editors is at Editors Only.

Editing fees vary with skills and experiences of editors and the amount of work they do. Some charge by the project, page, or hour. The Editorial Freelancers Association lists common editorial rates.

Photo courtesy biography.com
 

What solutions have you found work best for your editing issues?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 11 of 12: How to Know Whether You Are on the Right Track

The Reading Lesson
11. Ask a trusted friend to read your work and make suggestions.

Let’s say you finished writing your lifestory, or even several chapters, and you’re feeling pretty good about it. Your stories are interesting, with lead sentences that grab a reader’s attention. You ran the spelling and grammar check on your computer and all looks well. While you may not be ready to publish with a traditional big-name company, you are ready for the next step. What is the next step?
 
Defining the term
Many professional writers will not agree with what I propose: Get feedback from a trusted friend. You likely wrote your lifestory for family and friends and not to become a best-selling author. You may be planning to take your manuscript to a local quick-print store and have it bound in spiral-notebook form on eight-and-one-half-by-eleven sheets, add a clear plastic cover for protection, and buy a dozen printed copies. Fine to do, but you also should do the best you can so your family and friends will not label you a careless, know-nothing amateur (in their minds, though they might not say that to your face).    

The key is trusted friend—not your spouse, your children, your grandmother, or your best buddy from high school, college, work, or church because they won’t tell you the truth. They will pat you on the back and say how impressed they are you wrote a great book.

The trusted friend I recommend is someone with knowledge of writing. This could be an English or writing teacher, a published author, a person who makes a living editing a magazine or newspaper, or a member of a local writing group who is experienced at giving feedback; someone who will do the job as a special favor at no charge. At this point you are not seeking perfection; you are looking for impressions. Ask your friend how he/she feels about your stories. Do the stories make sense? Does the narrative flow evenly? Are the events in chronological order (unless you planned them to be out of order). Do not ask your friend to proofread or edit your manuscript; those are steps that will come later. You are looking only for friendly feedback; simple suggestions on how your manuscript could be improved.

How to do it
Encourage your friend to comment along these lines:

“Seems to me this chapter would fit better earlier in the book.”

“I think some dialogue would add interest to this section.”

“You’ve told this story three times. How about thinking of other ways to include the same information?”

“Are you comfortable revealing details of this relationship?”

After Dorsey Levell and I reviewed our manuscript for Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance we asked four people to look it over, none of whom was a professional writer/editor. Then we hired a professional to proofread and edit.

While you should review your own work, the challenge is you are so close to the writing and to the value of stories that influenced you that you are likely to miss the obvious and nuance of form and clarity.

Check with your librarian for the name and contact of a writers’ group near you. You probably can attend several times without joining and I encourage you to join. Like-spirits can be a big help. Many writers’ groups have critique sessions and some have mentoring programs, both for free.

Fantasy author Elizabeth May has suggestions that apply equally well to lifestory writing. Freelance writer Karen Cioffi has excellent tips for self-editing, after which she says you should have your manuscript professionally edited.

More on editing in my last post in this series next week.

Painting: The Reading Lesson, Knut Ekvall (1843-1912). Creative Commons.
 

What was your experience when you asked a trusted friend to read your lifestory?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 10 of 12: How do I Write about the Hurts?

Pattie Mallette
10: Give yourself permission to write about painful memories.

I have no nasty secrets that, if revealed on the front page of a newspaper, would bring great pain to my wife, my children, my friends, or me. Embarrassment perhaps, but not pain.

I’m not a therapist, licensed or self-proclaimed. Therefore, I can’t speak from personal experience. But I have learned from students, clients, friends, and professionals that writing a lifestory can be healing. If you are haunted by memories and secrets which have become burdens to your happiness, then writing your stories can bring release from your haunts.

Claim your experiences
“Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them,” says Linda Joy Myers, therapist and author who founded the National Association of Memoir Writers. She says to release yourself from the past you must  claim your own truths. “Your story is about you—told from your point of view. Your experiences belong to you, and are unique to you, and you have a right to claim them, even if others disagree.”

Author Jeff Goins says when we write about the painful parts it helps heal us, helps heal others, and helps heal the world. “Don’t avoid painful writing,” he says. “Don’t procrastinate sharing your scars. Take an honest look inward and begin today. It may be the most courageous thing you’ve ever done.”

