The Christian Memoir

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian Memoir

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Memoir talk scheduled for Sunday, March 19, 2017, at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia (www.Lewinsville.org) in the Chapel following the 11 a.m. worship service. All are welcome.

Introduction

A memoir is an autobiography with a theme.[1] A Christian memoir is an autobiography with a focus on God’s role in our own character development, which requires both the passage of time and reflection. The Christian memoir communicates the Christian walk effectively because, like Jesus’ own use of parables, we remember stories better than other forms of communication.[2]

Some philosophers believe that Western Civilization, for example, began with a Christian memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, which related the prayers of his mother to his confession of sexual sin, and conversion to Christ. Augustine’s biographer, Peter Brown writes:

“The Confessions…is not a book of reminiscences. They are an anxious turning to the past. The note of urgency is unmistakable. Allow me, I beseech You, grant me to wind round and round in my present memory the spirals of my errors…

It is also a poignant book. In it, one constantly senses the tension between the ‘then’ of the young man and the ‘now’ of the bishop.” (Brown 2000, 157)

Do you feel the theological strain here? The New Testament has been described as both the breaking out of the Kingdom of God (already) with the cross and resurrection and yet the unresolved spiritual warfare of the current age (not yet). This tension between the “already” in Christ and the “not yet” of our human sinfulness occurs, not only in the New Testament, but also in our own faith journeys. Christian memoir is therefore painful not only because we must relive our past but also deal with this spiritual tension.[3]

The Spiritual Discipline of Writing

Part of the need for distance arises because pain forms our character more radically than pleasure. With each pain in life, small or large, we are confronted with a decision—do we turn into our pain to throw a pity party or do we turn to God to give it over to Him? In a real sense, our characters are formed by these “Gethsemane moments” as we journey through life (e.g. Matt 26:39).

Questions that might be asked to help expose our Gethsemane moments include:

  • What were the important milestones in your faith journey? (e. g. Jos 4:1-7)
  • Who were your most important mentors in the faith? (e.g. Luke 24:25-31)
  • What faith stories were especially meaningful to you? (e.g. Exod 12:17)
  • When was God’s presence especially obvious? (e. g. John 8:28; Blackaby 2002)

Writing a memoir helps this process of reflection, which makes it an important spiritual discipline.

If writing is in general a spiritual discipline, writing memoir is especially challenging. In preparing my own memoir, mechanically, I mapped out the different stages of my life into an outline and then looked for key challenges during the stages. This process parallels the Greek distinction between chronos time (the stages) and kairos time (the challenges). Reflecting on these challenges turns up raw, unprocessed emotions, which can hijack the whole effort. Part of the incentive for writing was to lay claim to my past and to work through those emotions. Still, not everyone is so adventurous and willing to spend their spare time reliving their Gethsemane moments.

It is worth pointing out that while my own memoir, Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir, is a call story, a call story is a special type of Christian memoir which focuses on vocation (e.g. Acts 9:4-6). But memoir need not focus on vocation and the vocation need not be pastoral ministry. We are all called to faith (Mark 10:49) and we are all called to different vocations, which may be only for a season. Thus, not all Christian memoirs are call stories.

Recognizing Important Stories

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis; yet, under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing, which allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance (Rosen 1982).

Savage (1998) writes about using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:

  1. Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers.
  2. Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.
  3. “I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.
  4. Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.
  5. Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).

Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.

Motivation to Write

Identifying the stories that people tell points to the motivational content of their communication and allows the pastor to relate to them on a deeper level. This is why storytelling is important in pastoral ministry and it helps explain why Christian memoir provides especially poignant witness.

Consequently, the current need to write Christian memoirs arises not only from our desire to claim our own history, but also to witness to our children and grandchildren. For many of us, it has been painful in this generation to watch our children fall away from the faith. While historically children would fall away from the church during their single years and return when they have children, this pattern has been broken in the millennial generation (Kinnaman 2011). Still, as Christians we know that the stresses of life invariably lead us back to God, we do not know when that will occur. Consequently, a Christian memoir could serve as a trail of crumbs for our kids to follow their own way home in Christ after our own passing.

