The Emerging Story

In third grade, I won a writing contest with my short story, Monica’s Broken Arm. It was my first indication that I might be good at what I loved most: writing and storytelling.

As I grew as a writer and a young woman, I explored many genres and disciplines. But one thread wove through all my efforts and experiments:

God, please give me a story to tell. I don’t want to write a beach novel, a book that women will take with them for mindless reading on their summer vacations.  I want to write something with meaning, something that matters.  I want to write something that will build community, something that will bring people together to know each other more.

Recently, I found this page from my journal, December 2009. Here is what I wrote:

“Holy Jesus, you reign. I rejoice in your sovereignty and I delight in your grace. O, how you love me. Lord, I know you have given me words. You have given me things to say, read, and write, and the skill to use them carefully, efficiently, and productively. I give all my words to you. Please use them. Whatever you put before me, I promise to do the best that I can. Whatever you put before me or inside me, I will bring glory to you with my words. Thank you for the ministry you have given me, as I write.”

One year later, my husband died, tragically and suddenly, two days before Christmas. Overnight, I became a widowed single mom of two little boys who were not yet in kindergarten.

In this rupture of my world, a story emerged.

Yes, it is a story of grief, loss, single parenting, and deepest heartache, but this is also a story of hope, bonding, laughter, overcoming the worst, and getting up again the next morning.

Certainly this isn’t the story I intended to tell, and I won’t say that God allowed my husband’s life to end so my prayers could be answered. But I do wonder if perhaps it happened the other way around: God planted the desire in my heart, so that when such tragedy struck my family, I would know how to respond: to keep writing. In the horrible days, the easier ones, the loneliest nights, and always in honesty.

Robb used to say, “She’s going to be a successful author, and I’m going to retire early.”

Well, the plan looks different than we thought, but it still happened as he said. He retired early. And now I’m writing books.

In my words, may people find hope, grace, courage, and the tools to walk with someone through the valley of greatest tragedy to the sunshine on the other side.

As I asked him, God has given me a story to tell. How is he using your gifts and answering your prayers in ways you had not expected?
For more of Tricia’s story, please visit her at

Memoir Makes It Better

5 ways practicing memoir will improve both writer and writing.

There is fiction, and there is nonfiction; then somewhere in between lies memoir, their mutant spawn.

The last decade or so has been a heyday of sorts for memoir. Much of what makes the genre appealing to readers is that it combines the artfulness of fiction with the real-life validity of non-fiction. It’s the refined, literary version of reality TV.

But what appeals to memoir readers is often the same thing that confounds memoir writers. To piece together a good memoir, the tenets of fiction must be employed within the constraints of non-fiction. Likewise, the aims of non-fiction must be achieved through elements of fiction.

Still, this blurring of lines is precisely what makes memoir a worthy and worthwhile effort for any writer. Here are a few of the lessons you might find yourself picking up in the practice:

1. You Aren’t So Wonderful

In a world of bad characters and good ones, most of us would seat ourselves in the “good” group. But memoir might suggest we are being too generous in this. Try turning yourself into a protagonist: take a recent conflict in your life and record what your thoughts, actions, and interactions were in it. Leave out your motives and intentions, and instead write what actually happened. How did you respond when given a backhanded compliment, when annoyed in the check-out lane, when cut off in traffic, when insulted or demoted or hurt? Write it honestly.

I thought of myself as a capable and accomplished person, more or less—a kind one too, until I had to become a character in my memoir. The character-me was not nearly so magnanimous as the “me” that I had perceived myself to be. Seeing my unedited self on paper was startling. There was far more sin and selfishness than I would’ve been willing to admit. But that awareness made me better: more repentant, less proud, more forgiving, less afraid of making mistakes. I became newly grateful for what I have been given because I could see like never before that I don’t deserve it. And grateful is a great place from which any writer can start.

2. Characters are Complicated

Walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, as the saying goes. Real people have real complexities; this is impossible to ignore when writing memoir because the subjects you’re writing about are displaying their complexities all the time, from head to toe. Let this be a lesson. The people in your stories will be stronger subjects if you’re willing to appreciate nuance and even paradox in them. That means creating/presenting subjects who have dimension: likeable and unlikeable qualities, consistencies and inconsistencies, weaknesses and strengths alike.

3. Story Is Good

Setting, plot, characters, conflict, rising action, falling action, dialogue. Fiction writers tend to be experienced in weaving together these elements in their writing, while many non-fiction writers spend little time developing their story muscle. The result is often a non-fiction writer with a profound writing weakness: four parts tell for every one part show. Take a crack at memoir, and you’ll see that story can make a point on its own. Events and truths don’t necessarily require further explanation from an omniscient author voice. When the story you’re telling is complete, resolution is already there.