In her memoir Nowhere but Up, Pattie Mallette tells of her alcoholic and abusive father, her drinking and drugs starting at age fourteen, her attempted suicide, being sexually molested so many times she thought it was normal to feel dirty and unloved, giving birth to an out-of-wedlock son and raising him in low-income housing. A neighbor helped with babysitting so she could get her high school diploma. And she found hope in Christianity, even though her faith is a bit shaky at times. Not familiar with the name Pattie Mallette? This should help: The full name of her memoir is Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom. Bieber is now eighteen, her age when she gave birth to him.

"Writing the book was part of my healing process," she told an interviewer. “There are parts that are still painful to go over."

Don't censor yourself
Write the painful parts of your life. Don’t try to get it right the first time, just write. Don’t censor yourself as you go along or you will end up talking yourself out of writing about the hurts. You can decide later whether to edit or include them.

Caution: Writing about your pain in itself is not a substitute for the guidance of a therapist or other professional, including a support group. Memoirist Sue William Silverman was in therapy much of her adult life, the result of sexual abuse by her father when she was a child. Her therapist repeatedly advised her to write about her experiences, but she could not until her parents died.

You have options. One, keep the painful memories locked inside so as not to hurt others and keep hurting yourself. Two, reveal and risk further pain to those you love who might think less of you or take their love from you. Three, write from the perspective of love and forgiveness rather than a victim; you will get through it, you will better understand who you are, and you will have greater respect for yourself.

Photo courtesy Revell Books.

What methods have you used to write your painful memories?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 9 of 12: Dialogue--Must You Remember Like Marilu Henner?

Marilu Henner
9. Use dialogue to break up narrative and give authenticity to your stories.

Actress, author, health and beauty adviser Marilu Henner is among a handful of people in the world known to have superior autobiographical memory. She can recall the correct days of the week for holidays in just about any year of her life, what she had for dinner ten years ago, and the date and circumstances of each time she met someone.

Russian journalist Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky (1886–1958) could hear a speech once and recite it word for word.

Memory expert Hideaki Tomoyori holds the world record for memorizing 40,000 digits of pi.

Stage actors memorize long lines of dialogue by associating key words, sentences, sounds, and images.

But how do lifestory writers remember exact words of conversations years after events? Some reviewers criticized Mary Karr for pages of dialogue in her memoir The Liars’ Club, saying they could not tell whether she was remembering or lying.

The whole truth
Truth is, lifestory writers don’t remember exactly. They write the flavor or tenor of conversations that give the results they remember. More important than remembering exactly is remembering the truths and meanings of events.

Consider the Bible, which is top-of-the-food-chain for lifestory writing. Just about everything in the Bible was stories told from generation to generation before it was written. No video cameras, digital voice recorders, or journalists were on hand when events occurred. After the stories were first written they were copied and recopied many times in different languages before a committee assembled them into what we know as the Bible. Influence of the Holy Spirit to the contrary notwithstanding (politicians say that a lot), a friend of mine looks at that scenario this way, “I don’t know whether everything in the Bible happened the way it was written, but I believe it’s true.”

When writing your lifestory get as close as you can to the actual dialogue, but don’t be concerned if you can’t remember exactly. The results of your conversations, your feelings, what you did and learned are much more valuable than exactly.

Simple exercises
Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler, authors of Rosie’s Daughters, suggest practicing your listening skills as a technique for improving your written dialogue: Go to a public place, listen to people talking, and make notes. Think about the meaning of the conversation, not the words, and write a commentary about the conversation.

Creative writing consultant Nancy Strauss: “Writing effective dialogue is a delicate art. You need to sound authentic, capture each character's voice. And you need to cut it at the right moments.” Although you I and often may say please, thank you, uh, I know, yeah, appreciate it, and other trite words and phrases, when written they can make dialogue cluttered and contrived. Strauss lists eight exercises to practice writing dialogue.

Most real-life conversations are boring. Your objective for dialogue in your lifestory is more than accurate quotes. It is relevant dialogue that tells readers important things about persons and story and that keeps readers engaged. If it doesn’t do that, then rewrite until it does.

Photo courtesy Jeff Katz .

