Where the Light Fell: A Memoir, book coverWhen I decided to write a memoir, I went to the library and methodically made my way through every memoir on their shelves. For years I had been writing idea-driven books, and now I had to learn how to write pure narrative. A memoir should simply tell a story, without analysis or commentary.

Before long, I found the kind of memoir I didn’t want to write. Some people live such adventurous lives that they merely recount the facts. A fine example: Malcolm Muggeridge’s two-volume Chronicles of Wasted Time. The ironic title reflects Muggeridge’s judgment on the years before he converted to Christianity. (His Jesus Rediscovered tells the conversion story.) Unlike Muggeridge, I haven’t lived in Moscow or Calcutta, and I saw no point in an autobiography of my entire life. Frankly, most writers’ lives are boring; we sit at a keyboard all day.

I knew that my own memoir needed to focus on events from childhood and adolescence. Annie Dillard once commented that writers keep bringing up their childhood because that’s the only time they really lived. Soon I came across the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who won the UK’s Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The weird title first caught my eye, and reading Doyle I got intrigued by his attempt to reproduce a child’s point of view. Everything in the book is seen and interpreted through the eyes of Paddy Clarke, a ten-year-old boy in 1968.

Young Philip and his brother, 1960I wanted to do something similar: to capture what it’s like to learn to read, to grow up fatherless, to fight with my brother, to endure boring church services, to live in a trailer, to get bullied at school, to confront my own racism, to survive a sassy and cynical adolescence. I wanted to render the stages of my life as if they were unfolding in real time, with an emerging rather than settled point of view.

Where the Light Fell was released last October, and since then I’ve received several thousand responses. Ninety percent of them relate something of the reader’s own story. (I didn’t grow up Southern racist, but it was just as bad in Chicago…Your church stories remind me of my Seventh Day Adventist days.…) I get it. I read several hundred memoirs in the process of writing mine, and every single one sparked a memory from my youth that otherwise I probably would not have retrieved.

Here’s the secret of memoirs: they’re more about the reader than the writer. The good ones strike chords of resonance, summoning up scenes from the reader’s own life for reflection and contemplation.

Philip and his brother

Something unexpected happened as I worked on my memoir. The two dozen idea-driven books I had toiled over for four decades suddenly seemed incomplete. Ideas can be abstractions, stuff we may believe but never fully act on. A memoir presents life in all its rawness. I had often used personal stories in my idea-driven books, though always to illustrate a point. However, life sometimes doesn’t have a point. Time doesn’t tie everything together, but leaves behind loose ends, irreparable mistakes, unhealed relationships.

People ask me, “Was it painful, dredging up those difficult times?” Truthfully, it wasn’t. I felt I was bringing order to disorder, splicing together scenes from the past in hopes of making more sense of the present. My idea-driven books took on a new light as I wrote a kind of prequel, filling in the background.

I write about pain and suffering because I’ve encountered my share. I write about grace because I found it only as an adult, and the first great gulp slaked my thirst. I write about Jesus because of an encounter with him that I neither sought nor desired.

Writing a memoir, I learned that although we cannot change the past, perhaps we can keep it from tyrannizing the present. The past forms who we are, but need not determine who we will be.

Row of memoirs

Some people love reading memoirs, while others don’t. If you’re one of the former, I offer this list of a few that moved me and taught me about the craft.

