“The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.” – Andrew Solomon
I‘m 41 and I edit books and I absolutely love what I get to do every day.
But when I was about 9 or 10, I thought of being a writer. I figured if the pro football player or firefighter thing didn’t work out, I might enjoy making up crazy stories and getting to make people believe them and get away with it. I’d read a few of the usual books–Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and a ton of those “Illustrated Classics.” And something about the idea of writing down adventures for money–it just appealed.
As a shy pastor’s kid, I got to do plenty of people watching. And I kept journals. In college, I gravitated toward psychology and memoirs, but had no idea I’d eventually land in inspirational memoir.
But after years in Christian publishing and working on all kinds of books, I now work primarily with new and established authors struggling to share their most personal stories.
It was in working with a writer recently when I was compelled to share why I felt she needed to share her story, beyond the excellent points she’d made about overcoming a personal barrier.
First, I thought, placing the points in the context of a story gives them more immediate significance. We better relate when we can see why someone needed this and get some context about how life was before, and then later once it’s changed you. A story also removes the author from having to be the teacher. Suddenly, you’re just sharing your experience and people can take it or leave it.
And that’s when I realized: that’s why I love this inspirational, “teaching” memoir genre (if it is a genre, maybe “style”). It’s for what it means: a good story hands people freedom. It engages them to find the lessons and empowers them to relate them to their own experience. Then they can see for themselves, as Buechner said, that someone else’s story is really their story. Which is anyone’s story.
I mean, what’s not to love about that?
To someone wondering if he should give this genre a try, I’d ask: would readers recognize the keys or insights you want to share better if you presented them not as extracts from your experience, but in the midst of your actually discovering them? Would a little story help prove their value and help readers draw the same conclusions you made by making them relatable? Does sharing your vulnerable, honest story scare you to death? That may be reason enough.
Stories help to ground and nail down the specific aspects of a journey that led to growth and healing for the main character. In inspirational memoir, it fills in and book-ends the nuggets of truth of your discovery. It’s like one of those before-and-after makeover pictures. It makes the learning that tangible, that lifelike. People need a model. And if you’ve already lived it, you are able to share it. You were prepared to share it.
And how can you say you’ve lived to tell the story unless you work to share the story–in all its confessional, narrative power?
Ah, but I understand. Yes, it takes fortitude. And patience. And skill. Which means time and money…it’s not an investment to take lightly. And the whole family will have to sacrifice. But if you’ve lived something people could benefit from, why not start and let God take care of the details?
Andrew Solomon, a National Book Award winner, quotes Rilke, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, or books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Solomon says, “The insight is tremendous, but he has it backwards. Belief in answers can get you through your early days, while the belief in questions, which is so much less tangible, takes a long time to arrive at. To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.
“The belief that questions are precious whether or not they have answers is the hallmark of a mature writer….”
I wasn’t sure my author was quite ready for that, but those who take this journey to write their story–they all learn to see it from outside themselves, in the eyes of their readers. They listen for the reader’s questions:
“How did she find that?”
“What did it look like to make that discovery?”
“What was it that brought that thought up for her?”
And it’s through that, through the process of sharing vulnerable stories, that we discover our story is everyone’s story as well.
It may sound hokey and idealistic in the corporate publishing world. But when you see it happen, you’ll know it’s no coincidence.
Don’t hide your story under a bushel. Let it shine!
Believing with you.