What is your toughest challenge in crafting relevant dialogue?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 8 of 12: Show Rather Than Tell

Cover of Winter's Bone, a novel
8. Think of your lifestory as scenes in a movie

I dislike movies with narrators. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Get on with the story fer cryin' out loud. Narration at the beginning signals I’m not going to like the movie, while narration later in the movie bogs down my interest. Narration instead of action is a roadblock to my enjoyment, whether it’s words on the screen or voice over.

Synonyms for telling are narration and exposition. A certain amount of exposition is necessary to move along your story, but only the more important parts deserve longer expositions. The lifeblood of your story is interaction of characters. What did you do when they came into and went out of your life and how did you feel about what occurred?

Scenes in movies
Think of your lifestory as a series of scenes in a movie. In the movie business, big screen or television, writers put together stories using only four scenes. Wait a minute. How is that possible? Simple: The scenes are indoors night or day and outdoors night or day. That’s it. Nothing else. Everything happens within the framework of those scenes.

In your lifestory you may be an observer of a scene or you may be in the scene. Close your eyes and visually walk through the scene. Who are your characters? What are they feeling, doing, and saying? Where have they been? Where are they going? Why are they doing things? What results from their actions? When will they reveal their secrets? How are they going to get out of this mess?

Creative writing instructor Robert McKee, in Story, his handbook on the craft of screenwriting: "Never force words into a character's mouth to tell the audience about world, history, or person. Rather show us honest, natural scenes in which human beings talk and behave in honest, natural ways . . . In other words, dramatize exposition."

Action scenes don't need words. Characters in the movie Jurassic Park seek safety inside a laboratory. The camera shows a bowl of motionless water on a lab table. Small ripples appear in the water and become increasingly stronger, low thumping noises get louder, then a dinosaur crashes into the lab. Jumped outta my seat!
                                                
Words on paper
Freelance editor and mentor Bobbie Christmas says this is telling: "Harry was nervous. He wondered if the police sketch looked so much like him that he could be recognized." She says this is showing: "Harry raked his clammy hands against his jeans. He gawked at the bulletin board. The police sketch gazed back at him, his image exactly. He tugged at his collar, gulped, and glanced around to see if anybody recognized him."


Daniel Woodrell begins nearly every chapter of Winter’s Bone describing a harsh Ozarks winter. His characters rely on winter settings: 

“Weather burst on the woman’s hat and shoulders, wet spray jumping. She touched Ree’s hood, rapped knuckles against the ice to break it fine, and swiped the pieces away.”

“Ree stomped the ice and it creaked but did not crack wide. She took another step, and another, then came back for the ax. She stood on the ice near the willow, raised the ax and put all her feelings into the whacks she delivered unto that pond.”

"Black ice lay slick where the road bottomed, and the truck slid a surprise twist sideways and completed most of a circle before rubber found dry asphalt again and Gail yanked the squealing tires straight. She yelped and slowed fearfully to a shambling pace, then suddenly stopped altogether and sat trembling, overlooking a steep bank of scrub and a frozen cow pond."

Sorry to say the movie version did not do justice to Woodrell's winter scenes. Alas, the director didn't ask my advice.

Photo courtesy Little, Brown and Company

How have you overcome the urge to tell rather than to show action?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 7 of 12: Old-time Western Movies Got it Right

Alfred "Lash" LaRue (1921-1996)
7. Open with action or something interesting.

When I was a boy in the 1940s I enjoyed going to the ten-cent movie theater just off the square in my hometown and watching black-and-white cowboy movies. My heroes included Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hopalong Cassidy, The Durango Kid, Red Ryder, and Lash LaRue. Sorry ladies, no female Western movie heroes back then. (There was Judy Canova, but she was not in the same league as the men.)

To put those old movies into perspective for you young'uns, Lash LaRue taught Harrison Ford how to use a bullwhip in the Indiana Jones movies.

The Western movies of my youth often began with a stagecoach roaring down a dusty road, the bad guys chasing and shooting, the stagecoach guard lying on top and shooting back. Soon the stagecoach was surrounded by the bandits. The guard would jump onto the horse of a bandit and they went tumbling down a hillside.

Flash forward to the Indiana Jones movies—they all begin with action, or an exotic mystery that quickly leads to action.

How experts do it
Novelist James Patterson begins I, Alex Cross with a young woman wearing only her underwear, running through woods with bullets whizzing past and being slapped and scratched by tree branches. She stumbles onto a rural road, flags down a pickup truck, and climbs into the cab.

“Don’t let them get me,” she says to the driver.