  • Karen Armstrong, Through the Narrow Gate. Her experiences in a strict nunnery make my stories of fundamentalist domination seem tame.
  • Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine. A renowned science fiction writer nostalgically evokes his own boyhood in this fictionalized memoir.
  • Pat Conroy, My Reading Life. A fine reflection on books that he read, and the high school teacher who inspired him. Conroy wrote two other thematic memoirs, Conrack and My Losing Season, and drew heavily from his own life in his novels, especially The Great Santini.
  • Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. Crews captures the dialect and ethos of the rural South.
  • Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks. A poetic account of a light-skinned black woman who could “pass” as white, and the racism she experienced.
  • Annie Dillard, An American Childhood. An overlooked memoir that tells of Dillard’s youth in Pittsburgh. Can anyone write better sentences than this Pulitzer Prize-winning author?
  • Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. One of my very favorites. She describes her childhood in Zambia and Zimbabwe with an eccentric family. From her, I got the idea of using present tense throughout my memoir.
  • Elena Gorokhova, A Mountain of Crumbs. A superb account of coming of age in 1950s Russia.
  • Thomas Howard, Christ the Tiger. A snapshot of the Wheaton College subculture of the 1960s.
  • Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. The author has a good sense of humor, and is kind to her cultural roots.
  • James McBride memoirJames McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Story of a Jewish/Christian woman in Harlem who raised twelve children, all of whom went on to college.
  • Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes. A classic: McCourt explores the grim poverty and Catholic subculture of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church. Taylor has written several fine “spiritual memoirs” of her faith journey.
  • Tobias Wolfe, This Boy’s Life. Wolfe manages to channel an adult point of view through adolescent eyes.

If these don’t summon up a few memories from your own life, then demand a refund!

 

 

 

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36 responses to “The Secret of Memoirs”

  1. Yura says:

    Hi Phillip.I am Yyra from Kazahstan.I am really loves your books and rereading them regulary
    Now reading your book about grace, and thinking about Babetta’s feast.Babbeta was given place for living ,job.Her answer is gratitude ?Answer very generous.
    Rom 5:8: “Nevertheless, as for God, the way he showed us that he loves us is that Christ died on our behalf while we were still rebelling against God.”
    How you think?

  2. Ken Steckert says:

    Your memoir reminded of “Crazy for God …” by Frank Schaeffer because of the negative light both portray their parents, especially the mother, at home. It is part of what kept me hopeful the book would take a turn for grace, as Schaeffer has love for his mother by book’s end. With you having written so much about grace, I was taken by surprise for the tenor of the book, as you did a great job of presenting the story as it happened. And as Schaeffer did, by book’s end there is grace towards your mother.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      And the story has not ended. Since I turned in the mss., my mother and brother have had their first contacts in 51 years. Not exactly reconciliation, but definite progress.

  3. Bob Ewell says:

    Philip, please recall that we chatted at one of Larry Crabb’s parties years ago, and I recently gave you a copy of my book Everyone on the Wall, about which you wrote a gracious note. If we are ever together again, we will have to swap stories (or not!). I’m three years older than you and grew up just up the road from you in Greenville, SC. We went to the same kind of fundamentalist Baptist churches and listened to the same radio preachers. You went to a legalistic college in South Carolina. I went to a legalistic private high school in Greenville. We’ll leave both unnamed. I know where you were because I, too, played piano for the barrel-chested tenor on two occasions. The son of Mr. H. was our pastor in Alabama in the late 70s. You have good taste. Mr. H. was a great man, and a wonderful teacher – he did a marriage seminar at our church. I’m not the prodigy Marshall was, but I have perfect pitch as well and also had to play a piano that was a half-tone flat. My solution wasn’t as complex as Marshall’s. I think I just had to not listen as I looked at my hands to play the right notes that didn’t sound right! Anyway, thanks for writing. It was a hard book to read…in a good way. I’m glad the Lord delivered us both from a legalistic background while allowing our faith to remain. I’m sorry about Marshall. That legalism is everywhere is hard to deny. Recently I preached on Luke 15, where I think the real prodigal is the older brother. Anyway, in trying to give an example of legalism, I think I mentioned playing cards. I preached the sermon three times, and after each service, someone came up to say, “Wow. You must have grown up like I did in the ______ church!” All three were different and none was the background I had. Keep up the good work.

  4. Aleks Jablonska says:

    Dear Philip. We’ve met briefly in Cape Town in 2009 – you were the key note speaker at Learn to Earn’s 20th anniversary events. I’ve read (& loved!) most of your books but the Memoir just blew me away! Thank you for making it so personal & real. I both laughed & cried while listening to the audiobook on a recent long road trip. Was utterly spellbound throughout! Thank you so much & please visit us in CT again!