4. Reality is Simple

To keep things fair, here’s one for the fiction folks. You have zero limitations on the creativity you can bring to your story lines, which is likely why the rest of us so thoroughly enjoy your work. But memoir can remind you that most happenings in life are not extraordinary, at least not at first glance. While it can be tempting to rely on spectacular details to move your story along, often that’s an easy way out. It might take more effort and more practice in writing to instead craft a more plausible storyline that has every bit as much resonance.

5. “Interesting” is Necessary

But it should also be said that spectacular things resonate spectacularly. Few people will want to read your work if nothing in it drums up any interest. Far too often we let ourselves settle for an existence that is boring and wimpy. Ask yourself: In the last year, have I changed? Have I pursued something? Have I discovered something? Have I been part of something that matters?

We are creatures made in the image of a bold, reckless, zealous God, the One whose story grips people and sets their lives on an entirely new course. If there is nothing in your life that seems worth writing about, let memoir be an alarm that wakes you up to live bravely. Chase after something. Commit to something. Let go of something. Be moved to action. Give generously. Receive graciously. Love with tenacity. Or write some memoir, if you dare.

The Story Of Her Life

Have you ever read a book that caused you to take a risk, accept a challenge, or—as in my case—plan a parade? Donald Miller and his book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, inspired me to help my dying mother accept her story’s starring role.

“Look what I’ve got for you, Mom,” I say, not knowing if she’ll like the Happy Birthday banner, replete with pink and purple butterflies, that I hope to hang at ceiling level in her nursing home room.

I have no idea whether my siblings and I will be able to give Mom a wonderful celebration or not. So much depends on her, and the truth is that for the past few years, she often doesn’t want to be the main character in her own narrative.

But this is her life, her one true story. These are the only memories she gets to make with her family. The only memories we have a chance, at this late date, to make with her.

“I love it,” she says.

I am more than surprised. I climb onto her desk, then step even higher onto her dresser to thumbtack the banner across the top of the wall. She smiles and I think This day could turn out to be amazing.

We plan to scoot Mom in her wheelchair across the busy road to the Mexican restaurant. She’s been looking forward to the guacamole and the Margarita for weeks. What she doesn’t know is that we’re going to make a grand parade out of it. We’ll stop traffic if it’s the last thing we do, and she is going to be the center of attention, the starring attraction in her life.

When she’s dressed, make-up on and hair curled, we head to the lobby, where my siblings are meeting us. I spin Mom around the corner and there they are, bearing the rest of the party paraphernalia: cameras, cake, and huge grins.

Mary McKennaOne places a child’s dress-up pendant around Mom’s neck, a gaudy piece of bling on her finger, and a glitzy tiara on her head. Mom beams! Another ties helium balloons to Mom’s wheelchair, passes out the horns, and gives Mom a big kiss. I distribute bottles of bubbles.

“What on earth is happening?” Mom asks.

“A parade,” I say. “And it’s all about you.”

For once, she does not object. She does not tell us it’s too much for her to be the heroine, for us to make over her and act goofy and pretend together that we’re a bunch of little kids who don’t intend to grow up until far into the evening. We open the door of the facility and are greeted by the bright sunshine of a fantastic April day.

McKenna ParadeWe start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Dozens of cars slow down, pull over, open their windows, and call out their own birthday wishes for our mother. They honk, give thumbs up, and blow kisses as they pass by, all to Mom’s delight.

By the time the party’s over, she is tired, but not so much that she doesn’t get a huge kick out of it when a young mom (followed by her husband and awe-struck children) stops, points to Mom’s tiara, and says, “We didn’t know we’d be in the presence of royalty!”

We wheel her back across the road, still blowing bubbles and tooting our horns, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had on the way there.

Because stories end, and this one was reaching its curtain call.

Out of nowhere, I hear my long-dead father’s voice singing, for old times’ sake, a 1950s-era Nat King Cole song. One he’d sung hundreds of times when he and Mom were young and I was younger still, one that always seemed so sad to me, because even a child knows what’s eventually coming.

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away…

“Do you want me to take your Happy Birthday banner down now, Mom?” I ask, when we arrive in her room. She never did like fanfare.

“No! I don’t want you to take it down, ever.”

The party’s over
The candles flicker and dim…
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.

McKenna FamilyMom didn’t live to celebrate another birthday. But this my mother did: She grabbed hold of that final party, wringing every ounce of joy from it, composing the perfect ending in our hearts—and in her own.

And she gave me the courage to keep writing my story, too.

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