When they reach retirement, some people decide to write their life stories. It’s a way to leave something behind for their children or grandchildren.
Others may want to go a bit deeper, beyond a listing of events. They want to understand how their lives turned out the way they did. How did I turn out as I did? Why did things turn out this way? How did I change?
Some people of faith may also want to know what role God played in their lives, and how their perception of God changed over time.
If that sounds like you, you may be ready to write a spiritual memoir says Karen Stiller, author of The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness and More.
"It’s good to remember, but better to reflect," said Stiller, 54, who is also co-editor of Faith Today, Canada’s evangelical publication.
Writing a spiritual memoir is not just recounting of events, "but looking for meaning in life," she says. "It’s about telling the spiritual stories of our lives."
Such a memoir could be about a whole life, or about segments of a life. "Some people could have multiple memoirs, exploring different phases of life," she says.
When people explore their lives and their experiences with God, they should include the good experiences and also the bad ones, she says.
"People can write about times they felt loved and accepted by God, but also about their anger and disappointment with God," she says.
That’s not easy, she admits. In her own memoir about being a minister’s wife, she was worried how readers would respond when she wrote openly about times she was disappointed with God.
It turned out OK. "That touched a lot of readers who said they felt the same way, too," she says, adding "being honest is a gift to other people. It helps them feel they aren’t alone."
She compares spiritual memoirs to therapeutic writing, which uses storytelling as a way to deal with feelings, memories and, sometimes, trauma — analyzing and seeking to understand events, thoughts and feelings from the past.
"It’s a way to unlock some of the doors many of us have inside ourselves, the doors we may have shut and closed and are afraid to open," she says.
One way to think of it is as a quest, she says.
"It almost always involves a search," she says of spiritual memoir writing. "It starts with a question and looks for an answer."
It is "best thought of as a pilgrimage by someone who doesn’t have all the answers," she shares. "It’s an act of discovery. You might end up writing something different than what you thought you were going to do. The answer may surprise you. As you write, new questions might appear."
In the case of her own book, Stiller, who grew up in the United Church of Canada and is know married to an Anglican priest, came to understand her life was a quest to belong and feel accepted.
That writing journey "was incredibly satisfying," she said about her memoir. "I learned that vulnerability and transparency are usually hard, but almost always good things."
Writing the book "helped me grow. I saw clearly my own weakness, and my reliance on God’s grace."
As for the memoir itself, it doesn’t have to be about amazing feats or grand experiences.
"The best memoirs are the ordinary ones," she says. "I love to read stories about ordinary people who do great things. We all connect with themes of perseverance and courage and overcoming obstacles. It draws us in."
These stories can be drawn from ordinary life as a parent, a child, a grandparent, a friend or a sibling. "If the writer can dig into that, find the meaning in it, then others can relate to that," she says.
Of those who may want to do it, but say they can’t write, Stiller says even the most skilled writers struggle with that.
"Lots of people experience a fierce resistance to the act of writing," she says. "You’re not alone."
To those who don’t think they can write, she says "write like you talk. Pretend you are telling a story to a friend. Don’t worry about grammar and tenses."
The goal is to try to silence the inner critic everyone has, the critical voice that "can prevent us from getting started," she adds.
People interested in exploring spiritual memoirs can take a workshop, like the one Stiller is offering Sept. 13, 16 and 20 through the Word Guild, a community of Canadian Christian writers, editors, speakers and publishers.
Through the online workshop, which is aimed at those who have already started to write a life story or memoir, participants will explore what spiritual memoir is, what makes a story or experience from our own lives speak to others, and how to write honestly without over-sharing, along with other key pillars of spiritual memoir writing.
And if you decide to write a spiritual memoir, you might end up "writing something different than what you start out with," says Stiller. "It could be a surprise to everyone, including the author."
For information about Stiller’s workshop, and to register, visit writecanada.org/2021-workshops.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.