  5. Rob Lilwall says:

    Thank you for your memoir Philip. My wife and I were very moved and encouraged by it.
    I was wondering: besides this wonderful list of memoirs which you have appreciated as a memoirist, what would be the specifically Christian memoirs you have been most helped by as a Christian?
    (So not necessarily the “classic” Christian memoirs, but the ones you personally have appreciated the most).
    Thank you again.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, John Wesley’s Journals, Adoniram Judson, Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner

  6. Kam Congleton says:

    Thank you, Philip, for continuing to write, despite having already put words down in so many helpful ways….You are so right , I think, in pointing out how memories relived– and retold– help us make a coherent story out of all those ideas that float around in our heads….longing to be ordered and packed away neatly. Well, the time will come when Jesus gives us new lives to live… Oh joy! for there is real hope for truly happy endings.

  7. Josh Roberie says:

    Phillip,

    A funny thing happened this past Christmas. I found the perfect gift for my mother-in-law with your memoir while shopping at a local bookstore. My wife responded strangely when I told her what I had bought, but I didn’t understand why at the time. On Christmas morning, I opened my gift from my mother-in-law and immediately realized why my wife was so surprised at the gift I had chosen without even talking to her. My mother-in-law and I both bought Where the Light Fell for each other, and each had told my wife what we had bought. It was a funny moment brought on by an event 9 years earlier.

    In 2012 I left the church I had grown up in and worked at most of my life. My life seemed to be floundering as I tried to figure out what was next for my faith and career. During that time, a friend sent me your book, Soul Survivor. I dutifully started to read it without knowing anything about you. It would be the perfect guidebook for my season of rediscovering my faith and values. I gave it to my mother-in-law, and we have both read several of your books since then.

    I also started writing my first book, Believe Again, during that time after spending most of my life hoping to be a writer but always too scared to really try. I have now self-published this semi-memoir that discusses that transition season in my life. I think the next book I want to write will be a true memoir in the style of Where the Light Fell. I was shocked by the similarities between our two stories since I also grew up poor and bullied in the south (Mississippi and Louisiana).

    I am not sure what I hope to convey with this message other than my thanks and gratitude for your writing and how it has helped me tremendously. Your words have been a lighthouse for me as I have found few other voices that have helped me navigate the waters of an authentic faith pursuing Jesus as yours have.

    Thanks again, Josh

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You conveyed deep encouragement, and I’m grateful. You’re exactly the kind of reader I want to connect with.

  8. Hannah A. says:

    Memoir is my favorite genre. Thank you for recommending so many new ones to me! I loved yours deeply, and have encouraged others to read it. It’s healing. Also, have you read “The World’s Largest Man” by Harrison Scott Key? Heartfelt and hilarious.

  9. Alison says:

    Dear Philip,

    Thank you for honestly sharing the gritty details of your life. I’ve read most of your books and the details in your autobiography filled in some of the missing pieces that had puzzled me. I listened to the audio version and appreciated hearing your own voice narrate the story.

    Years ago, I gave you a note after you spoke at Messiah College in which I shared a particularly difficult time in my life. When in the depths, God audibly spoke to me about how I cared more about my own feelings than the soul of someone. You responded with a kind letter. After many years, this person DID come to faith and was thankfully right with the Lord when tragedy and death struck. Your writings helped me remain steadfast and loving in the difficult years, recognizing that suffering is NOT inconsistent with the Christian life. As Peter repeats in his first epistle, “to this you were called.”

    By sharing our painful experiences and how God has met us in them, we encourage others to remain faithful. Revelation 12:11 powerfully states this principle:
    And they overcame him (the accuser) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. (NKJV)

  10. Shelby Slater says:

    I’ve lost count how many times I’ve recommended or loaned your books to others. I’ve gained lasting insights from your writings and and a deeper understanding (and recollection) of my own childhood/youth from your memoir.

  11. Charles Railsback says:

    Phillip
    Youe book “What’s so Amazing about Grace” changed my view of what I had been taught as a Southern Baptist, and changed my focus on Religion in general. Jesus’ focus on Grace is central to His ministry.
    Your book “Where the Light Fell” seemed to focus on your brother mor than you, but it was a great read.

