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prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
© 2003
A retired professor of English from The College of St. Catherine,
Dr. Lincoln has given numerous workshops on memoir writing.
This online workshop is adapted for your personal use.

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Part 1: Self-knowledge as the beginning of Wisdom

“A Day Unremembered”

“A day unremembered is like a soul unborn,
worse than if it had never been.
What indeed was that summer if not recalled?
That journey? That act of love?
To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing?
....Any bits of warm life preserved by the pen
are trophies snatched from the dark,
are branches of leaves fished out of the flood,
are tiny arrests of mortality.”
Laurie Lee, I Can't Stay Long

“I can only note that the past is beautiful
because one never realizes an emotion at the time.
It expands later, and thus
we don't have complete emotions about the present,
only about the past....
That is why we dwell on the past, I think.”
The Diary of Virginia Woolf

As quoted in Mary Jane Moffat's The Time of Our Lives

This eight-part workshop retreat will give you the opportunity to read, write, and reflect at your own pace, perhaps over a period of eight days or eight weeks, even eight months. During that time you will perhaps choose to read some of the published memoirs included in the selected bibliography (Part 9.)


Wisdom is a universal human longing. To achieve wisdom is the goal of life in many cultures. This retreat workshop is one way that you might grow in self-knowledge which will lead you to wisdom. Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom, as the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, tells us.

In the Bible Wisdom is an attribute of God. God is eternal Wisdom, and Jesus in his incarnation brought that wisdom to dwell among us. In Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which leads us to an experiential knowledge of God and of God's presence in all things.

A recent description of wisdom speaks to those of us who value memoir writing: “I like to describe wisdom as profound insight into life, living, loving, death, and eternity” (Peter Gilmour, The Wisdom of Memoir: Reading and Writing Life's Sacred Texts). Gilmour describes memoirs as “deeply reflective stories that capture and communicate portions of the inestimable mysteries of life and living” (p. 13).

The question for you now as you begin to think about your own memoir is this:


This question can lead you further into “the inestimable mysteries of life and living”:


Writing your memoir will be a powerful way for you to gain insight into your life and develop greater wisdom. Insight comes through reflecting on and expressing who you are. The wisdom of memoir leads you to capture and communicate your own experiences. By reflecting on your life you can find and deepen your identity and can value and celebrate who you are. This is a spiritual activity; indeed it is wisdom.

The process of creating memoir is essentially a spiritual activity because it centers on:
how you choose to be human,
what it means to be human,
what the implications of your humanity are.

What you will do in developing a memoir will be to live your spirituality, whatever that may be for you.

What is spirituality? It is your life as a whole human being: the fullness of your human development (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) lived within the context of God's love. Spirituality is who you really are in your deepest and truest self in relationship to God, other people, all of creation.

The wisdom of this spirituality means that
you are attentive to what your senses and heart tell you;
you keep your mind alive and growing;
you are free to be fully alive: to respect your need for re-creation, getting in touch with your body as well as your spirit;
you are in relationship with God and others; you work, pray, love others, and deal with life?s joys and sorrows.

Living your spirituality means to be whole, which is another word for holiness, which is another word for wisdom. Memoir writing presumes serious and substantial reflection on life and living.

Other people (those near and dear to you, those unknown to you, and those not yet born) are potential beneficiaries of your memoir writing. But even if no one but yourself ever reads your written memories, you are enriching the totality of human life.

You share your wisdom when you share your stories and insights with others. Think of all the people throughout history who would be unremembered except for their writings.

Before you begin to create your memoir, take some time now to pray for knowledge and wisdom.


O God of wisdom, be with me. I ask for the gift of wisdom to know you and to know myself. Help me to remember, to reimagine, and to record memories of my life. May my spirit be reflective and my memory active.

May your spirit of wisdom be my guide and friend as I tap into my personal wisdom. I pray that you deepen my spirituality, give me renewed insight into the mystery of life and living, and stimulate my memory as I write. Amen.


You are your memories. Your memories shape your identity and connect your present with your past. You may not remember where you put your car keys today, but your long-term memories remain. Like your computer your memory is sometimes on overload, but you can recover your vivid memories when you trigger them. Some of these memories may be pleasant, others painful.

In life you are a character to yourself in an unfolding story. In writing a memoir you become visible to yourself (and to others who may be privileged to read what you have written). This visibility may be physical, emotional, historical. You can start writing your memoir anywhere, at any time. Each idea or memory can lead you to another memory. In your memory process your memories are constantly moving from deep within, to the surface, to insight - back and forth.


What do you remember? What is your own story? Begin this retreat workshop by opening up to the memories that have shaped you: the scenes, the people, the places, the ideas, the experiences.

Some of your memories will be of happy times, some will be sad, some will be quite difficult to recollect. Any of these memories could be the focus of the memoir you want to write.

To begin this retreat workshop you will want to be ready to pray, reflect, - and WRITE. Write down memories or stories as they come to you.You will be given suggestions for remembering and writing as you go through this retreat workshop.

Writing your memoir will involve your memory, certainly, but also your intelligence, your emotions, your imagination, your spirit. This memoir will give shape and words to your memories. As you will capture your own specific life experiences and see their significance, you will be both the author and subject of your memoir. If, as Socrates says, the unexamined life is not worth living, then memoir helps to make life worth living!

In writing memoir you will be writing only about selected portions or aspects of your life. Memoir is not autobiography; autobiography would involve the facts and history of all of your life.

Decide on a way that is most convenient and comfortable for you to write. You may want to do your writing in a notebook (preferably one with a binding) or in a document set up on your computer for this purpose. You may find it helpful to print out this retreat workshop itself so you can refer to it easily.

Whenever you are ready to write, find a time and place that is quiet for you. To set an atmosphere you might want to keep a candle lighted whenever you reflect and write. Do whatever you can to encourage yourself to write!


Begin by writing, lettering, or typing your name. Choose one or all of your names. Put a circle or box around your name(s); this can represent all that is around you (God, creation, family, nature, your home, etc.).

Now look at your name intently. Sound it with your mouth several times. What does your name say or mean to you? to others? What words or phrases does your name call to your mind? (You might also want to think about your nicknames. What special meanings do they have for you?) Honor and treasure your name! It identifies you.

Now that you have reflected on your name(s), begin to think about your memories - about your life. Turn to your notebook or your memory document and begin!

****WRITE: Describe in a few words your earliest memory. What insights into yourself does this memory give you?

Begin to collect all the writing suggestions given in this retreat workshop, and at the end you will have a memoir!

Be grateful for the gift of memory and pray that it will serve you well for years to come. Ask God to bless the memories that have surfaced for you so far, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Take a moment to be silent, then say, “O God, only you know the whole truth about me. Guide me with your wisdom and compassion as I move to greater self-knowledge. Amen.”

When you are ready, turn to
Part 2: The Gift of Memory and How It Functions.

Part 1 Self-knowledge as the beginning of Wisdom
Part 2 The Gift of Memory and How It Functions
Part 3 The Wisdom of Memoir
Part 4 Re-membering
Part 5 Keep Writing!
Part 6 The Story Only You Can Tell: Childhood and Family Memoirs
Part 7 Memoirs of Place; Reflective Memoirs
Part 8 Shaping Your Memoir
Part 9 A Selective Bibliography


Quick links: Catholic Youth Ministry, Catholic Religious Education, Catholic Bible Study, Catholic Resources, Catholic Confirmation

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