“Who?”

“The men.”

“What men?”

“The men from the White House.”

You have to turn the page.

Cultural historian Teva Scheer is author of Governor Lady, the biography of America’s first female governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross. Scheer begins with seven-year old Nellie and her family standing on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, watching their bluff-top house burn to the ground. Then she fills in the backstory.

How I do it
My brother and I are writing our family history. Suppose we began like this:

“I was born July 29, 1939 in a house in Marshall, Missouri, the second of three boys.” Dull. And a sure-fire way to stop readers from turning the page, or even finishing the page.

Instead, we start like this:

“Dad never liked his given name, Aloysius Elias. ‘What kind of parents give a name like that?’ he said on several occasions. Parents of strong German heritage, I learned.”

When I speak to groups I start my talks with something that grabs attention, such as:

“I used to be a pretty nice guy until I started using computers.”

“I don’t like it. It’s hard work, time consuming, boring, I would rather be doing something else, and there is nothing in the Bible about it.”

Quotes can immediately establish rapport with your audience and set the tone for your stories. Here are several I've used:

“There never was an uninteresting life. Such a thing does not exist.” Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910).

“It is not enough to write to be understood. We must write so we cannot possibly be misunderstood.” Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

“I retired 17 years ago and have been behind in my work ever since.” Shirley Povich (1905-1998), sportswriter for the Washington Post.

Whether it is the first chapter in your book or the eighth, begin with the action or something interesting. Your readers will love it.

Photo courtesy TV-cowboys.com.
 

How have you used action or something interesting to open your stories?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 6 of 12: The William Zinsser Model

William Zinsser
6. Freewrite without editing or censoring

It’s easy to get bogged down in too many details when writing the first draft of your lifestory.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “My life is about the details.”

Yes, but . . . (There is always a but, right? Some purists declare everything before but is erased in the mind of the reader or hearer. But, that's not today’s topic.)

Yes, but notice these words in the opening statement: bogged down, too many details, first draft.

Writing and editing are different processes. I’ll have more on editing in a later tip. When writing your lifestory you should have a first draft you clean up by adding, deleting, rearranging, clarifying, and re-purposing days or weeks after you wrote it. If you stop to do those actions while writing it you may never have a draft to finish.

Bozo and Cheerio Syndrome
Suppose you are writing about your twelfth birthday party at your grandparents’ house. Your grandparents hired Bozo the clown and his dog Cheerio. You strike through twelfth; it was your eleventh birthday. You strike through grandparents; it was your uncle and aunt. Oh, and the clown’s name was Cheerio and his dog was Bozo. You trash the whole thing until you can get it exactly right. You could go on like that and never write the story.

It’s okay to make your first draft ugly. This is the hardest part of writing for me. I always want to do the Bozo/Cheerio routine, even though I know I shouldn’t. Many writing gurus say write it and worry about fixing it later.

Also in your freewriting don’t try to censor yourself. Eliminate from your thoughts ideas such as this is not an interesting story, I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, my family remembers it differently, this is too personal, I’m not a writer (see last week’s post on this one). Go ahead and write what you are feeling and decide later whether to include it or modify it. Open your thoughts to all possibilities.

William Zinsser Model
Ninety year old William Zinsser has had a distinguished career as columnist, university professor, freelance writer, and author of eighteen books including two on memoirs. In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition, he suggests this model for writing your memoir:
  1. Write about one event today; could be in longhand, could be on the computer, could be one page or several pages. Just one event. “Don’t be impatient to write your ‘memoir’—the one you had in mind before you began,” he says. 
  2. Tomorrow, write about another event. And the next day and the next until you have written thirty or sixty or ninety stories or whatever fits your purpose. Do not edit or arrange the stories as you write. 
  3. When you have written all you want, lay all of the stories onto the floor and arrange them in the order you prefer. Rewrite to your satisfaction.
VoilĂ , you wrote your memoir.

Photo courtesy William Zinsser
 

How have you overcome your urge to edit and censor as you write?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 5 of 12: Don't Try to be a Writer

Our book cover
5. Write in your natural voice, as though you were telling a story to a friend.

Students in my lifestory writing classes frequently say, “I’m not a writer.”

Stay with me, I’m going to get negative before I get positive.

I remember a scene in a movie from many years ago—can’t remember the name of the movie—in which an Army drill instructor faced a group of new recruits for the first time. “I tell you now, you will never make it,” the instructor barked.

