Your Story Matters: How to Write a Memoir That Leaves a Family Legacy

By Carol Cuppy
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Mom and Daughter Writing Memoir Together to Leave as a Family Legacy
Every person has a story - and that story matters! Sharing our stories with our families and others around us can be a powerful way to share our faith and encourage others in their own lives.

It’s Friday morning, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a steaming cup of tea. As my fingers run over the red ceramic mug, I watch the gold aspen leaves tumbling across the backyard. October tends to be a time of reflection for me. This morning, my mind is wandering in and out of memories. There are so many people to remember and stories to tell. I’ve pondered writing it all down so many times. But where would I even begin? I have no idea how to write a memoir or use my story to leave a family legacy. The idea itself feels so overwhelming, I stuff it into the back of my mind and turn to my open work laptop.

My phone buzzes. It’s a message from my manager. The person who was interviewing one of our guests that morning had called out sick. Could I run the interview? I text back, grab my sweater and car keys, and head into the office. As I navigate the Interstate traffic, I wonder who I’ll be interviewing and where our conversation will lead. Little do I know that God wants to continue the conversation about writing my story and that morning’s interview will turn out to be the spark that sets the fire to my pen.

A Story Missionary

Leslie Leyland Fields considers herself a story missionary. An accomplished writer herself, she has dedicated her life to teaching others how to write a memoir and leave a family legacy through their stories. Her heart sparks with excitement as she watches people unearth their memories, putting their stories down on the page, and deepening their faith in the process. Her books delve into her own stories and experiences. She explores moments from flipping houses in New Hampshire with her mom to commercial fishing on the choppy seas near Kodiak Island, Alaska. She believes that every person has their own unique story and that it’s a story they should share.

A Foreign Concept

Sitting down at a coffee shop in America or Europe, you might overhear a conversation that starts like this: “So, what’s your story?” It’s culturally accepted that everyone’s story is unique and is a way to leave a family legacy. However, in some countries such as Moldova or Mongolia, the opposite is true. In these countries, only the stories of political leaders or wealthy and influential people are told. Everyone else is taught that their stories don’t matter, that they don’t have a voice. This can be especially true of women in these cultures. The idea of having a voice, and having a story to tell the world, is earth-shattering for them.

As I sat across from Leslie, discussing courses she has taught on how to write a memoir in these countries, she describes the shock on her students’ faces as she asks them to write a story from their past. Then, as the pens start scratching against the notebook paper, she sees the smiles start. By the time class is over, no one wants to stop writing. They’ve realized that they have stories to tell and are discovering incredible insights and moments of faith as they do. These stories become like ripples on a pond. They multiply naturally and begin to have a tremendous impact on the lives of others around them.

Your Story Matters

You have a story to share! Yes, you. And it’s a story that matters not only to you but to your kids, your family, and countless people around you. Like those ripples in a pond, the words you write and the stories you tell can have an impact on someone’s life. Nanea Hoffman once said, “Every time you share your story, you’re taking the hand of someone who thought they were the only one.”

We often think of the Bible as being full of exciting and dramatic stories. How could our own stories ever live up to those epic tales that we know so well? But you know what? Your story is exciting and dramatic too! We need to dig in and unearth those exciting moments, bring them to light, and share them with our families. Your story is deeper than you know.

Why It’s Important to Share Your Story

Just as the Hebrews in the Old Testament, we are called to remember what God has done in our lives. “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

As events happen in our lives, we think that we will remember the nuances of what happened. We convince ourselves at the moment that we will remember the details. However, as time passes and the days get busy — constantly running to keep up with work, the kids, school, and our other responsibilities — the story begins to fade. Critical elements are forgotten. When we don’t write our stories down, they fade and we forget.

A Way to Share Our Faith

Sharing our stories with others is a powerful way to pass on our faith and leave a family legacy. As parents, we can spend a lot of time teaching kids theology and Bible stories. However, our kids will learn more by observing what we do than listening to what we say. Our own stories and struggles are some of the most powerful tools we have to pass our faith in God on to our children.

Witnesses to His Presence

The Scriptures are treasured testaments to what God has done throughout history. But think of this: Each of us is a walking, talking, living, breathing New Testament. We are witnesses to who God is and what Jesus has done in our lives (1 John 1:1-4). We must remember this. Even though there are times that we live day to day, going about the mundane and just trying to muddle through, we are building a story. God is writing His story through our lives. Our life story is the testament that we pass on to our children and those around us.

When you start writing, you will begin to discover that God was present in so many ways that you didn’t recognize at the time. It’s true what they say about hindsight being 20/20, and who we are now can shine a new light on our past experiences. However, it’s often not until we stop, write, and remember — really digging deep into those memories and emotions — that we discover God was there.

God is living and active in our lives every day. Write down the things that describe who He is and what He’s done, even if they appear to be small at the time. Those moments are a witness to His presence in our lives. Therefore, it is important that we dig out our pens and paper, start up our computers, and begin to write the stories of our lives. Let’s get started!

How to Write a Memoir

As my discussion with Leslie Leyland Fields wrapped up on that Friday morning under the bright studio lights, she handed me a copy of her latest book, Your Story Matters. My fingers ran over the white text on the matte cover, eager to dive into the secrets within its pages. Curious how to write a memoir and get started, diving in is exactly what I did.