Mechanics of Writing

Earlier I made reference to the mechanical process of writing, which for me has been rather lengthy. Even before I started my own memoir, I assisted my father in publishing his, which served to help me understand my own history better (Hiemstra 2016). I started out with a chronological outline of the stages of my life: childhood, youth, young adult, college, graduate school, places worked, and so on (Peace 1998). Then, I looked for important points in my character development and difficult transitions which I then ordered with my outline. I then blogged this outline writing a reflection each week on Friday from January 1, 2016 through February 2017.

The actual writing was finished in November 2016 and I finished my first edit in December. An important task in the first edit was to bring each of my reflections up the standard of writing that evolved over the course of the year. In particular, Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace had an important influence on my writing style mid-year and I needed to go back to earlier reflections and re-write them to incorporate the insights learned.

In the second edit in January 2017, I organized my draft into four parts,[4] still roughly chronical but focused on my faith transitions: coming to faith, consolidation of faith, realization of call, and beginning of seminary. These four parts highlighted the theme of my memoir—the call to ministry—and, in doing so, it became obvious that I left out several important stories, which then had to be written.

Note on Writing Styles

While autobiography tends to focus on reminiscences, Christian memoir focuses on divine encounters, which may be told in the first person or through narratives about the people and events that help stage them. For someone who has been a technical writer for most of his life, I found books on writing fiction most helpful in drawing out the most important events and influences on my life.

Fiction writers are experts in observing character and character change, and they often write with an indirect style, where character is revealed through description or dialogue rather than naming emotions and perspectives.[5]  For this reason, I have included a number of references that were helpful in my own writing and thinking.

Footnotes

 [1] (Silverman 2009). Also see: (Karr 2015).

[2] Sachs (2012) talks about this point a great length. King (2012) writes some of scariest horror stories and talks about his own life and craft.

[3] Spiritual tension was a theme in my last book, Life in Tension (Hiemstra 2016b).

[4] Warren (2016) sees fiction written best as a four-act play. I applied her framework to my own story and realized that I had left out stories from my past that were key to my development but which I simply did not understand the significance of.

[5] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

[4] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

References

(Many of these books are reviewed on T2Pneuma.net)

Angelou, Maya. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books. (Review)

Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 398). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguine Books. (Review)

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.

Blackaby. Henry and Richard.  2002. Hearing God’s Voice. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016a. My Travel Through Life: Memoir of Family Life and Federal Service. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2016b. Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Karr, Mary. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

King, Stephen.  2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.  Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Kress, Nancy. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Lee, John E. Jr. 2014. Born Rich: In a Time That is Gone Forever. Aliceville, Alabama.

Peace, Richard. 1998. Spiritual Autobiography: Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Rosen, Sidney. 1982. My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Silverman, Sue William. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Warren, Susan May. 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Williams, Joseph M.  2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

 

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Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr.[1] 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Writing a memoir evokes a special brand of fear. No matter how you approach the topic, the fear is that your life story is not worthy of being told and the mere attempt to tell it is to be guilty of exaggeration and pride. No matter how good the writing, the fear is that you do not stand in the company of presidents, kings, and celebrities. Against this fear, one can only aspire to write clearly with distinction and to seek out a good book or two to aid in this vain enterprise.

Introduction

In her book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr points to other motivations, somewhere between the writer “trying to make sense of the past” and “readers thirsty for reality” (xiv). Memoir invites the reader into the private life of the author in a verbal strip-tease, undertaken for catharsis or paid therapy (xxi). Something anyone can aspire to writing memoir, even if the readers may be limited to an immediate circle of friends and family. The primary requirement is having memories that you are willing to analyze against a particular theme and to share with readers. These memories need not be absolute truth, but they need to be spoken with an authentic voice.