Some established writers, agents, editors, and publishers tell aspiring writers the same thing; that writing what people want to read is hard, scary, and painful, therefore newbies won’t make it.

Consider these

  • Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winner for To Kill a Mockingbird, on why she never published another book (she wrote two others): “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money.” 
  • Michael Perry, author of three bestselling memoirs: “I just wrote and wrote and wrote for years, and then one day (after nearly a decade of writing every day and submitting work every month) the marbles aligned, not that the metaphor is perfect. I’m still trying to keep those marbles in line, and the table is forever tipping.” 
  • Paul Gallico (1897-1976), novelist and sportswriter: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” 
  • Susannah Breslin, short-story writer: “This is your roulette wheel, and when it lands on every number but the one you picked, and you realize that after years of work, you haven’t made more than a pittance at what you thought would be your new career, you will call it a day.”
How do you counter such negativity? Your image of what a writer should be may be skewed to unreal expectations. In the finality of things you need to be you. You need to write your lifestory the way you remember events and how you were influenced without being restrained by arbitrary standards of so-called experts.

Don't try to be a writer
This doesn’t mean you abandon effective storytelling techniques, good grammar, and proper punctuation. Learn your craft and then you can break the rules. Your finished product should be you; not Harper Lee, Michael Perry, Paul Gallico, or Susannah Breslin. On the other hand, it salves me to know Gallico told New York Magazine: “I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories.”

How do you be you? Rather than staring at a blank page or empty computer screen struggling to write like a writer, try telling your story to a digital voice recorder. You can buy them for thirty dollars to three hundred dollars. My thirty-dollar recorder does everything I need.

Tell your story into the recorder just as you would tell it to a friend. For my book with Dorsey Levell, Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance: My 31 Years with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, we did a series of audio recorded interviews which we then transcribed and edited. Dorsey is a great storyteller; he readily admits he is a much better storyteller than a writer. Some who know him told us that reading our book was like having a cup of coffee with him and listening to his stories. Exactly the result we were going for.

Book cover designed by Eric Baker of Blue Sky Design.

Tell us how you used a digital voice recorder for stories of family, friends, or clients.

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 4 of 12: Linda Spence and Memory Joggers

Linda Spence
4. Focus on key events by making a list of memory joggers.

Memory joggers speed up your writing process and give you freedom to write. Your goal in listing memory joggers is not perfection in details; it is to remember that events occurred. 

You could outline your entire lifestory using memory joggers, similar to the approach Linda Spence takes in Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History. She divides a life into nine major segments: beginnings and childhood, adolescence, early adult years, marriage, being a parent, middle adult years, being a grandparent, later adult years, and reflections. In each segment she lists questions to help you remember what might have been going on in your life. She has more than 400 questions throughout the book.

Start with these prompts   
Prepare nine pieces of paper or computer files, each with one of Spence’s major life segments at the top, or whatever segments fit your memoir’s purpose. In each segment write a brief line or two about activities you were involved in during that time. Your list could include a handful of activities or dozens. Don’t write complete sentences or paragraphs and don’t try to write a story; just bits of information you will refer to later when writing your stories.

Here are a few prompts to get your juices flowing:
  • Old family photographs
  • School yearbooks
  • Travel photos
  • What you were doing when big news events occurred
  • Letters from family and friends
  • Family Bible
  • Newspaper on the day you were born or other dates you select; search your browser for vendors
  • Family heirlooms: jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, dishes, and so forth
  • Names of family members and friends
  • Persons who most influenced you, for better or worse
  • Those who guided your faith journey
  • Firsts: first date, first learned to drive, first job, first child, and so forth
  • Accomplishments and failures with lessons learned
  • Saddest and happiest events
  • Serious illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Treasured friendships
  • Friendships gone bad
Expand your opportunities to remember by exploring memory joggers with your senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste; revisiting places of your childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood; and spending a specific time in a specific place every day discovering your memory joggers: ten minutes, twenty minutes, forty-five minutes, or whatever time works for you. 

Other resources
“Memory List Question Book,” free download from Soleil Lifestory Network.

“Oral History Interview, Questions and Topics,” from JewishGen.

“A History of Me,” David L. Burton, University of Missouri Extension, Greene County; $10 plus $2 shipping. 

