Re-Framing Our Life Stories

A couple years ago, a man in my church told me to hurry up and finish my memoir so I could move on with my life. Sadly, this person has probably never read a memoir unless it was of a sports hero. He was assuming I was damaging myself for writing about my unconventional childhood, but I’m so glad I ignored his advice. For the last five years, I’ve been writing my story and re-framing the events in my life and it’s been a very therapeutic process. Even if you are not writing a memoir, you can benefit from re-framing your life stories. Here are some things I have learned in the process.

When I tell people I’m writing a memoir, most people are positive–although some are not sure exactly what a memoir contains. Some think it’s a book by a famous person and since I’m not famous, they probably think I’m big headed and delusional. Others imagine since I had a strange childhood that I want to write some “Mommie Dearest” revenge memoir to take down my parents, but that’s not my style or personality. Others imagine I’m writing a biography and ask if I’m going to include this or that in my book.

So then what is a memoir? I think of memoir like a series of snapshots–only in words, to describe a theme going throughout a life. Memoir is an opportunity to re-frame a life, but sometimes I think the genre itself is misunderstood and needs to be re-framed.

Memoir is a Process
Writing memoir is as much about researching your past as writing about it. Sometimes research involves looking up facts to match dates, but other times the research is in your head–trying to make meaning out of events that happened long ago when you were small and not in control of your life.

Writing Memoir Can’t be Rushed
A very time consuming part of the memoir process is actually preparing for the art of memoir. This includes studying writing methods and reading the memoirs of others. Like a large painting, memoir writing must be done in stages, brush stroke by brush stroke with loving care. And like the stories behind a painting, there is so much more than meets the eye.

Jeanette Walls, author of The Glass Castle says it took her five years to write out her stories. This is common among memoirists. After the stories are collected, we search for the plots in our lives. Discovering the plots and meaning is a much deeper process than just writing a chronicle of events. It requires deep introspection on the part of the writer. Due to the emotional nature of childhood memories this cannot be rushed. Every memory has it’s own baggage and/or joy. To fully engage in the details, the writer must process many emotions, but this is where the healing comes as we re-frame those memories and make sense of them.

Not All Memoirs Are Boring
You may have an image of memoir in your mind. Maybe you read a long and dry account of someone’s life and wondered when you could get rid of that book. This is not a good example of memoir. The author did not study up and learn to process their story so it could be palatable for others to read it. If you want to read good memoir, look for best sellers who are not celebrities.

I’ve read dozens of memoirs by now and the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is one of my favorites. She wrote it in an easy to read, fascinating style. So did Maya Angelou who’s first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is now a classic. These women are masters at story telling. Their memoirs are like poetry and stir the deepest part of my soul.

But other memoirs are not so great. Failings in memoir include those who seem to be writing a long endless list of sad happenings or dry chronological lists that state “I went here and did this and then I ate worms.” What is missing in these memoirs is a sense of plot. When the memoirist’s voice drones on and on even the most empathetic listener is tempted to fall asleep. If only these authors had studied the art of memoir and discovered the plots in their lives, they would find a much greater blessing for both themselves and their readers.

Memoir is Not About Revenge
If your only goal is to shame your parents or ex, you won’t find any joy in the journey. Writing memoir is a huge waste of your time if your desire is to expose your family. There are faster ways to do that if that’s your goal. Memoir is a very personal journey about you and your relationship with yourself and God which just happens to include other people.

I am choosing to change all names and places to take away the potential pain for any involved in my story because my story is not about my siblings or parents or neighbor’s–it’s my own experiences. Yes, we all have experiences in common, but like witnesses at a traffic accident standing on different corners we all have a unique perspective. No one can tell someone else’s story. It might be hard for some people to understand, but no two siblings had the same experience growing up. Age and gender and temperament all influence how a parent treats their children differently.

Memoir is Not for Everyone
Not everyone wants to tell their stories and not everyone wants to hear our stories. People are in different stages of awareness and waking up. Not everyone deserves to hear our stories. People who are not awake often want us to hurry up and be quiet, but our stories are not for them. We should cherish our stories, but save them for those who are worthy to hear them.

Not All Memoirs Are Sad
Who doesn’t have a story or two to tell? For those who had unconventional childhoods the temptation is to tell the obvious–the many moves or the beatings or the traits of the enmeshed or isolated family patterns. Sometimes these stories are sad and there are people who want us to be quiet–either because they can’t relate or because they want us to shut up and save the family reputation, but I don’t think anyone should shut up, I think we need to reframe our stories and possibly reframe why we tell our stories.

Writing Memoir Can Bring Joy–Even Through the Pain
Another bonus to actually doing the work of memoir is discovering the joy that sometimes was overshadowed by loss and pain in the past. Remembering allows us to rediscover the good times as well as the bad times. There is wonder and joy in the journey as we examine our lives.

Memoir is About Re-Framing–Not Making Stuff Up
Memoir is not fiction. We don’t rewrite the facts, but what we do when we re-frame is come at the story from a new angle so we can see it in a different light. An example of re-framing is the story of how I started the fifth grade late two years in a row and left early before the school year was out both times. I was once angry my father let this happen. But looking at my grandparents’ headstone a few years ago, showed me the dates when my father lost his mother in late September of my first fifth grade just before we moved. His father died in November a year later when we moved again. I can see how young my father was when he lost both parents within a year and was struggling to support a young family. It didn’t take away from the bullying I experienced at one school, but it did allow me to have compassion and understanding for my father.

I once wrote to Jeanette Walls and I was grateful to get a reply. She told me, “If you have a memory in your life that you don’t want to explore–that is the very thing you must explore!” She was teaching me to re-frame the past to gain greater understanding about myself and those events. She also gave me her mother’s advice to, “Write the truth!”

Writing Memoir Helps Us Re-Frame Our Lives
Even if I never publish my memoir, I will benefit from this process of re-framing. Finding our life plots require waking up and seeking clarity. Our memoirs reveal the treasures of our lives. Every life matters, but nothing is more important than understanding our own journey. To re-frame our stories allows each of us to be more fully awake and to live more wholehearted lives. Memoir also provides empathy and encouragement for those who are still in the middle of such stories.

Since I started writing memoir, I’ve been enjoying the process of re-framing my life stories. I hope you are learning this too. It’s been said memoirs are modern fairy tales, but I think it’s even bigger than that–I think our life stories are God-stories. We are part of a vast play ordained in the cosmos long before we were even here, we were dreamed up in the mind of God and all of our stories are interesting to Jesus. Let’s re-frame our memories and find our God-stories.

P.S. If you are interested in writing a memoir, I highly recommend the book and workbook by Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer.