Je l’aidai de mon mieux, c’est-à-dire, en essayant d’écrire un chef-d’œuvre immortel. (I did my best to help her, that is, by trying to write an immortal masterpiece.)
–Romain Gary, La promesse de l’aube(Paris : Gallimard, 1960) 185.
Relief for me is finally, finally being good enough in my own estimation, within my own head and heart.
I haven’t felt good enough before now. I would have liked to be a great novelist who stirs readers’ souls. Or perhaps, I thought, I would be good enough if I earned a doctorate and became a tenured university professor, or even if I earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing. My master’s degree in literature is not a “terminal” degree and so is not good enough, or hasn’t been. I began a doctoral program at the University of Maryland but changed states and jobs when I was just two courses into the program. Even at this point in my life, I’ve thought about earning an MFA or PhD. I’ve explored university websites from time to time, hoping to discover the path to wholeness. I would enjoy the academic work; I love to learn. But I can learn outside an expensive degree program. The degrees have appealed to me because I’ve thought they might make me, finally, fully sufficient.
For most of my life, I have felt insufficient, second rate next to the world’s full professors, full-time writers, musicians with careers, people with a life mission. Above all, I have with desperation sought a mission for my writing. I’ve been searching for fifty years. Having a mission would, I was convinced, permanently ignite my writing, giving it drive and meaning, carrying me past procrastination, past wondering what to write, past the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed with projects calling to me but languishing unsupported by confidence in how to do them and in their offering others something of value.
I have with frantic intensity tried to find my writing niche—my life niche. Good ideas have come and given me hope that I have finally found this longed-for writing and life niche. But inevitably I’ve bogged down sooner or later from a loss of energy, inspiration, momentum, and belief in the merits of my plans.
I want to write about so many things, but the pen becomes too heavy to lift if I think I must write specifically about X or Y and do so at a suitably high level—what that is, I am uncertain. I bloom at intervals, even finishing substantial projects from time to time. But then I sink back into the slough of discouragement, fatigue, and endless games of Scrabble on my Kindle Fire.
The truth is that, in contrast to my ambitions, I love being a Jill of all trades. I have not proved willing, or even able, to give up the quantity of my interests and hobbies in order to achieve quality, to overcome my master-of-none status. I love the full range of my enthusiasms. I don’t want, for example, to give up my French class in order to spend more time on Italian, or give up Italian in order to practice my flute daily, or quit billiards, tap and line dancing, or my occasional acting to reestablish a regular program of reading literature. I don’t want to give up my meaningful visits with friends in order to have time to produce masterful creations, as much as I am driven to express myself creatively. I’ve joined a choir and signed up for spiritual retreats with a dear friend. I want to organize my possessions, walk down by the pond, meditate, make jewelry from beads. And still I’ve craved—begged—to find my overarching purpose in life, my reason for being, my way of serving.
Can I possibly serve merely by being as I am—rather than only as I have, all my adult life, longed unsuccessfully to become?
I can’t be a great writer and also spend long hours studying my part for a play, or figuring out how to fill seventy-five minutes leading a book discussion in French, a language I love but in which I lack confidence. I can’t be an accomplished musician if I spend my days on other than practicing music. Yet perhaps, after all, my failure to reach the heights I’ve been thinking I must scale if I am to count, to serve, and to overcome my sense of not measuring up is because God didn’t form me to be an Isabel Allende, James Galway, or tenured professor.
Maybe I’m meant to serve as I can by savoring smaller bites across the vast smorgasbord of life and by sharing my enthusiastic efforts—whatever their limits and deficiencies—with others. I can encourage others, too, to find their joys in the world and to embrace their own God-given ways of being.
I suppose it is shortsighted of me to smother the pleasure and satisfaction of my Jill-of-all-trades temperament and opportunities because of my shame and discouragement over my master-of-none status. I’ve been damping the fires of who I am. I’ve spent large portions of my days mourning the failure to materialize of the person I thought I ought to be—but couldn’t figure out how to make myself become.