Minute Memoirs, Marnie Swedberg. One hundred twenty-five one-minute memory joggers you may complete in one sitting or one minute at a time. Download for $9.95.

Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography (Adults), Mary Borg. Spiral-bound book includes sections on getting started, staying motivated, and memory joggers. 

Find dozens more resources by searching your browser for memoir writing prompts, memoir writing questions, or memoir memory joggers.

Photo courtesy Ohio University Press/Swallow Press

How have memory joggers helped you? What memory jogger resources have you found useful?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 3 of 12: William Faulkner, “Read, read, read.”


Reading by the sea
3. Read stories you enjoy and follow their approaches.

At the start of each of my lifestory writing classes I ask students why they came. What is bothering you about writing? What has kept you from starting or completing your memoir, biography, or family history? I write their answers on a whiteboard and then turn the list out of view. At the end of class we revisit the list to see whether we covered their concerns.

Concerns include where to begin, what to do about painful memories, will I be sued, fears of what family or friends will say, I’m not a writer, and who will want to read it. A top concern: How do I make my story interesting? 

Do this and you can't miss
The best way to make your lifestory interesting—that is, write so people will want to read it—is to pay attention to how others write. You do that by reading stories you enjoy: nonfiction, short stories, poems, essays, mystery novels, romances, action-adventures, memoirs, biographies, and so on. You can learn from the myriad of mentors, models, and methods that made others successful.

Lee Iacocca is believable in Where Have All the Leaders Gone? because he was president of Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, and headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (his parents were Italian immigrants). Stephen King is believable in On Writing because he wrote more than fifty novels that sold millions of copies. Literary agent Paula Balzer is believable in Writing & Selling Your Memoir because she represented best-selling authors.

Choose your favorites
Pick any author and genre: The late Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, William Zinsser’s nonfiction, Cait London’s romances, James Patterson’s thrillers, or whatever you like. Buy at random a handful of cheap paperbacks at a used book sale. Browse books in your library. Read them. Pay attention to how authors construct a scene, develop conflict, write dialogue, present character traits, show action, and use other good storytelling techniques. When you find yourself drawn into the plot and into the lives of characters, real or fiction, pay attention to how the author took you there. Soon you will say, “I can write like that”.

Reading and learning and applying keep you engaged in your craft. Practice writing a few paragraphs or a chapter of your own story in the style of a favorite author. This was carried to extreme by Yoknapatawpha Press, which for many years sponsored the Faux Faulkner Contest, now suspended. Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi is a fictional place created by William Faulkner (1897-1962) who was a native of Mississippi.

“Read, read, read,” Faulkner said. “Read everything –trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.”

Photo by Ed Rourdon (Creative Commons)

Which authors' writings helped you most and what did you learn?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 2 of 12: Maslow, Wolves, Olympians, and You

Women’s 100-meter hurdles, 2012 Summer Olympics
2. Define your motivation for writing your lifestory.

All creatures feel the need to be connected, whether honeybees or humans, wolves or whales, amoebae or anteaters; whether by village, tribe, pack, household, school, work, neighborhood, city, county, state, country, religion, or politics. Realize it or not, in writing your lifestory—be it biography, memoir, or family history— you have a need to be connected.

Identify your need
American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) created a five-stage hierarchy of needs. Other researchers expanded Maslow’s work into seven and eight stages. Maslow’s stages in order of importance are survival, protection, belonging, self-esteem, and personal growth. A dependency factor is common to all stages—humans need to be connected. If you were to trace any household object, such as a pencil or ballpoint pen, from your house back to a retail store, distribution center, manufacturer, raw materials and so forth, you would discover this dependency in thousands if not millions of lives.

Define your motivation for writing—the reason or reasons you want to be connected—and you will be able to write. Do you want to become famous? Make loads of money? Find personal enjoyment? Honor family legacy? Give back to the community? Help your children and grandchildren understand and appreciate their heritage? Find personal or family healing? Share your journey of faith to inspire others? Set the record straight? Think about all the connections within those questions.

Find your passion 
Marriage and family therapist, author, and memoir writing instructor Linda Joy Myers puts it this way: “The most important ingredient in writing a memoir is motivation–a passionate reason to get the story on the page, a ‘fire in the belly’ feeling that what you have to tell is important and significant.”