  12. Deryn Van Der Tang says:

    Thank you for this and the suggested reading material. It is a great teacher learning from your childhood through the eyes off the child.

  13. Karen Fitts says:

    Thanks for the list of memoirs. I’ve been reading Book Club books for several years. Each month we hope the next book from the library’s Book Club stock will not be about a war or abuse, but it hasn’t worked out that way. This month I started a book about a distant century in China’s history. After reading about foot binding in the beginning and waking up with a nightmare about it, I decided that I was not reading this month’s selection.

    I read your book right after it came out. My life at the time felt like a bad soap opera. When I read your book I decided I could reframe my story.

    Since we both lived in Marietta and I was familiar with many of the things you talked about, I decided that I would write you to thank you. But somehow time has gone by and I haven’t written. So thank you for sharing your life and bringing back some of my teenage memories. And helping me know I can bring help for others out of my messy life.

    I have been working on my story since I was appointed facilitator at a retirement community where I live. It’s still a work in progress.

  14. Sandy Balli says:

    Good morning, Philip,
    Your recent memoir was a page turner evoking sadness, laughter, outrage, and peace. Your idea books fill my soul as well. I love good writing, and yours is the best. Thank you for sharing so honestly. I am currently re-reading “The Jesus I Never Knew” with new eyes.

    I recall when you spoke at Pacific Union College about 20 years ago during the time that I was on the faculty. Thank you for all the insights.

    We are about the same age, and I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church of which I am still a member. I believe that the church has evolved over the years with a much greater emphasis on love over extraneous rules. Interestingly, I was a recent guest speaker at my boarding high school reunion, and was able to integrate “rule experiences” to elicit much identifiable laughter. I closed the topic, “What Does God Really Want?” with Bible love verses, of which there are too many to count.

    May we all embrace Galations 5: 22-23 in our daily living.

  15. Adriana Serban says:

    I totally agree that the childhood and the youth years of someone life is always a source of subjects and events that would not be boring. I will follow your list ,spend some time to my favorite place, the library, and look through them. I am still enjoying your books over others, I like to go back to some passages that I underlined, I am also reading and rereading Nowhen’s books.
    I love reading and,as Virginia Wolfe said, the more you read the more you want to write yourself something . I have a blog and I am thinking to try something new, something that will mix my childhood memories with my motherhood memories. In all will be present God ,as I missed knowing Him or as I found Him and feel complete. I know it will not be boring, as it may be sounding, but it may be too much open wounds exposure. I feel very inspired by all you write ,Philip Yancey, and I am grateful for all,including this blog.

  16. Lynda Doty says:

    Love your books!! Keep writing and following your heart. God has blessed you with grace and mercy for you to open your heart and your world to all of us to be able to learn, grow or relate. Hopefully all three!!

  17. Tim Atwater says:

    My favorite is probably still Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness.
    Her journals too.
    I love Merton but his auto bio is not my favorite. Some of his journals more so.
    Peace and grace,

    Tim

  18. Dann Johnson says:

    As one who reads all your blog posts and has read many of your books (though not all, as one really should with one’s favorite author… eventually!), I think this post just stood out as my favorite, ever.
    Surely the reason is exactly as you identify right within: It’s about me. Far from that being something somehow bad or selfish, it really is simply that connection which matters that we are all hoping to make with memoir. Reading or writing.
    I imagine I represent a slew of memoir-writers whose hearts thrilled to the news back in the day that you were “reading all the memoirs you could get your hands on” in preparation for writing your own. “Could he possibly stumble on mine?!” we funnily thought, knowing as we did that no library shelf anywhere was holding self-published works by YetOneMore Unknown. Hahahaha, writers are all silly with hope in that way, I suppose––part of the territory.
    Anyway, all I feel I’ve ever known how to write well is memoir. Maybe in my old age I’ll find the courage and inspiration for some other genre. But as one who has just recently picked up the pen (well, okay, it’s my laptop) to dive in for another one, I find myself heartened and encouraged by this fun post today.