Author Voice

Karr emphasizes voice as the authenticator of good memoir, writing: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” (35)

The truth of memoir is not absolute—sworn on a Bible—truth, but rather a more interesting subjective truth—truth told with an authentic voice. It is subjective, in part, because we lie more often to ourselves than we do to other people. Karr validates her own accounts with the people she writes about (5). It is interesting, in part, because an authentic voice embeds the veils that we use to cover our inadequacies. Uncovering the veils and exposing the lies they cover up is painful, as Karr explains: “You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off.” (12) Yet, this catharsis liberates our true selves, a necessary step in healing and in personal growth, as Karr admits: “I often barely believe myself, for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions” (22).

Part of authentic voice is admitting your motivation in writing. Karr argues: “Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any?” (97) While this advice might seem to be a terribly female observation to make—why can’t I just lay out my hypothesis, you say?—communications professors often admonish their students that complete communication requires both an idea and an emotion. Authenticity requires complete expression—why is that hypothesis so important that you spent at least a year or more examining it in great detaiI? Chances are good that the emotional stake is already substantial and its substance needs only to be recognized in your writing. A novelist might refer to this stake as an emotional hook to grab the reader.

Mary Karr

Karr’s voice shows ironic tension. She is consciously literary—dropping great quotes from famous memoirists and dotting her work with cutesy new ways of expression. The tension arises when you see her photographed wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots more fitting of her Texas upbringing.[2] “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet.  Voiced tension is a source of conflict and, as such, is interesting.

Cowboy boots aside, Karr writes prescriptively in 24 chapters, each with its own theme. A particularly important theme in her writing comes in chapter 6: Sacred Carnality. One’s mind naturally runs to carnal, as in carnal knowledge. But, Karr uses carnal to mean sensual in description, as in the five senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling (71). For those of us more comfortable in non-fiction, analytical writing, this carnality is necessarily forced, as she readily admits (75). By utilizing carnal description to move the action, dialog can be used more like a spotlight.

Assessment

Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is helpful addition to any writer’s library. Karr’s cites from numerous famous memoirists (check out the appendix listing) aptly makes the point that memoir is a wider genre than the usual political and celebrity autobiographies. The creative potential in memoir is also greater than the usual A-B-C chronologies. A favorite film of mine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was, for example, a memoir by William Herr:  Dispatches (1977). Karr’s book has already encouraged me to purchase a memoir that she recommended[3]; it has been a great encouragement in my own memoir project; and I have already gifted this book to a friend. Great book; read it.

References

Angelou, Maya. 2009. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” New York: Ballantine Books.

Herr, William. 1977. “Dispatches.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[1] http://asfaculty.syr.edu/pages/eng/karr-mary.html; www.MaryKarr.com; @ArtSciencesSU; @MaryKarrLit

[2] @MaryKarrLit

[3] Angelou (2009).

 

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

 

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Christian Memoir: Looking Back

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christian Memoir: Looking Back

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the ironies of life is that we are naturally strangers to ourselves. Our desires, motivations, and purposes lie behind a veil that we dare not pull back for fear of what might lie beyond. This fear cloaks our shadow side in mystery. It also limits our potential, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God. Pulling back the veil accordingly offers the hope that we realize our potential, become comfortable in the presence of others, and welcome God more fully into our life. My purpose in composing a Christian memoir is to lift this veil.

Role of Time

We experience life through the experience of time. The Greeks experienced time in two primary dimensions. The first dimension, chronos time (χρόνος), is measured in equal units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and centuries. The second dimension, chairos time (καιρός), is a decision moment or crisis[1]. When we look at our wristwatches or calendar, we experience chronos time. When we crash our car or meet God, we experience chairos time. We normally think and move through chronos time. We normally feel and remember chairos time. This book is organized around chronos time, but the memories that fill it are mostly kairos moments.

