How to Write your Spiritual Memoir
By Scott Hughes
By The Rev. Dr. William B. Randolph
In the years since my parents’ passing, I have found myself saying, “I wish I had asked Dad or Mom about something when they were still living.” This wish applies doubly when it comes to asking them questions about their faith, since they were the original source of my understanding of God. Though they shared openly their own beliefs and stories about how they came to faith, unfortunately, I never recorded any of it. Neither did they leave behind their own record of faith. Because I have come to realize just how much my own faith journey was influenced by my parents’ relationship with God, I have learned how important it is to write – and periodically update – my own spiritual autobiography. I know the gift that a spiritual memoir can be to love ones left behind. But even more so, I am aware of the gift that spiritual memoirs or autobiographies can be to those who write them. They can help their authors better appreciate their own lives and comprehend God’s presence throughout their lifetimes.
Spiritual autobiographies can be a wonderful ministry tool with baby boomers and older adults who are thinking about their legacy and purpose in life. For many people, the idea of writing their life story is a daunting and overwhelming task. Left to their own devices, older adults may not know how and where to begin to record or keep their stories going. There are several common methods and systems available for recording a spiritual autobiography. Older-adult leaders should pick one method they trust and then experiment with this method themselves before handing it off to those they serve. Chances are, if a leader finds the method too time consuming, it will be too time consuming for the average older adult. Or if a leader finds the method is incomplete or confusing, then it will seem incomplete and confusing to the older adults.
One of the more common methods of spiritual autobiography is the question and answer method, which has proven questions that are designed to reveal patterns and common themes in a person’s life. The responses to the question form the core of a narrative which becomes the autobiography. When this method is followed, the writer only needs to link the answers together to form a spiritual autobiography.
A second common methodology begins with having the writer list the major events from his or her life and reflect on the events with the idea of looking for a common theme or unifying principle to tie the events together. This methodology becomes a guided tour of life, so the writer is able to see the moments of life that changed, challenged, and contributed to the faith journey.
Perhaps less known, but equally effective, is the methodology that begins with the desired result and reverse engineers it by working backward from the greatest faith insights one has learned in growing more like Christ.
Churches can use a variety of formats in helping older adults write their spiritual memoirs. Traditional instruction methods such as classes, workshops, and seminars in autobiography writing are common. Individual interviews by trained writers on a one-on-one basis, is another effective approach. However, this method can be expensive if the church decides to purchase a commercially available spiritual autobiography service. A creative approach for smaller, less affluent churches might be to train volunteers to conduct interviews and write the autobiographies for the older adults. This also works well as a group activity. Older adult members could be assigned to interview one another and serve as writing partners who work together on each other’s memoirs. Churches could use an intergenerational approach and ask children and youth in the church to record interviews with the older adults. One church asked older adults to bring their photograph albums and collections of pictures, slides, and images to church. Then they were to describe to the youth and youth leaders what was happening when the picture was taken. A great season to collect these interviews is during Advent and Lent. During Advent, older adults can reflect upon memorable Christmases. During Lent, they can be asked to reflect on their views about heaven and death and dying. This can be a helpful way to work with seniors in death preparation. Another intergenerational approach is to interview the adult children of older adults and their older-adult parents, asking them to answer the same series of questions about faith. The Office on Aging and Older-Adult Ministry has several sets of starter questions available for completing this task.
Whatever the method chosen to help older adults write their autobiographies, it is a great form of older-adult ministry. Helping older adults write their faith narratives can be a valuable gift for their loved ones and themselves. In writing their spiritual memoirs, older adults can see how sustaining their faith has been. They will grow in appreciation for who God created them to become in life as they share their stories with loved ones.
At the end of this resource is a list of resources for help in writing spiritual autobiographies.
10 steps for organizing your writing
The hardest thing about writing a spiritual memoir is just getting started. The second hardest thing is knowing when to finish. Unless you have made a career of writing, it will probably seem hard at first. However, once you get started, the more you write, the easier it will seem. The tasks might even reverse themselves: it becomes easy to write but much harder to stop. These tips are designed to get you started in writing the story of your relationship with God and the narrative of your faith by giving you 10 steps for organizing your writing.
- Get a feel for the work.
One of the best ways to learn how to write your life story is to read some of the great autobiographies that have been committed to print. Benjamin Franklin, Katharine Hepburn, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, and Billy Graham all have written excellent autobiographies that are inspirational and can be a model for a person’s own autobiography.
- Understand your intended audience.
Writing for family members requires less detail when describing familiar. Provide your own memories and perspective on events, and include interesting facts and anecdotes. Those outside your group of friends and family will need more information. Think how you would describe these people and events to a stranger.
- Develop a core concept (central unifying theme).
What is key to the story of your life? Determining one main reoccurring theme will help weave continuity and interest throughout your autobiography.