The foundational theme for your connections enables you to construct the narrative of your lifestory. Is your theme travel, nostalgia, war, public or celebrity life, humor, charity or service, personal struggles, spiritual faith found or lost, surviving loss of a loved one, social or cultural issues, advice based on experience, confessional, coming of age, rags to riches, dysfunctional family, romance, or trauma? A myriad of themes is available—even revenge, with caution.

Revenge is not a good reason to write your lifestory. It might make an exciting fiction book or movie, but don’t use it as your lifestory to get back at someone; that only perpetuates your hurts and theirs. It is okay to write about revenge as a teaching and learning tool, says Marion Roach Smith in her The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, but don’t use your story as a weapon.

Learn from athletes 
Several television commercials during the 2012 Olympics showed aspiring Olympians becoming motivated by watching winning Olympians and noting their times or scores. The Olympians-to-be wrote the times in sand or on a note attached to a refrigerator door.

Write your motivation on a sticky note and attach it to your computer screen or refrigerator, or write it on the cover of a spiral notebook. It’s okay to have more than one motivation, but more than three muddies your focus and can be overwhelming. Think about what you want to accomplish with your lifestory. Think of the benefits of the results of your published work. Think of how your lifestory not only will make a difference in your life but in the lives of those who read it.

Next week: Read stories you enjoy and follow their approaches.

What is your motivation for writing your lifestory?

Photo courtesy Tom Kelly/Flickr/Creative Commons

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 1 of 12: What Would Moses Do?

Moses mosaic
1. Decide the type of lifestory you will write: memoir, biography, or family history.

Many scholars believe Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, commonly called The Law. The books are mixtures of the basic story types of biography, memoir, and family history.

Two schools of thought exist on deciding the type of lifestory you could write. One, write without categorizing the type until you are finished, freeing yourself from artificial requirements. Two, determine the type before you begin, focusing within a framework that keeps you from wandering in uncontrolled directions.

Both schools rely on good storytelling. A good story has a beginning, middle, and ending; characters readers relate to whether they love them or hate them; and conflicts which may or may not be resolved. I recommend to students in my classes and to clients they decide the type of lifestory before they begin. By limiting their scope, they can focus on their stories rather than fantasize about getting an agent, a big publishing advance, having a best-selling book, and becoming famous.

Meaning of focus
Many life stories are written only for family and friends, are less than 100 pages, and may have only a couple of dozen copies printed and bound at a local quick-print shop. That is what a husband and wife did who attended my class. They wrote on calendar pages things their two sons said and did from babies to teenagers, transferred their notes to a computer and added photos, and printed a few copies at a quick-print shop. The result was a treasure for them, their children, and their grandchildren.

Another married couple I know felt strongly the need to capture stories of their influential lay pastor who also was a farmer. They recorded interviews with the pastor and his wife over a period of two years and transcribed the interviews for family members. The spiritual experiences and relationship stories were wonderful blessings of memories, even though the manuscript was not widely distributed.

Examples of biography, memoir, family history
The basic types of lifestory writing are distinguished by time periods. Biography is from birth to today. It is a biography if you write about someone else and an autobiography if you write about yourself. Celebrities and politicians often are subjects of biographies and autobiographies. Examples: Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Vanessa Williams.

Memoir covers a short time period or series of related events such as childhood, teenage years, military service, trauma, spiritual journey, and so forth. Your stories tell key experiences that influenced you and how you changed. Examples: Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, Sue Williams Silverman.

Family history uses genealogy, photos, and stories to tell about your ancestors. You may start several centuries ago and stop at any date you choose. Examples: Sloan and Related Families, about my wife’s family from 1756 to today; and husband and wife Dawn and Morris Thurston, each of whom wrote family histories.

Not all life stories fit neatly into the three types. Examples: Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, and books of the Bible. Esther is as much about author Julie Wheelwright’s journey to learn about an ancestor as it is about the ancestor, a mother superior who saved her convent in the 1759 English siege of Quebec City, Canada. Books of the Bible are mixtures of lifestory types. The variety of biblical authors did not write to showcase types, but to show God’s compassion to humans with stories richly told through laws, history, wisdom, prophecies, hymns, poetry, and letters.  

Next week: Define your motivations for writing your lifestory.

Which lifestory type best fits you and why?

Photo: Moses mosaic displayed in the Mosaic Museum of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. Courtesy TheWB (Wikimedia Commons).