What profound relief I feel as I begin to move forward, having decided that who I am is not simply enough but is also who God made me to be. I have the responsibility to grow, to serve and to seek to master being me, but not to become other than the nature I was given.
Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me. In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church. I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.
My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism. I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding. Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.
You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy. I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses? In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?
Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers? Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?
I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.
As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics. For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me. Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.
At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding. I want and expect all of me to be welcomed. I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.
Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective. But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God. I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.
No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings. I want to be a part of that process. I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.
So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be? If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.
Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.
To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church. I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic. To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.
On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away. On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns. If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”
As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house. I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past. I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”
So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me. In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being. I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass. I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail. But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.
I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker to Catholic. The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy. So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water. Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.
My Reasons for Setting Sail
I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship. But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home. Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.
The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting. When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting. And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity. It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.
But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans. Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being. Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me. Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things. Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.
And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too. Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns. We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:
As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.
Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there. And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.
I crave regaining a spiritual home. I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love. I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.
But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon. The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.
I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans. Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place. I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace. And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ. There is much to love. And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes. But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.
Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?
I don’t expect a perfect Church. Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect. Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements? If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change. Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.
I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women. Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power. Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.
And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women. Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals. Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives. But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message. We all are.
I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me. Every human being can commune directly with God. Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.
It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present. At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service. The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes. In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality. And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.
Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church. Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example. Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment. God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water. Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.
God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status. Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on. And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized. Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not. By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.
The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me. (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.) I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion. Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity. But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”
No One True Humanly Charted Course
I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth. When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe. In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school. I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor. But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?
Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding. Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s. No one, and no religion, has all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.
The Wrong Direction Altogether?
When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home. It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction. The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.
Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family? Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in? Should I join the Church feeling as I feel? I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.
 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).
 The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.
Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters. You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far. Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.
Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing. By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work. Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book. Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.
Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present. These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir. Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful. You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful. It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.
Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting. In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged. Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).
Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now? You seemed to know me then. I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City. You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat. You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you? To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more. I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter. As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now? Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be. I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life. Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you. I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters. A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively. In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .
I wonder what life has brought you. Can you believe we’re now in our 60s? It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama. He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class. You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree. My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper. You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance. With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside. I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had. I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date. (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.) But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .
If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book. Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?
Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings
For me, August is a month of change. It is a time of coming to the world and growing older, of awakening to sun-filled hot, blue mornings filled with blossoming, burgeoning life. And also for me, August is a month of meeting loss and death.
I was born in August, and on the August day that I marked fifty-five years of life, my infinitely dear father died. In the years I lived in the North Country—in Maine and in New York near the Canadian border—August was a time of transition for Nature, too. Wind stirred the lakes, a few leaves turned red before their time, and most nights called for warm blankets and flannel nightgowns.
In “North Country August,” autumn tunes up its season of change. In this poem, I welcome the coming of autumn’s pared-down beauty. I will never cease grieving my losses, above all my parents and other dear ones who have gone on ahead. Yet while I struggle to keep the confident outlook of the poem’s last stanza, I vow to embrace its peace and optimism, as best I can.
North Country August
A large brown duck with orange feet stands on a log by the creek
And then swims upstream against the current.
In the smooth water, a perfect duck looks back at her.
Crows call between the dead trees of the swamp.
Reeds and low brambles hold an early fall dryness,
While the scraggly petunias in window boxes still remember spring.
A monarch butterfly tastes purple phlox.
Chattering chickadees fly in to feed on sunflower seeds.
The sky is clear, but the mountains are lost in haze.
The Earth waits for change.
Along the fence roses bloom, with buds forming
As if the month were still July.
Would I want to live in July forever?
August is Earth’s send-off to subtler days ahead.
How lovely it will be to sleep soundly under my blanket.
Already the Sun is setting earlier,
With evenings that give more time for reflection,
Fewer demands to be out doing.
One glorious fall morning, the snow geese will fill the sky
From horizon to horizon.
Then snow crystals will sparkle in cold December air,
And mists will rise until the lake is frozen.
The first reawakening will be the birds on a March morning.
Ice will boom in the warming Sun,
And the seagulls will congregate on the flows by the ferry channel in glorious reunion.
The silent flight of herons, with their long dancers’ legs, will herald summer,
Spread before us once again.
I was born in August.
Each year of my life closes then.
But as my season of birth,
August is the beginning for what is still to come.
My spring will not return in this life.
Yet I choose not to see August as summer’s end.
It shall be my passage into vivid autumn colors,
My transformation into the clarity of September’s blue skies.
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.
Perhaps the most vaunted phrase in memoir writing is narrative arc. If you have read books about writing memoirs or attended a conference focusing on creative nonfiction, you have almost certainly been told that the narrative arc is a sacred thou shalt for memoir authors. (Creative nonfiction is nonfiction such as a memoir that is written using the tools of effective fiction writing, including strong character development, dialogue, and memorable settings and imagery.)
The term narrative arc refers to the storyline in creative nonfiction; the narrative arc corresponds to the plot in a novel or short story.
Having a narrative arc in a memoir means telling a true story that builds to a climax and then, at the end, comes to a resolution. It includes:
Setting the scene
Introducing the problem or conflict on which the story will focus
Putting in motion the events of the story
Building to a climax
Bringing the story to a conclusion that resolves the central problem or conflict in some way (although not necessarily through a happy ending)
If you are hoping to interest an agent or a traditional publisher in your book-length memoir, you will likely be expected to have included a fully established narrative arc that spans the entire book. In other words, your memoir can’t simply be a collection of discrete episodes and descriptions. Your book will be asked to depict the progression in your life (and that of others involved) as you meet and wrestle with challenges, reach a climax in your efforts, and then end up changing in some way.
For instance, instead of telling pretty much everything that happened to you while you were in high school, you would need to focus on a central and especially meaningful aspect of your experience. Perhaps you were painfully shy and discouraged when you were fourteen, but through a series of notable experiences (belonging to a theater group? having a boyfriend or girlfriend? suffering a terrible loss? working with a memorable teacher?), you gained the confidence that has helped you to go on to a satisfying adult life. If the story of your growth from painfully withdrawn to impressively confident is the focus of your memoir, you have met the goal of having a narrative arc.
The beginning of your book will set the scene—providing the background and context for your memoir. You will also set the book’s events in motion. For example, maybe the first event to be included will depict your running to hide in your room when the popular girl or boy from across the street appears at your door. The story will build and build until you reach a turning point—the moment that your transformation from awkward to outgoing becomes fully evident to you and others. By the end of the book, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the strong person that you have become—that you have become in spite of and also because of your many painful challenges.
If you are planning to self-publish your book-length memoir or are writing it for your family and friends, you can, if you wish, thumb your nose at the need for a narrative arc that spans your entire memoir. But even then, making sure that each scene or chapter has a narrative arc can add significantly to the impact of your writing. If a scene, chapter, or essay has a clear narrative arc, you can feel confident that your writing is focused and that the point you are making (your theme) will be clear to your readers. After all, the narrative arc is fundamental to good storytelling, from sharing a funny or infuriating experience that happened at work to composing the next Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Tuesdays with Morrie.
Here—from my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick—is an example of a short memoir chapter that has an evident narrative arc. The first paragraph sets the scene; subsequent passages let us know more about the setting and people involved. In paragraph two, we are introduced to the central problem of the story—robbers are planning to rob the village bank—and the action of the story begins. Each detail, including the false conclusion that the threat is over, leads us toward the climax: “The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.” We learn additional information about that climactic event, and then the story moves toward its resolution as two of the robbers are caught, sent to prison, and eventually released.
The Bank Robbery By Doris Burgess Hayek
Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.
In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.
On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.
Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.
One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.” Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”
Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.
Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.
The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.
Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.
Notice that “The Bank Robbery” does not get sidetracked with details about the Paint Lick telephone exchange, about who among the friends was the best croquet player, and about what the various village businesses looked like. Other chapters in my mother’s memoir touch on those topics and tell readers about Mrs. Logsdon and Mrs. Goodman. But in this chapter, all the details support the specific focus my mother chose for the scene. The account is more than a series of facts and descriptions; it has a plot just as if it were a fictional story. And so “The Bank Robbery” reflects beneficial use of a narrative arc.
