Should faith influence how Christians write personal stories?
Aim for excellence
Write the very best book you can. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters… It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24 NIV)
Write from the heart. Grow in skill. Self-edit. Seek feedback to help you discover more potential in your story and in yourself as a writer.
An article on my other blog, How to write a personal story or memoir that people want to read includes tips such as these:
- Tell a story rather than listing “facts”.
- Include dialogue.
- Do your research into people, places and events.
- Write the way you talk, within reason.
- Set the scene with vivid description.
Write with purpose
Clarify your underlying goal or purpose, which:
- ties it all together into a cohesive whole
- gives you a selection principle – which events or people are in or out
- guides how and to whom you will promote the resulting book.
In my coaching/editing experience, some memoir writers have a blazing sense of purpose before they write the first word. They know exactly what they want to achieve with this book.
Others just want or need to write, and along the way the purpose emerges. For some, this can happen in the editing processes after the book is finished.
Sometimes a writer starts with one purpose in mind, and then reshapes their purpose later. I did this myself with my humorous memoir about a dog, which began as a series of funny anecdotes but gained some deeper notes when I realised I couldn’t tell the dog’s story without telling some of my own.
Each brain, each life, and each story works differently.
Pray about it. Ask God for wisdom.
These are a few of the purposes I’ve seen in memoir:
- To equip and encourage the reader to overcome similar challenges.
- To leave a record for the next generations, or even lead them to faith.
- To educate readers about how other people feel, so they will be more compassionate, understanding and helpful.
- To help the reader release their own suppressed grief or anger, and heal.
- To help the writer process emotions and past events.
Should you write memoir for a Christian or mainstream audience?
Whether your memoir is primarily for the Christian or general market depends on:
- the readership you are called to. Pray about this and try to ignore the actual or anticipated expectations of yourself or others.
- the way the memoir will fit in with, complement, extend or strengthen your other roles or ministries – past, existing or future
- how it will fit with the other types of writing you might have done, be doing, or hope to do in the future.
If you write for a Christian audience, you often have the opportunity to explore faith issues in a deeper way – you and the reader can travel further together if you start from common ground.
If you write for a secular audience, please don’t withhold the faith elements of your story.
I often meet Christian writers who are hesitant and almost apologetic about including the “religious bits” – how faith changed things, what Jesus means to them, how God helped them, how prayer or other spiritual disciplines shape the rhythm of their days and weeks. Readers can be much more accepting of our right to tell our faith story than we think.
- Philosophically, personal experience has a very high value in the post-modern world. It can be your gateway to a reader’s heart. Your story is your story, and you are allowed to tell it.
- Are writers of other faiths reluctant or apologetic about including spiritual experiences? Try Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love if you need an example.
- As Gracewriters, we are Christians who write to change popular culture. How can we do that if our memoirs exclude some of the most precious parts of our lives?
Be honest and real, not preachy
Writing an honest memoir can be embarrassing, because we haven’t always made good choices.
- The Bible itself contains many unflattering personal stories. I sometimes wonder how Peter, for example, might have felt to see his betrayal of Jesus (eg Luke 22) included in literature for the generations. But how much less useful would the Bible be if such real, human accounts had been omitted?
- Beware the Pantomime Problem, where you are always sweet and wise in your memoir, while others are portrayed as two-dimensional bad guys.
- There might be a moral to your story, but it’s often most powerful to let the reader figure it out for themselves. See if you can allow your story to unfold and let the reader travel with you.
- Whether your readership is Christian or secular, I advise avoiding Christian jargon. It’s a good discipline to learn to express big concepts in everyday language.
How vulnerable should you be?
You will need to decide how much to say about your failings. Just last week, I was coaching a writer concerned about what their book might do to their reputation.
I didn’t lie to that writer and I’m not going to lie to you. Some people might indeed think less of you because of the darker parts of your story. We can’t control what other people think and we do need to prepare ourselves.
Consider the other side, too:
- Some readers will feel heard or seen for the first time, or able to start again or be forgiven, because they’ve made similar mistakes.
- Some readers will become your “tribe” because they connect with the truths you have told and your courage in telling them.
My suggestion: don’t constrain your first draft by trying to decide how far to go. Just tell yourself the story and get it down on paper.
Then look over it yourself, prayerfully. (I recommend printing it out; you’ll notice different things.)
Ask prayer partners to pray with you about it.
Then consult wise counsellors, mature Christians, about what to include or omit. I recommend asking at least three people, if possible, because each will give different advice, and then you can prayerfully compare their advice and their reasons for giving it.
It is then your task to weigh it all up and make a decision. Ultimately, only you can make this choice.
Are you writing a memoir? What has been your experience with these issues?
Karen Kepert says
Thankyou Belinda. That’s interesting.
In a similar vein, I’m adapting my testimonial talks to use in secular groups and have been wondering how much of my faith I can include in these talks without people walking out and me not getting invited again. This especially applies to speaking about my prayer ministry sessions. There’s other stuff in my story that’s less threatening. So I wonder where to draw the line.
Belinda Pollard says
It’s not an easy decision, Karen. If you focus on telling your story rather than trying to persuade your listeners of anything, does that help?
Karen Kepert says
That’s actually the tricky bit. There are three elements to my story.
The first is about my faith and how God healed me from epilepsy (through surgery) and depression (through prayer ministry), and the difference these have made to my life.
The second is about reaching out to the needy (this is more doable) through teaching students with learning difficulties, mentoring and being a school chaplain.
The third is about following God’s calling into areas I wouldn’t have dreamed of going (like public speaking), so that is also more doable.
Because God is the centre of all of these stories, I feel like they need to be watered down if I’m not going to have people walk out or never invite me again.
So the question is, how much of God can I include in each of these in such a way that people want to know more, rather than turning further away?
Belinda Pollard says
It’s a big question, and one that requires prayer — for wisdom, and boldness.
I have an after-dinner talk that I give sometimes which is about how I trained to hike the Milford Track in New Zealand as a “recovery” from Ross River Fever. It’s humorous/inspirational. I have a version I give in a secular environment, which does mention the role of prayer and faith in my situation, but almost as though it’s looked at out of the corner of the eye. Like a parable, a hidden thing. When I give the talk to church groups, I incorporate Bible verses, some stuff about my father’s death, and a strong faith message. In both cases I work hard to avoid Christian jargon.
What would that prayer ministry you received look like to an outside observer, who wasn’t putting it through a filter of faith or biblical understanding?
How much difference would it make to your choice if you saw yourself as part of a team reaching out to the listeners over possibly many years, rather than this one talk being “your one chance”?
Karen Kepert says
Great questions to consider.
Because the prayer ministry uncovered my past and I saw visions, I’m guessing a secular audience will think it’s like being hypnotised (or they’ll just think I’m crazy and made it all up). I wouldn’t really want to encourage hypnosis, as I believe it can be spiritually dangerous.
I know God uses each of us in small ways and we are only a tiny part of the big picture. So yes, I’m happy to just give hints, like you do in your books. It’s finding just the right amount to say, in a way that will interest/inspire/encourage.