So You Want to Write Your Story: Do’s and Don’ts for Older Adults Writing their Spiritual Memoirs
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 roadmap. Some writers make them but putting events or thoughts on notecards, 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 7 really 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 3 to 5 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.
Now you have read these tips, what are you waiting for to get started? When you have written your own story, read about the value of helping older adults write their stories in the article: Tell Me Your Story: How to Write Your Spiritual Memoir.