Will incorporating a narrative arc help you to tell your story? It’s worth considering.
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Do you tell yourself, “I’m just not a writer—I didn’t get that gift”? Do you say, “I don’t know grammar”? Have you concluded, “Writing comes easily for other people, but not for me”?
If feelings like these discourage you from writing a memoir, this post is for you. I hope it will also include some useful tips for more confident writers.
No matter how little confidence you have as a writer, know that you have what it takes to write a meaningful memoir.
The most essential part of writing is having something to say. And if you’re planning to write about your life—your experiences and perceptions—you absolutely qualify. Yes, knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation is useful, but good writing comes from having something worth saying and then finding the means to say it effectively.
For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with a chaotic, error-filled first draft as long as it doesn’t become the final draft. (Once you have a fully developed draft of your memoir, then it will be time to turn to organizing your content and improving your sentences and paragraphs.)
For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
Some people express themselves more easily orally than in writing. If this description fits you, you may want to draft your book by first talking into a recorder. Transcribing the recordings will take a lot of time but can be rewarding. In the course of transcribing your recordings, you will find yourself making small revisions that strengthen and clarify the content.
If you’re horrified by the thought of transcribing hours of recordings, you may wish to consider purchasing speech-to-text software. Speech-to-text software—Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a popular choice—allows you to speak into your computer through a microphone and have your words appear in your document. In addition to “training” the software to recognize your voice patterns, you will need to review your document thoroughly to correct any errors.
Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.
As you revise your work, remember your goal: to let your readers put themselves in your place and experience what you have experienced, feel as you have felt, and understand what you have known.
Bookmark an online grammar and punctuation guide and then refer to it when you are unsure of a rule. A comprehensive choice is the Online Grammar Guide.
One of the best style manuals continues to be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with updates, has been around for 100 years. I suggest buying a copy of The Elements of Style (available on Kindle for $.99) and reading it from cover to cover.
Your style considerations should include these:
When a sentence becomes long and difficult to comprehend, consider breaking it into two (or more) sentences. Short sentences are generally more reader friendly than very long sentences.
Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
Use commas and other punctuation for clarity. For example, by reading aloud what you’ve written, you will often be able to see where a comma is needed. (Which is it: “Let’s eat Jonah before we go,” or “Let’s eat, Jonah, before we go”?) Be consistent in your choices: Don’t write “the dog, the cat, and the man” (comma before “and”) one time and then write “the hat, the shirt and the suit” (no comma before “and”) the next.
Be especially careful of your pronoun usage. Follow prepositions with object pronouns (her, him, me, us, them): He gave it to Jon and me (not “to Jon and I”!).
To work out the most effective wording and to check the clarity of your prose, read aloud what you have written. Another choice is to install a screen reader and listen to your written work as you follow along. A free screen reader can be downloaded from NaturalReader.
After doing your best to revise and improve your memoir, you may choose to ask friends and family to read your work to find unclear passages, typos, and other problems you have overlooked.
Improve your writing by writing. Keeping a journal, for instance, is a useful way both to practice your writing and to develop possible topics for a memoir.
If you want to read others’ ideas about how to improve the quantity and quality of your writing (but remember that you are the best judge of what and how you should write), you could read some of the books on the interesting and comprehensive list “Best Books for Writers,” from Poets & Writers, a website that is filled with resources. The site is well worth exploring, as is Poets & Writers magazine. The magazine is available in digital and print editions; see the Poets & Writers site for details.
You may find it useful to join or establish a writers’ group. Sharing your work in progress with other writers can be encouraging and inspiring. I suggest looking for a group that stresses honest positive feedback of this type: “I especially like your use of ___ ,” or “I think your portrayal of ___ works well,” or “I’d like to hear even more about___.” Most members of writers’ groups, no matter how skilled, are not qualified to give negative feedback that is helpful, justified, and not discouraging. Too many writers who critique other writers are trying to turn the other writers into clones of themselves—or they’ve read a “rule” somewhere and imagine that any writer who violates it is absolutely, positively doomed.
If you think you can’t write, you are probably buying into the common myths about writing. These myths would have you wrongly believe that either you have it as a writer or you don’t. They would fool you into thinking good writers never struggle with their writing. And they would lead you to imagine that good writers put all the right words in the right order from the moment they set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Don’t let these myths fool you and convince you that your wonderful story has to stay locked inside of you. Bolster your courage and release your story into the world.
We humans write memoirs because we want to share important aspects of our lives. We want others to understand how the world has looked to us, how we have experienced life. But readers have trouble becoming drawn in by a memoir if the author simply writes down the unadorned facts. Travel memoirs are especially prone to staying at the level of travelogue—where the writer went and what he or she did—but any memoir can fall down in the task of showing the meaning behind the facts.
Even the most fascinating moments can be turned into dry reading material. I once knew a man who spent many weeks traveling through Europe and parts of Asia by bicycle. He sent accounts home, hoping they could be published. I’m sorry to say that my acquaintance excelled in making a thrilling journey sound dull.
I wanted to know who the people were whom he had met along the way, what their lives were like, how they had responded to my friend. I wanted to be able to see in my mind the scenery that had surrounded him as he rode. I wanted to know what he’d thought about as he journeyed, whether he was sometimes homesick or afraid. In short, I wanted to share his trip vicariously.
Instead, I found itineraries listing the cities and towns he’d traversed, accounts of the meals he’d consumed, and statistics about the length and geography of each day’s biking. All this was a start, but it didn’t rise to the level of consistently engaging. I could have looked in an atlas to get a sense of his route. I wanted to be able to find my friend within that route, but he was almost entirely absent.
I’ll share an example of the kind of writing I’m complaining about—writing that is fine for a first draft but does not yet engage the reader. Like any memoir writer, I write because I want others to see how and why elements of my life have mattered. This passage does not yet achieve that goal:
I went to Pisa for two weeks to study Italian in a language school. I stayed in a convent (in this case actually called a “monastery”) a few miles outside of town. My room was inexpensive, but there were a lot of mosquitoes.
The first morning (a Saturday), I didn’t like the breakfast. After breakfast, I walked into town, which took a long time. It was really hot. I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, ate lunch nearby, and walked almost all the way down to the train station so I’d know where my school was when Monday came.
Pisa is mostly famous for the Leaning Tower and the other buildings in the so-called “Field of Miracles,” but I liked the whole city a lot, especially the Arno River, the little church called Santa Maria della Spina, and the Tower of Famine, which is famous for a count who was imprisoned there during the Middle Ages and supposedly ate his sons and grandsons.
(And so on. . . .)
I can take this first draft and begin to pull in my readers. Here are some of the strategies I might use to help my readers understand what the facts I’m presenting mean to me, why they matter. I can . . .
Choose details that help to recreate a mood:
For the first week, I stay about three miles outside the city limits in the guest quarters of a monastery for nuns—the Monastero di Santa Maria madre della Chiesa e di San Benedetto. When I arrive, in the evening light I see the nuns, wearing long gray habits, strolling silently around a lush courtyard behind a high iron fence.
Just before total darkness, before the pink in the sky has completely faded, I hear the high, sweet voices of the nuns singing in their chapel.
Let the word choice convey an attitude:
The monastery-provided breakfast—yesterday’s was two small, bedraggled apples, coffee and milk served in thermoses, a basket of leftover rolls (one already half consumed), and a partly used package of cookies—won’t be available until 7:30, by which time I hope to be drinking tea in a bar near my language school.
Compare one experience to another:
Back home, I commute by car along the congested thirteen miles to work, passing several strip malls, fast-food restaurants, a couple of modern churches, and nondescript entrances to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. But in Pisa, rather than being a necessity to endure, the commute is essential to the experience.