  19. Tracy Lewis says:

    Thank you for this entry and list of memoirs–Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated” was one of the most riveting reads of my life. Though thankfully, my own childhood memories were not often evoked.

  20. Daniel George says:

    You are by far my favorite author, and I’ve known that ever since I first read “What’s So Amazing About Grace” and “Disappointment with God”. This was largely because of your tone and story telling, and attention to both sides of real experiences and perspectives. Getting to read this memoir, it is clear now where your voice came from, and to see how you developed. I’m currently 24 years old, and reading where you’ve been and what you see has helped me, and continues to help me, navigate my own relationship with God. Thank you!

  21. Susan Carr says:

    I am a big fan of yours and plan on ordering “Where the Light Fell” today. And thank you for your list of recommended memoirs. I will enjoy exploring them! Having just finished “Vanishing Grace” for the second time, I appreciate your voice on today’s state of the church and the grace we must have for others in order for them to see, know and love Jesus!

  22. Kathryn says:

    Hi Phillip, thanks for the suggestions. I love reading memoirs. I read yours and I’ve also read “The Color of Water,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Through the Narrow Gate” — all excellent. I’ll check out some of the others.

  23. Rob McCleland says:

    Thanks Philip, always impressed with the honesty with which you write. I’ve been putting my Back Story, using the photos I have and adding captions to those photos. I save them in Chapters as a pdf and share them on WhatsApp with my Family and Friends. Thank you for all those reading memoirs. The Lord continue to bless your writings!!
    .

  24. Michael Paul says:

    Splendid! I am writing my own memoir (at the blinding speed of a glacier) and good hints, tips, advice are warmly welcomed. I’ve very much enjoyed your idea-driven works, so when the book budget allows I will acquire your memoir as well. Blessings!

  25. Charla says:

    Thank you.

  26. Mark Naruhn says:

    Childhood is the golden time of not being in charge, not planning ahead, not having to make ends meet, to just live our days with only limited sight of what`s ahead and what life is about, to trust our parents, to experience many firsts, to being in the focus of our families. Yes, I felt alive, unburdened by the pains life brings, but with the vague feeling, that the golden time will morphe into adulthood and will not last. The first maybe of realizing things/life will not last.
    I wonder how you have time to read that many memoires, a wondrous skill.

  27. Margaret Bennett says:

    I’m not a writer Philip and I am certain I won’t be writing a memoir although at 86 I’m old enough. But I’m interested in your list of books and will investigate reading some. I have read Frank McCourt’s book.
    I did want you to know that my Uniting Church reading and study group, Evergreens, all around my vintage, have read and discussed and thoroughly enjoyed several of your books over the years.
    Thank you for that connection.
    Sincerely,Margaret Bennett

  28. Miriam Ayala says:

    Phillip,
    I love reading your books because it comes from a place of honesty and transparency.
    May your memoirs be a source of strength and healing ❤️‍🩹 for all who reads it. 🙏🏽

  29. Miriam E. Mast says:

    Awesome 👌
    I am forwarding this blog to a dear friend of mine who together we are navigating the new world of retirement from the Nursing profession. You have given me direction as I desire to write my thoughts as I review my life’s experiences. Plus I love ❤️ to read other people’s stories.
    Thank you 😊 and keep on writing.
    You have been given a gift from God to lead others in their faith journeys.

  30. Ralph says:

    I’ve recently begun a “social media detox” where I have Instagram and other social apps off my phone for what I plan to be several weeks, and I may try to tackle one or two of the books you mentioned. Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season” was given to me years ago, and I still need to read it. Book reading isn’t my strength, though reading your memoir was pretty easy as I found it hard to put down! ☺️ I’m also wanting to journal again, something I haven’t done in a long time. Hopefully when I rejoin the “grid” I’ll have things to share and not just thumbnail mindlessly through lives not my own.

    Best Regards,

    —Ralph E

  31. Phillip, I heard you speak at Rhema church in Johannesburg many years ago, and have always respected your point of view.Thank you for these suggestions.I will enjoy reading them.

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