Monday, 24 February 2014

Writing a memoir

A memoir sounds quite an exotic thing to write, don’t you think? Perhaps something only famous people might attempt—or those with too high an opinion of themselves! A few years ago, after submitting the concept of my own memoir Soul Friend to an overseas publisher, I received a response that politely asked me why anyone would want to read a memoir by someone as little known or as unimportant as I am! Yet the word ‘memoir’ simply means an account of past experiences written from the author’s own personal knowledge—surely something within reach of us all. But that does not mean there are no challenges involved in such a venture. As Patti Miller, author of The Memoir Book and Writing Your Life, states: Writing about the self is one of the most demanding journeys you can take. It requires honesty, ruthlessness and courage. (p 132 The Memoir Book)

So, given we believe this is what God wants us to do, how do we go about it? Of course there are various ‘how to’ challenges we need to come to grips with, such as employing the right narrative voice, choosing a workable structure, using dialogue and maintaining good pacing. But over and above all that, I believe there are four big questions we need to answer before plunging in.
Firstly, what will the parameters of our proposed memoir be? Unlike autobiography, which usually involves recounting one’s entire life in chronological sequence, a memoir focuses on one main aspect or period of our lives—perhaps our childhood or a certain relationship or a particular place where we once lived. And this focus must always be maintained, if we are not to exasperate our readers with unnecessary detail or boring back stories.


A second factor to consider is why we want to write our memoir. Is it to share certain truths about the Christian life? Is it so others can perhaps learn from our experiences and be encouraged as they face similar issues? Is it even an attempt to make sense of things that have happened to us and who we are as a result? I believe these were some of the factors behind my writing my own memoir, Soul Friend. On the other hand, could we perhaps be letting self-indulgence run wild? After all, some people view memoirists as habitual ‘navel-gazers’. Worse still, could we even be trying to get back at someone or to set the record straight about past events?

A third factor to think about is how vulnerable we are prepared to be. To what extent do we need to bare our souls to the world in order to say what we feel should be said? Are we willing to risk being judged or misunderstood? Is it wiser to keep some things to ourselves? I am glad I decided to be honest and open in writing Soul Friend. I have had some very touching emails from readers who have thanked me for that. But I understand too the need for wisdom in this area.
Finally, how will what we write affect others? Yes, we may decide to be open and honest—but at what cost to another’s reputation? At what cost to our own relationship with the person concerned? Again, there is wisdom required before putting something in print we might later regret. Perhaps asking others’ permission might be a sensible thing to do, as well as listening to the opinions of our manuscript readers in this regard.

So ... are you ready to write that memoir? Yes, writing about oneself can be a demanding journey, requiring untold hours of soul searching, emotional conflict and reflecting with God. But it’s worth it, many times over. After all, the results can be life-changing, for ourselves as well as for others.

Jo-Anne Berthelsen lives in Sydney but grew up in Brisbane. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked as a high school teacher, editor and secretary, as well as in local church ministry. Jo-Anne is passionate about touching hearts and lives through both the written and spoken word. She is the author of six published novels and one non-fiction work, Soul Friend: the story of a shared spiritual journey. Jo-Anne is married to a retired minister and has three grown-up children and three grandchildren. For more information, please visit www.jo-anneberthelsen.com or www.soulfriend.com.au.

22 comments:

  1. No, I'm not about to write a memoir! But I'm glad you did and I do enjoy reading memoirs. Xx

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    1. Maybe you will one day though, Michelle! But I'm glad you are clear about what you want to write and are going for it. All the best with your 'Spiralling' series.

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  2. I enjoyed your article on Memoirs and loved your memoir, 'Soul Friend'. I've just sent in part two of my memoirs to a competition and am keeping my fingers crossed.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed 'Soul Friend', Hazel. From conversations we have had, I thought you might relate to many of the things I shared there. And keep trying with your own Part Two Memoir. I'm sure that's the one I have read--or part of it at least. I loved it so I hope the competition organisers do too. God bless!

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  3. I have no inclination to write a memoir but glad you wrote Soul Friend. It is a great book. And what a rude publisher you struck overseas.

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  4. Thanks so much, Dale, for your encouragement. I laughed at your comment about the rude publisher, but then again, she was just giving me a reality check, which I probably needed! On the other hand, 'Soul Friend' wasn't written as a kind of 'famous person tells all' type of memoir, which she seemed to have in mind, whereas I think just sharing our own journeys as ordinary people can really encourage others.

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  5. What a rude publisher! I say everyone has a story to tell. I have no plans as yet to write a memoir but I do admire you for doing so, Jo-Anne. I hadn't thought about how involved it is - thanks for the lesson.

