Memoirs: enjoying the journey

A sample memoir, 10 years in the making
A sample memoir, representing a 10-year journey

What things do you wish you’d asked your parents or grandparents? Write them down. These are the things your children will want to know about you. Start filling in your answers to these questions, a little bit at a time. Don’t worry about your writing style at this point; just get the facts down. Keep adding to your answers as new details come to mind. This will all become resource for you when you’re ready to start organizing the pieces into a meaningful whole.

I recently worked with a client who had been gathering the details of his life in this way for more than 10 years. His children gave him a “memoir journal” in 1994, and he started filling out its pages, little by little. By the time he was ready to have me help him turn it into a book—The Geertsema Chronicles—he had a wonderful collection of memorable stories, illustrated with old photographs and documents. What made it a very readable memoir was the amount of detail he was able to capture. And he was able to do that because (1) he used questions to guide his writing, and (2) he took his time getting the details down on paper.

There are many different types of “memoir journals” available now. I have used To Our Children’s Children, available from And Colleen Boudreau makes a point of encouraging writers to choose a journal whose physical look and feel will inspire writing. I find the journal’s content more important than its appearance—I look for questions that will intrigue me, that will probe for details, that will make me think of old things in new ways. Since I do my writing on the computer, I don’t depend much on the style of the journal itself. I simply open up a blank page, type in one of the questions from the journal, and start typing my answer. Still, if a journal’s physical style will make you look forward to writing, then by all means, choose one you find inspiring!

And if you get to a point where you need help turning your notes into a printed hardcover or paperback book, worthy to become an heirloom, I can certainly help with that. Check my “Manuscript services” page for some basic information.

A memoir is a journey, not a destination. (The words journey and journal are similar for a reason!) Take your time and relish the exploration. Ideally, you’ll appreciate the process as much as the printed product.


Cambodia remains

donor report
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

In a cardboard box in my basement, wrapped in a small plastic bag, is a human bone. A fragment. It shocks me when I see it, even though I am the one who put it there.

I tucked it away, out of sight, not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember it. I didn’t want it to lose its power. For a while, I had kept it on my desk, next to my Mac. Doing so seemed somewhat disrespectful, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead, for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the shock wore off. So I put the fragment away.

Every once in a while I’ll hear a news story about Cambodia, or a mention of the Khmer Rouge, or a reference to “The Killing Fields,” and I’ll remember my trip to Cambodia more than 10 years ago. I’ll think about the plastic-wrapped bone in my basement, and my eyes will well up again.

Trying to understand

It was a powerful trip, full of life and death, hope and despair. During the weeks before leaving, whenever I would tell people I was going to Cambodia, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of “Cambodia? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not really safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it, “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the experience by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped within the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

To this day, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects. The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals and businessmen of Cambodian society; the remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery; cities were bombed; and a lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1985, and Cambodia remains scarred and crippled today. There has been very little development in the past 20 years. Streets are unpaved and rutted, buildings are worn, and the people seem worn as well.

Smelling the fear

Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo of each body before burying it in a plot next to the building. Those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making each room a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

In a separate building are displayed some of the torture devices the Khmer Rouge used. The perverted creativity these people used to kill their victims is almost incomprehensible. Seeing the different tools and machines they invented, you sense that these killings were sport to them.

I kept trying to understand this place, kept trying to wrap my mind around the reasons people would do this to other people. And I couldn’t. Whatever political or ideological motivations Pol Pot had, they are simply inadequate to explain why. As I looked at the photos, read the history, smelled the fear and death in the air, I kept coming back to the question, How could this happen? No answer seemed satisfactory.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

Tuol Sleng was a place where many of the city people—educated business or government people—were killed. After lunch we drove out to one of the killing fields where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. Again, the site is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a number of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each of these large pits was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

That’s where I found the bone that is now in my basement. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that had decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had known so little about these atrocities beforehand made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets, victims of mines that still dot the countryside. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and older generations have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in our Cambodian office. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother—killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to interrupt our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of a group of tourists who were mainly oblivious to her country’s plight.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang a song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth the living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

And that glistening hope is what we are working to share throughout Cambodia. Throughout the world.

Is there any greater calling than that?