I remember my early years in vignettes. These vignettes appear like electronic photographs without a time and date stamp. The stories that I tell about those vignettes are mostly the spin that came later reflecting on them. For this reason, these vignettes are best expressed in poetic form. Here we find kairos moments of a child who has not yet learned the discipline of chronos time. Objective thought, which requires some distance between the object and the thought, is also mostly absent and unlearned. Chairos time is chaotic, messy, embarassing. In a word, it is subjective. If the subject is your dark side, then you expect to find dark things. Honesty in this terriority is aspirational. Poetry helps overcome obvious tensions.

Caveats

One area where I cannot be entirely straightforward is in revealing personal details about the people around me. I can sign onto the journey of self-revelation. I cannot presume that my family and friends share my objectives in this respect. Their roles in this narrative will either be cloaked or absent. Please understand. This autobiography is not an exposé.

Four Big Questions

In my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, I examined four questions in the context of the traditional teaching of the church:

1. Who is God?
2. Who are we?
3. What do we do about it?
4. How do we know?

The objective in that text was especially to explore the first question: Who is God? My second book, Life in Tension, likewise has that focus. This book focuses on the second question: Who are we? While this book focuses on my history, I am, in part, a stand in for the reader. It is my hope that in telling my own story that I will also help you tell yours.

[1] Both words appear in the Greek in this verse: “He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7 ESV)

[2] My thanks to Kreeft (2007) for highlighting these four questions.

REFERENCES

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014. A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine’s Press.

 

Also see:

Preface 

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Tell Story; Find Peace!

Spiritual_autobiography_11012013Richard Peace.  1998.  Spiritual Autobiography:  Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story.  Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the rites of passage for seminary students is to write and talk about your walk of faith.  The first time it comes up it is intriguing and highly personal.  After a while the task becomes more laborious and a bit intrusive.  Why do committees keep prodding me about my journey of faith?  Richard Peace’s book, Spiritual Autobiography, provides some welcome guidance.

Peace cites three things that one can learn in writing a spiritual autobiography:

  1. To examine your life in order to understand the ways that God has been active.
  2. To notice the activity of God in your life and in the lives of those around you.
  3. To share with others what God has been doing in your life (7).

Later, he also observes that writing a spiritual autobiography provides a sense of direction to life (61).  Along the way, Peace uses the example of the life of Abraham to illustrate his points.  He also draws on the lives of Augustine (Confessions) and C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy) at different points in his writing.

As explained in his introduction (How to Use This Guide), Peace organizes his book into three broad sections:  “A Small Group Guide”, a description of “How to Prepare a Spiritual Autobiography”, and “Leaders Notes” (7).  Peace recommends breaking up a group study into seven sessions:  pilgrimage, call and blessing, encounters, relationships, testing, presentation, and celebration.  The preparation covers the role of the autobiography, content, process of writing, special issues, and the “spiritual discipline of noticing” (3).

Peace writes on spiritual autobiography following 20 years of teaching a class at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled:  “The Pursuit of Wholeness”.  As a professor of spiritual formation, Peace is responsible for helping aspiring pastors develop their own spiritual awareness and voice.  It is interesting that Peace occupied the Robert Boyd Munger chair.  Munger was also a faculty member but is best known for a sermon:  My Heart–Christ’s Home.  Munger was also my pastor when my father studied at Berkley University and when I was a toddler.

For me, the chapter on the content of a spiritual autobiography was an eye-opener.  Peace advises the writer to divide one’s life up into periods either by age or by periods reflecting the search for God (65).  In turn, divide these periods into sub-periods—eight to twelve altogether (67).  Examine these periods for encounters with God, crises of faith, and growth outcomes (71).  Then, describe the periods with information that you remember or gather from journals, photos, and letters.  Peace’s explanation of this process is worth the ticket of admission because it is a method for uncovering unresolved issues—the pains of life that form us and, if they are unprocessed, limit our growth intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and/or relationally (76-77).

Pain’s book, Spiritual Autography, is most helpful in understanding and talking about the faith that you already possess.  We paint the world in colors that we draw from the palette of our own experiences.  When we can talk about those experiences, we own them; they no longer own us.  Pain’s writing is accessible to maturing Christians and small groups should consider using it as a Lenten study.

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