You might be saying, “But I’m not a writer!” or “I’m a terrible writer!” You might be thinking that there is no way you can do this, but you really can! Leslie explained to me that her whole goal behind writing her book was to make the process of telling your story as simple, fun, and painless as possible.

Leslie’s book does an incredible job mapping out the journey and describing how to write a memoir. You can get a copy of Your Story Matters here. While you’re waiting for it to arrive, here are a few basic things to get the wheels in your head turning.

1. Pick a Method of Writing

Whether you choose to write your story longhand with pen and paper or type it out on a computer, the most important thing is to have a record of it. If you are limited on time to write or have physical limitations writing, use dictation software or the voice memo feature on your phone to record yourself. There are several avenues of telling your story; pick one, and let’s boldly charge forward!

2. Connect Details to Emotions

When writing a scene from your story, give us a visual of what the setting around you was like. Using as many sensory details as possible will help to pull the reader into the scene with you. We often think of our stories as events that happen outside: places you visited, things you did. However, the deeper story comes from the internal events taking place and can be powerful and dynamic. Emotions are often strongly tied to sounds, smells, and tastes, so be sure to connect the emotions you felt with your sensory experiences.  

3. Write Into the Hard Places

Sometimes the difficult memories are the scariest to revisit. However, those hard places are the ones that most need the light to be shined into their deep crevices. Leslie explained, “The stories of our past inform who we are now, and they build a path for the future — for who we want to become.”

It’s tempting to avoid the hard places in your story or glaze over them. There are deep hurts and painful memories from our past, some of which we never want to revisit even in our memory. However, hard places are where you will encounter God. He calls us to remember these hard places because He wants to meet us there again, to heal and redeem our past through the story we write. We have to be willing to stop long enough to return to that part of our story and be vulnerable. We need to be willing to open ourselves to those memories and trust that God will be waiting. I can promise you, He will be.

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A Family Legacy

During our conversation, Leslie fondly described a 90-year-old woman who recently took one of her classes on how to write a memoir. The woman had never written before. As the words began to fill the page, they flowed faster and faster. Now, the woman is writing as fast and furious as she can. She once exclaimed to Leslie, “I need to write fast. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left!”

Writing down your story is a critical part of leaving a family legacy. Who better is there to tell the story of your life and the blessings you experienced than you? Once the story of your life closes and you pass away, your family will have a treasured keepsake to pass down from generation to generation.

Now that my own grandparents have passed on, I wish I had all of their stories and wisdom written down somewhere. It would be wonderful to curl up with those stories and to hear their voice through them again. As the years roll by, even stories they told me a hundred times have become blurry in my memory. I will still pass those stories on to my children and grandchildren, but those stories will eventually fade from memory and be lost to time.

We must write down our story, or a part of our story dies. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in Wind, Sand, and Stars, “When a man dies, an unknown world passes away.” He describes the loss of those stories a person holds inside of them as a painful experience. And, truly, it is a great loss if they are not preserved.

You Should Be Writing

Every parent should be writing down their stories, regardless of if they know how to write a memoir. Even if you write three stories from your life, they will be treasured and are a great way to leave a family legacy. When we commit our stories to paper and pull them all together, the thousands of stories that make up our lives become one. That story tells of God’s incredible love and rescue of us. It is a witness to His goodness that we can share with our families.

When you write your story down for your kids, think about what you want them to know and learn from your life. What stories do you want to leave as a family legacy? What lessons have you learned that you want to share with them? Which experiences are too funny, or too heartbreaking, or too important to be forgotten? Remember: Your stories are a cherished account of who you are and who God is. It is a testimony of all that He’s done in your life. Be bold in sharing those things with your kids!

Building a Legacy Together

Most writers will tell you that writing is a lonely endeavor. However, the beautiful thing about writing down your stories is that it doesn’t have to be done alone. Writing down your story can be something that you do with your kids or even your own parents! The more generations, the merrier! Here are some ways that you can build a family legacy by writing your memoirs together.

Two Perspectives, One Story

Take the time to write down the story of an event that you shared with your kids. For example, Leslie told me of a time where she and her daughter went out fishing in the ocean together. When they returned home, each of them wrote about the experience from their unique perspectives. Leslie told me, “It was phenomenal how we saw the same set of events from two different sets of eyes.” Writing down shared events allows you to see into each other’s minds in personal and revealing ways. It will allow you to see into each other’s hearts, minds, and spirits in ways that you haven’t seen before. A combined effort in sharing stories can be a fun and creative way to leave a family legacy together.

Writing Together

Learning how to write a memoir as a group can be a rewarding experience. It allows you to encourage each other and keep each other accountable to keep penning the stories. But it gives you a safe place to share those stories as well. One of the greatest gifts is to feel heard. To be given a voice is to be given a sense of self.

Sharing your story with your family, your kids, your parents, and even those around you has the ability to make a tremendous impact. It’s an incredible way to leave a family legacy. Your story isn’t just for you; God intends it to help others. In God’s hands, our wounding becomes our superpower. People connect most in the places of greatest need, wounding, hurt, and weakness. Your story can help you connect to others and heal them. Sharing your story with your family and friends can have a lasting impact on their hearts and lives, if only you’re willing to take that first step.

Ready, Set, Write!

No matter how you choose to record your story or which stories you choose to write down, you must get started. So get started today! Brainstorm some ideas of the stories you’d like to tell, and take some time to start writing. Remember that your story matters! You may be surprised at what you write and at the blessing it may become to you and your family.

© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 

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