The Art of Memoir: Write Your Memories

The monthly meetings of the Hughson Historical Society are regularly marked on my calendar. The first time I attended, local author Sandy Stark-McGinnis presented her middle-grade novel, Extraordinary Birds, set in a place inspired by Hughson’s small-town atmosphere. Now, with the recent release of my memoir, Historical Society President Janet Camagna asked me to speak at their August meeting.

But how to tie a memoir about medical motherhood, hospital life, and coping with grief to a historical society charged with preserving Hughson’s past for future generations?

I thought of the nature of the story I wrote, a memoir. I said, “An autobiography, shares that person’s entire life, but a memoir shares just a snapshot. I’m obviously very young to have written a book about my life. They’re so much of it left.” Thus What God Had Emptied shares about those two years from my son’s diagnosis, until a few months after my daughter birth.

Cover of What God Had Emptied, a mother's memoir

Our earlier examples of autobiography come from St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. They both titled theirs “Confessions.”

“And in that in looking at the different pieces, both of those men sought for a way to find to understand where was the meaning? Where was that string going all throughout the narrative, that connects it all together and that is again the power of memoir the power of autobiography,” I explained.

Looking back, as our season of life changed from those two years in the memoir, “I was then in a position to be able to look back and be able to see what all happened. And I began to put together those pieces of our stories that I had written that I published on my blog, that I written personally, through emails, with friends and piece it together. And found that there are so many things I learned through that experience of being able to embrace the moment that’s in front of us, at being able to look for meaning,” I shared.

I told the audience about Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist survived a concentration camp and emerged with the theory that we are not driven by power, as Nietzsche said, or sex, as Freud said, but by meaning. “When we can feel that there’s some meaning to what we’re doing that, there’s some purpose to what we’re doing. We can get through incredibly difficult times and memoir in taking this snapshot of a person’s life,” I said.

I started to write again

That was why I wrote. “I had to find a way forward, and as I was in and out of the hospital with Peter in the silence of that hospital room, I started to write again. I was writing out my reflections and I was writing about what I did that day, and I was sharing it with the world because that’s what you do when you’re my age. You blog. I was sharing all that information but I was also wrestling with how do I face this situation?”

We ended with a discussion of the importance and value of committing our memories to paper and leaving them for another person to treasure, “Even if you only have a the briefest part of that moment or that person’s life. That one snapshot with words is so powerful because it helps connect us to the history and to those people, even long after they’re gone.”

“Once we get some distance, we think, ‘Oh wow. They did that, they were involved in that?’ We can begin to think that what we have been through is somewhat less momentous. But, you know, when I heard here about the shoe store [in Hughson] letting people who worked in the fields buy shoes on credit, with the hope that they could pay it back but if they couldn’t, it was fine, as long as they had good shoes to wear. That was profound.”

The stories that make us

Those are the stories that make us, that form the culture of our families for generations to come. I extend my encouragement to you. Write your memories. It does not need to be perfect. It does not need to polished. It can be written as straight as a police report or as flowery as a Medieval abbesses’ reflection. When you write it in your own way, you leave a piece of yourself with it. In this way those who may never have met you in person, know you. The encounter the stories you valued, the thoughts and loves that lived inside you. The written word never dies. It can only be hidden for a little while.

So with that, I say, write!

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

What God Had Emptied

The story of the other book

I did not expect to write this post so soon. In fact, I had almost no expectations of when or what year I would write this post. It is with great joy and still some surprise that I share with you that my third book is now published, titled What God Had Emptied: How I Found Hope After My Children’s Diagnoses.

This was the book I wrote in 2018, the book about which I told my counselor, “I think I am ready to write our story.” It tells the tale of two years, two positive pregnancy tests, two prenatal diagnoses, and two different outcomes. 

In 2018, I gathered up the pieces of my heart scattered here and there, through emails, blog posts, journal scribblings, prayer books, collections of quotes and poetry that sustained me, and a eulogy. These I put in chronological order in a Word document and called it “raw material.” Then I began to connect the pieces of the narrative, filling in the blank spots, giving it flesh and blood where it warranted, making digestible the parts we would rather look away from. 

I read The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith, The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman, The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo, and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. By reviewing the books of other authors in the same genre, I learned about how memoir is regularly presented today and in Catholic publishing. I made the most of my time as a member of Hope Writers. 

After many hours of editing, it was time to craft the book proposal. The document requires you to pour yourself in, and then start pitching. The rejection letters were encouraging and surprisingly positive. Through one, we began a conversation about presenting a devotional that drew from my experience. That book became Journey in Love: A Catholic Mother’s Prayers after Prenatal Diagnosis. The conversations that led to my June release, Peace in Pregnancy: An Expectant Mother’s Prayers After Prenatal Diagnosis, of which I already shared about here

Meanwhile, the memoir waited. I decided to save up to self-publish. This is our story, and whether or not the market demands to hear it, I felt in my heart that it need to be on our table.

In June, around the same time my shipment of Peace in Pregnancy arrived unexpectedly after supply chain delays, I took a writer’s retreat.

It was in Hope Writers that I learned about this concept. One author they interviewed books a cruise to make her retreat, something that would take her far away, isolate her, and make her do the hard work. On my retreat, I booked two nights at Fallon Hotel in Columbia Historic State Park. With a copy of Peace in Pregnancy alongside me, I planned to reread the memoir, Peace in Pregnancy, and prepare two book proposals for the next project, a book on self-care while caregiving for one’s children and a literature-based devotional. Nothing came of the latter proposal. The former shaped up a bit, enough to convince me to keep at it.

On Friday morning I woke and worked in bed, a privilege I rarely possess at home with my littles. Without a plan, I opened the old proposal for the memoir. On my computer desktop, I had a list of publishers and their requirements. Half of them were crossed off until I got to Our Sunday Visitor. The other half I never contacted. En Route Books and Media was the next on the list. Their requirements for a proposal were ones I could meet at the moment. I sent the email. 

Then, I went for coffee.

When I returned, there was an offer waiting for me. The contract followed. In a whirlwind I did not expect possible, we made agreements, edited, designed book covers, proofread, formatted, and now present What God Had Emptied: How I Found Hope After My Children’s Diagnoses.

What God Had Emptied Book Cover

This lengthy title begins with a fraction of a quote Mother Teresa wrote in a letter to her spiritual director, “There would come a time when God had filled what he had emptied.” This expression buoyed me up in the darkest of our dark days when it felt like all had been taken from us and we were alone. 

We never could have imagined what good would come from those two years, but good has come. It is from this perspective that I write in this column so often. There is meaning to what is happening. We have a purpose. Be present in the moment to see what it has for you. You matter and what you do matters.

What God Had Emptied is available now on Amazon and from En Route Books and Media. For more questions or local purchases, please feel free to email me at