Monday, May 19, 2014

How to Write a Spiritual Memoir

            I wrote a spiritual memoir a few years ago. It was entitled, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt. It wasn’t easy—writing a memoir, that is. I actually have some thoughts about that. (By the way, you should read that book! It’s great! Shameless self-promotion, there. You can get it from Eerdmans or on Amazon .com or .ca site. You could also just click the cover picture over to the left of this column to land on my book’s Amazon page).

            My thoughts here are based in part on a talk I gave about the process of writing a memoir at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing a few weeks ago. I did that talk with another writer, Christy Berghoef, who wrote Cracking the Pot: Releasing God from the Theologies that Bind Him. (By the way, you should read that book! You can get it on Amazon .com or .ca.)

            But getting back to my thoughts on writing spiritual memoirs.

            I’m pretty sure that, hands down, the number one type of unsolicited article we received at The Banner over the ten years I was editor was the memoir. Most often they were thinly disguised eulogies. As such they were stories about the author’s life with the deceased. But many were pure memoirs: personal recollections of immigration, or founding a church, or conversion, or surviving World War II, or serving as a pastor, and so on.

            Some were well written, but most were not. Still, the very volume of such articles suggested that a talk on how to write a memoir might be a popular offering at the Festival. And, in fact, nearly 300 people showed up for that seminar.

            Since then, I’ve had opportunity to revise the talk a bit—after all, I only gave half of the original one. But here are a few of my main points.

            One—and I don’t say this to be prescriptive—I backed into the spiritual memoir part of the book. I wanted, at first, to write a book about how what Christians thought “faith” was has been a moving target over the past two thousand years. I partly drew on my background in Communication Theory to write that history. And I drew on my theological training to reflect on the significance of those changing ideas about faith. But finally, halfway into the book, I realized that I was writing about how my own ideas about faith had changed over my lifetime, too.

            Two, one of the most common problems with all the spiritual memoirs I received at The Banner was that they were almost all about good people always doing good things—hagiographies. Drunks dried out. Churches were built in spite of financial setbacks. Immigration led to new lives, in spite of stormy crossings.  And so on. The people in such stories encountered obstacles, but they themselves usually bathed others in love, did so with integrity and by relying on deep faith. The problem with such stories (especially when it came to publishing them in a Calvinist magazine!) is that they never touched on the hero’s, or less frequently, the heroine’s dark side, weaknesses, shortcomings, or failures. But no ones life is so exemplary that it can stand by itself as a moral lesson. Mother Theresa had doubts. John F. Kennedy was a philanderer. Stephen Harper is a control freak. That means stories that ignore the dark side lack honesty—and usually narrative tension, too.

            Three, spiritual memoirs must have a plot! You must write so that from the first page (or chapter) people are asking, but how will this end? You need to put people on the edge of their seats. Readers need a sense that they ought to strap on seat belts and crash helmets. Thus, there must be complicating events, surprising (but believable) twists and turns along the way, and an aching void that lasts to the end of the story that may or may not be filled.

            Four, the writing must be good. Spirituality as a topic doesn't guarantee transcendent prose. So don’t use passive constructions. Find the right word. Concentrate on grammar, style, repetition (good and bad), and punctuation. I was always surprised by how many memoirs (and other articles) we received at The Banner, even from well-educated professionals, that failed using most of these measures. The worst offence, often by pastors, was florid writing. Ponderous decoration doesn’t fly and is nearly impossible to edit.

            Five, get used to the fact that you can never be objective about your own story. You will, after all, pick the events in your life to write about and you will colour them as you see fit. Along the way you will lie, you will misremember, and you will be mightily tempted to weight things ever so slightly in favour of your own portrait. It is impossible to do otherwise. But try to minimize this. Check with friends. Ambiguity, paradox, unknowns, mysteries, confessions, errors all have weight because they help any story become more believable.

            Six, journal. I’m not a daily, year in and year out journaler. However, at several key points in my life—when I was finishing high school, in seminary, when I started in ministry, when my brother was dying, and when I’ve gone on retreat I’ve kept a journal. They were invaluable to me for writing my book. I also had monthly council reports that always included a “personal” note, date books, letters written to my parents when I was in college, news stories, interviews to draw on. I found it painful to read some of that old stuff—but it was illuminating too. If you want to write a memoir, journaling is a great first step. And if you want to get into the discipline of writing, journaling is a great activity.

            Seven, consider employing what Kenneth Burke called “perspective by incongruity.” Burke thought that when you put two things together that don’t belong together, you will see new things. So, for example, there is Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or, how about a bus in the Alaska wilds, as in Jon Krakauer’s, Into the Wild? Or even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. In my own book, I draw some parallels between the faith story of a little boy growing up in St. Catharines and the faith of illiterate peasants in Europe, fifteen hundred years ago. Perspective by incongruity can by paradoxical, mysterious, or simply add interest to your writing.

            Eight, a bit more Kenneth Burke. He suggested that there were five loci that any cultural artifact will have built into it. Act (what happened), scene (where did it happen), agent (who did it), agency (how was it done), purpose (to what end). In my experience as an editor, many of my beginning writers focused almost exclusively on fleshing out the agent. It is a memoir, after all. But scenes contain and constrain acts. It matters what sort of family you grew up in, or what seminary was like, or what your neighbourhood was like. Memoirs ought to explore all five loci, but I think Scene offers some of the most imaginative possibilities.

            Naturally, this is the sort of topic that whole books could be written about. So I offer my eight thoughts as part of a much larger conversation. Still, lots of people have interesting and instructive stories to tell. Hopefully these hints will help you write yours.


  1. Thanks again, as always John, helpful and prompting.

    I guess you're helping us write a memoir someone else will want to read, which is different perhaps from the memoirs people want to write for themselves and perhaps their loved ones. I think it's good for people to write them, even bad ones. They won't get published and probably don't need to be despite the wishes of the authors.

    My father wrote one mostly for his friends and family. I treasure it, especially now that he's passed. It isn't a great book, flawed in many of the ways you described above, but in it is a piece of him. He probably wrote the best one he could and for me that is enough. Thanks again.

    1. Paul, I probably should have added another point, one raised by your response. Audience is an important consideration. And if you are writing for family, for its posterity, or for yourself, that may well outweigh some of the other considerations I've raised. I wish my father had written a memoir just for the family. We would have treasured it too. Thanks.


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