Often we assume writing a book about our lives should be like a news log, but Adam Fleming shares six great tips for telling stories with themes and meanings that will resonate with others and help them process their own experiences.
Writing a memoir can be a daunting task. One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is why it matters to others. You may have had interesting experiences, learned a lot and gained a great deal of wisdom. You may have had horrible experiences and found healing. You may have done terrible things to others and found redemption for your soul.
As you begin to ask that question—why it matters—you will begin to see that not everything that you have seen and done must be said. Now, don’t worry about that quite yet. An editor can help you decide what to cut, so it’s important to think in terms of writing as much of the raw emotion as you can. You can always temper it later.
That’s okay, too. A good story isn’t based on facts, it’s based on meaning. In fact, some of the memoirs we’ve helped our authors with have been heavily fictionalized to protect victims and relatives. This does NOT mean you shouldn’t include details. For example, if you can’t remember a certain detail, you don’t need to say, “I think the room was blue but I can’t be sure.” It can be okay sometimes to assert your memory as truth.
“The room was blue, a color I loved, and I felt safe there.”
What’s more important than the color? The fact that you felt safe. It’s the way it felt that matters; the emotions, not the facts.
While it can be helpful for yourself and for your editor, too, if you can make a chronology of the major events in your life, this doesn’t mean you have to tell your story from start to finish. In my own story below, there are huge chronology gaps:
In 1988, When I was fourteen years old, my family was asked to leave Congo. The year we had spent in Africa had been psychologically challenging. We lived in a place in the center of the country where we knew that a famous missionary had been martyred only twenty years earlier. My brother and I had visited the birthplace of Patrice Lumumba, a national hero who was assassinated in 1961. Mobutu, the dictator, was getting older. The nation was on the edge of civil war. It was only a matter of time. I was old enough to understand that Congo could be a volatile and dangerous place. I had witnessed university students protest and riot. I had seen soldiers, likely unpaid, walking along the forest paths, looking drunk and surly—soldiers in Kinshasa would riot only three years later. I could sense the edge of the blade, and it was sharp.
We packed our bags and headed to the capital city. The night before we left the country, we stayed at a guest house in Kinshasa called MPH. I remember sitting on the airplane, about to take off, and thinking to myself, “I might never come back here.” I understood it wasn’t the sort of place you went for a vacation, for fun.
Fast forward to 2014. My former pastor Charles Buller invited me to come with him to Congo to teach leadership coaching skills to some Mennonite pastors. It had been 26 years since I’d been to Congo. We landed in Kinshasa, where a man named Leonard Kiswangi picked us up. After driving west through the city for two hours a gate opened and the car pulled into . . . MPH guest house.
I immediately felt at home. There were mangoes ripening in the backyard. There was a hot pepper sauce called pele-pele to put on rice. I felt that something in my life had come full circle, that God was revealing a significant piece of my life purpose. “I brought you here as a kid so that you could teach and train people in coaching skills internationally.” Suddenly the reason for my difficult year in 1987-88 became clear. Finding your purpose in life can be like that. Pay attention to moments where things come full circle.
It is now 2023. Just a week ago, Leonard Kiswangi and his wife Antoinette were here in my hometown with Charles Buller. They’re still working together in Congo and northern Angola, teaching leadership skills together. I haven’t gone back with them, I haven’t really been needed, but the clarity I gained in 2014 took me to Egypt in 2016, and I ended up training a group in Syria as well. The work that began in 1987 continues.
A few things I’ve done in this snippet of a memoir:
I’ve shared details that were important, but I left a lot out, too. When and where did I get my training, how long did it take, how much experience did I have? Why did my parents move our family to Congo, and why were they asked to leave in 1988? None of those details were important, so I left them out, but what happened at MPH guesthouse was critical. I used the entire story to make a point about finding your life purpose.
Click on and check out these memoirs from our Victory Vision Publishing authors:
Adam G. Fleming, PCC, is an ICF certified coach and trainer. He has trained people in coaching skills around the world and has also led other seminars as speaker and facilitator. Using both traditional and DIY methods, Adam has published 13 books in a variety of genres, and serves as the CEO and lead ghostwriter for Victory Vision Publishing, Inc. He lives in Goshen, Indiana, with his wife Megan and their four children. Contact: email@example.com.