Use pictures to aid the reader’s imagination:
Tell enough about an experience to let readers vicariously come along with me:
Just south of the piazza I find a bar for a pot of tea and a spinach omelet between thin layers of focaccia. I join the half-dozen men and women standing at the counter with their coffee and reading a newspaper or watching the television news on the set mounted on the wall. The morning-show hosts speak rapidly, and I can only get the gist of their words. Even on my first day of school, standing at the bar feels like a routine. And as out of place as tea seems in a nation of coffee drinkers, I will never find an Italian bar unable to supply a small pot, hot water, and a teabag for my tè caldo.
The second week of school, I move to the Albergo Clio, a one-star hotel on an alley near the south bank of the Arno. My sense grows of being a part of Pisa, of the ongoing life of the city. At night, as I do homework exercises or write in my journal, I love hearing dishes and silverware clattering in the neighbors’ kitchens, my neighbors. Teenage boys sit outside in the warm air and talk until midnight. A rock band practices. A miniature garbage truck faithfully, and noisily, collects trash at 6:15 every morning.
Tell what I like (or dislike) about an experience; directly state my feelings about something:
The best part of getting on the bus is the ordinariness of it, as if I do this every day.
The Leaning Tower is to me the most magical and captivating of all structures. Imagine passing it every day, a part of ordinary life! During my two weeks in Pisa, I will walk to the Tower daily to share time with it.
I am uncharacteristically calm and confident today. In Pisa, I find myself relishing the moments as they happen, with no desire to rush toward a more promising future. I stay inside the Pisan moments and savor the experience. I wasn’t nervous about walking into the school, announcing myself to Pier Luigi, and I’m not nervous about working my way through the test choices—the answers I know, those I think I might know, and those about which I haven’t a clue. I just rip along, not second-guessing myself or fearing the quality of my effort.
On the Monday of our second (and last) week together, Simon asks me, “Would you like to go to the bar for coffee during la pausa? Lots of people do.” Riding down on the rickety elevator with Simon and me, Jacek tells me, as if in warning, “I’m a priest.” Yes, I know. What does this fact matter, except to make the jolly company all the more interesting.
Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”
As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”
Tell a story:
The taxi driver who stops for me has been having a bad day, to which I add. As I am getting in the taxi, I don’t think about the fact I am still wearing a small backpack. I bump the car a little with it, but the pack is soft. The driver says indignantly, “Per favore, signora!” I think he is kidding and chuckle, but he really is angry with me. I apologize, explaining that I’m tired. “You’re tired!” he says and launches into a tirade (in Italian) about how tired he is and how terrible it is for tourists like me to have so much baggage when millions of people are starving in the world. He has a point. I apologize again, say that I’m not a bad person and don’t want to hurt him or anyone, and explain about the strike and long trip. . . .
Directly state the effect on me of an experience or encounter:
In Pisa, I don’t change permanently, but I do change for as long as I remain in that Italian city.
I am older than most of my classmates. I am the only American. I am the only tea drinker, the only vegetarian. Back home, I have nearly always tried finding my place in a group by adjusting as needed to fit in. At the Istituto linguistico Mediterraneo, I find my place in the group by being myself. With my first pausa at the Bar Sapori, I join our ephemeral community as a full-fledged citizen, abandoning my role of observer from the sidelines. My usual shyness, giddiness, and exaggerated civility evaporate in the hot Tuscan air.
In other words:
If you think about what the facts of your life have meant and mean to you, and if you work to share this significance, you will probably end up presenting a meaningful account to your readers.
And remember that readers, too, have to do their share. They have a responsibility to try to put themselves in your place as they read about your experiences. For one thing, they need to tune in to the connotations (the emotional overtones) of the words you have chosen to use. For example, in a writers’ group that I attended, a participant complained that a writer in the group had not expressed her feelings about the events she had described. In fact, however, it was the critic who had missed the many cues, such as the writer’s referring to her teenager as her “baby boy” at a point in the story when she was worried about him. We knew from this word choice that she felt tenderly toward her son and was stressing his vulnerability.
So as you write, don’t let the need to include the “whys and wherefores” in your memoir become a burden and undue challenge. Simply do your best to help readers understand not only what happened but also why the scenes you are describing matter, especially to you.
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”