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    1. Thanks, Catherine. I would say that overseas publisher probably did me a good turn though as I'm very happy with my Aussie publisher! I must say too that I didn't think about all the ramifications of writing a memoir until I was a fair way into it, plus there were some parts I thought more about later and removed. So we're all learning.

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  6. Hi Jo-Anne,
    I too enjoyed 'Soul Friend'. It's among my favourite memoirs. I like how you distinguish a memoir from an autobiography. I had to grin at the idea some people have of thinking of memoir authors as navel gazers. I guess that publisher would probably substitute the word 'straightforward' for 'rude' but even her automatic response gives us an idea of what people, at large, think of when they hear the word 'memoir.' I love them and agree that readers can learn so much from them.

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    1. Wow, Paula, I'm delighted that you would list 'Soul Friend' among your favourite memoirs. And yes, I wouldn't want to be too scathing about that overseas publisher's response--from memory, she did try to be quite polite about it!

      I think those who regard memoirists as navel gazers often may not realise how important it is to work through issues in out lives with God--nor how emotionally draining it can be at times. It's important to do this work of self-understanding, I feel though, as long as we don't become stuck there and lose sight of others' needs.

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  7. I'm so glad you wrote "Soul Friend" too, Jo-Anne. It is admirable in so many ways and it helped me span the years since we were seventeen!

    My mother ( and I really only realized how wise she was when it was too late) always told me that I should tell people of my own experience in life because no one can contradict my own story. There is no argument that can stand against the work of God in the life of an individual.

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    1. Thanks so much, Marion. And yes, there have been many adventures in those years since we were seventeen, but God has been so faithful to us both, for sure.

      Re your mother's comment, I saw the wisdom of that again just this past weekend when I spoke at a women's breakfast. Sharing with honesty how God has worked in our lives is so important.

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  8. I didn't realize you'd have to weigh up so many reasons why to write your own memoir, Jo. And what NOT to write about. One day I just might write about some of the characters I have come across in my travels, including some of the strangest beds I have slept in! But maybe I'll wait a few years yet.

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    1. I think that would make fascinating reading, Rita, so don't wait too long! I can just imagine you would have some funny stories to tell, as well as touching ones. Maybe you could include some of your sketches as well?

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  9. Hi Jo-Anne, Excellent post! Thanks for providing us with helpful information. It's interesting that the memoir market seems to cater more for big names who have the celebrity status to promote and market the book. There's a lot of value in reading about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Many of my favourite segments of the tv series 'Australian Story' have featured ordinary people. I loved Soul Friend and I'm glad you found an Aussie publisher for your book :)

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  10. Glad you enjoyed the post, Narelle--and also 'Soul Friend'! Yes, I never cease to be amazed at the stories I hear from people at places where I speak. One lady told me at my book table only recently that she had led 'a very boring life' and would never have anything to write about from her life, but by the end of my talk, I saw her in the audience nodding and smiling. And I agree about those 'Australian Story' programs, Narelle. They remind me of something David Benner wrote in one of his books about each of us being a 'unique face of God to the world', since we are all created in his image so must reflect something of him around us. An interesting thought, don't you think?

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  11. Hi Jo-Anne, I'm a reader who fell into Soul Friend and loved every word. I'm really glad you found a 'good fit' publisher to work with in the end. So many of us here have been blessed as a result of that endeavour.

    I keep all my personal writing in my journals. It's the place where, as you said, we "attempt to make sense of things that have happened to us and who we are as a result."

    Great post. Thank you.

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  12. Thanks for your very encouraging comments, Dorothy! Yes, journals are a wonderful way of working through things, aren't they? And they can also be a useful resource when writing memoirs--I could not have written 'Soul Friend' if I hadn't recorded my thoughts and feelings there after my visits to my mentor Joy and also while working through various personal and work issues. So keep on journaling!

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  13. Hi Jo-Anne - Thanks for a great post. I've just finished the Writing History unit in my current studies, which included memoir writing. I actually used my own childhood experiences of travelling to Africa plus my uncle's family's fight against apartheid for my major assignment. It was a challenge but I did enjoy and hope to expand on it sometime. I like your distinction of autobiography from memoir - and the need to keep focus. Looking forward to reading Soul Friend and also your last novel Inheritance. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Jeanette. And wow, how wonderful you could study memoir writing and do that assignment based on personal experience, as well as those of your uncle's family! Sounds intriguing to me, so I'd definitely keep it in mind for the future. Hope you enjoy those two books of mine!

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    2. Thanks Jo-Anne - I'm sure I will :)

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