- Jump-start memories.
Think about all the different periods in your life. Look through scrapbooks, souvenirs, photos, and mementos with friends, relatives, partners, for their memories of you. Visit places you have lived, worked, gone to school. Make a list of events and draw a timeline for the events. Then jot down reflections about the timeline events.
- Organize or outline your story.
An outline will help keep you organized; think of it as your road map. Some writers make them but putting events or thoughts on note cards, number them, and then organize them in a box. Others use a whiteboard outline. There are also applications on smartphones and computer programs to help you organize your story into a theme. What is the key to your story? What makes you different?
- Write every day and then share what you have written with God through prayer.
Find time to write every day. Set aside a regular time for you to write about each section or event or theme of your life without distractions. Some people prefer early morning; others write better late at night. Writing must become routine and ritual in your schedule.
- When you complete a chapter, allow it to rest for a period of time.
When you are ready, read it over again and edit or cut out unnecessary words and long sentences. Look for writing flow and interrupted thoughts. Have a friend read it back to you. Describe your thoughts as it is read back to you. Do not be afraid to make it funny. Develop a voice to your writing, whether irreverent, authoritative, or sarcastic.
- Employ all tools available to you.
Dictionaries, encyclopedias, web browsers, spell checkers, word processing word counts, and grammar analysis all are important aids to help polish your writing. These tools should be a part of your routine.
- Seek feedback.
Start with acquaintances who barely know you and ask them to read sections and give you feedback. When your work is polished, have someone who knows you well read it for his or her reactions. If that person has a different memory of how events occurred, do not allow that to affect your presentation, because it is your presentation.
- Make final revisions.
Address disputed items in the timeline, listen to suggestions of what to change, think about how to simplify or improve your story. Add images or supporting material. Lastly, add details such as chapter headings and table of contents.
Now that you have gotten started writing your spiritual history, do you want to make it really great? The best way to write a really great spiritual autobiography is learn from the mistakes of others. Here are seven common mistakes that trip up first-time spiritual memoir writers.
7 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography
- Do not use your memoir like therapy. This memoir isn’t your diary. It’s your story. If you’re writing it for someone else or to publish, you’re writing for an audience. Try to do more than share deep interior thoughts or focus on details that matter only to you. Instead, focus on the lessons you’ve learned and about the main points you want to make.
- Do not worry too much about hurting people. Tell the truth, but do not worry about what others think since it’s detrimental to the story you are trying to write. You can always change names, tweak events, and rearrange details to keep from exposing the people who don’t want to be a part of the memoir. Before you write your story, be honest with the people around you about your intentions, and ask their permission to write about them.
- Write your story as a memoir or autobiography, not a bestseller of what you like and don’t like in life. Autobiographies and memoirs exist to express the essence of moments in time, not to list a series of events. Don’t restrict your story to a front-to-back chronology of how you ended up where you are today. Instead, concentrate on the most compelling moments, memories, and emotions rather than events. Focus on the purpose and highlight what fits the purpose of your memoir. Just as you would allow yourself to skip time, ignore meaningless events, and skip to the good stuff in a play, do so in the memoir.
- Be balanced in your writing, not making yourself the villain or hero. It can be tempting to paint yourself a victim or the hero of every situation, or the only character in your story. Do not write a revenge piece or a one-sided view. Instead, expose your weaknesses alongside your strengths. Show where you fail, explain where you fall short, and your readers will appreciate your candor.
- Do not try to appeal to everyone. It’s a mistake of any author to write to too broad an audience. Don’t make your story so generic or too specific that the audience cannot relate or see themselves in your life. Don’t try to write it for too many different kinds of people. Instead, target a specific audience. Your writing will have a much stronger impact on readers who feel they can relate.
- Do not wait for the right time. Don’t hesitate to write your memoir because you think you haven’t lived enough yet. Lots of people write several autobiographies or memoirs to cover different chapters or periods of their lives. Instead, start documenting your life right now. Write a journal, keep a blog, and take notes about the life around you. Instead of waiting until the end of life to compile, do it now and revise it in three to five years; or write a new memoir then.
- Do not copy someone else’s story. It’s a mistake to try and write like famous authors or even to try writing memoirs after reading someone else’s. You have to develop your own idea of what is important. Instead, develop your own voice or way of writing.
Spiritual Autobiography Resources
Books (in order of recommendation)
- Remembering Your Story, by Dr. Richard Morgan, Upper Room Books, (2002)
- Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life Into Literature, by Bill Roorbach, Writer’s Digest Books (2008).
- Writing Your Life, 4E: A Guide to Writing Autobiographies, by Mary Borg, Prufrock Press, (2013).
- The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, by Dan Wakefield, Beacon Press, (1990).
- Voices of Aging, by Missy Buchanan, Upper Room Books (2015).
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.