Keep Your Perspective: Balance the Dark and Light Stories in Your Memoir
Linda Joy Myers
When we write memoir, we try to capture real life as it was lived. This means that we encounter the happier, lighter, side of life as well as the darker stories that are part of the human experience. I’ve noticed in my work with memoir writers that they need to be wary of getting lost in the “darker stories” that may arise. In my book The Power of Memoir I devote an entire chapter to techniques that help writers work with all aspects of their stories, form the happier moments, which of course are easier to write, to the more challenging times in their lives. During my workshops, we discuss how to keep writing even though some of our true stories cast a shadow on our present lives and tempt us to lose perspective about the whole range of life’s experiences. When the more intense stories come up, we can forget to see ourselves and our lives fully in the round, with the positive and negative, the light and darker moments that are part of everyone’s lives.
Research has shown that writing positive stories is as healing as writing about bad memories, but I’ve observed major psychological and spiritual transformations when writers dig in to find deeper levels of insight regarding certain stuck places in their emotional lives. We all want to avoid unnecessary pain, yet healing comes from balancing our system and not staying trapped in the past. Our fears, anger, jealousy, insecurity, and hurt are real, but they have a way of interfering with having a sense of peace, forgiveness of self and others, and can dilute the juicy energy of creativity.
I think we all need to keep in mind ways to find balance for our emotional selves whether we are writing in our journal or writing a memoir. Research has shown that delving too frequently into painful stories can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression, so while we want to write to release what is blocked or to find more understanding, it’s important to be aware of signs of “too much” introspection.
My students have found value in the “Dark and Light Stories” technique. I urge them to weave back and forth between the dark and the lighter stories to create balance and recover from the heaviness of writing painful stories. The path of emotional healing is like cleaning out an old wound: it hurts while we are cleaning it out but we feel better afterward. And, we need to take time to recover.
We need to assess our own personalities: for instance, are you the kind of person who glides over painful subjects and loses balance by having a “Pollyana” attitude? If that describes you, then you will find balance by going deeper into the stories and memories that you explore. No one had a perfect life, and if you feel you have “nothing to write about,” perhaps you are avoiding important topics.
However, if you are the kind of person who thinks a lot about what went wrong, all the sad and unhappy things in your life or that of your family, you might need to find your balance by making lists of the happier events in your life, the times that you felt better, the moments of grace and blessing. Even those who have been abused are able to find times of joy.
One of my students insisted that she had about half a page of “happy” stories, and was angry that I wanted her to find more. She came in the next week laughing. She’d found many happy moments as she worked on her list and challenged the view she’d always carried about her life. I asked her to make a list for each year of her life of the funny, humorous, ironic, and downright silly moments, and she found them. Afterward, she felt grateful that I insisted on her completing the assignment, and much of her memoir was humorous.
To help bring balance by healing the darker moments:
- Make a list of the dark topics or stories that you suspect are important, but you aren’t ready to write.
- List them by title or theme.
- Write down the age you were when these difficult times happened.
- Write down what you did to cope with the event at the time. How do you feel now about the incident?
- What would you have liked to happen differently?
- Place these stories on a timeline so you can get a perspective on the clustering of events.
Now, make a list of the light stories, stories that bring you a feeling of well being, happiness, contentment, and safety. These may include memories about love, spiritual experiences, and miracles. Stand fully in the light of the positive stories and feel them in your body. Hold the images of the positive stories while you consider the dark stories list. This technique helps to integrate the polarities of our psyche.
The reader needs relief too, as most readers will put a book down if there are uninterrupted dark stories. I alternated dark and light chapters in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother so the reader could enjoy moments of lightness and joy while also discovering the story of abandonment and loss that weaves through the book. I brought the reader to an emotionally resolved ending that had forgiveness and healing.
The power of writing a memoir is that the truth really does make you free. Claiming the freedom to express yourself freely and fully can release you from the darker aspects of the story you have lived, and allows you to move forward with grace and forgiveness. In the process, you may find elements of peace, resolution, and happiness that change your life. Keep writing through the layers of your story to discover your new pathways and transformational moments.
Claiming the Freedom to Write Your Truths
You are eager to write your memoir, eager to explore and share the stories that have been a part of you all your life—your history, your identity. You need to write, but voices of doubt get in the way.
If you have an active inner critic, you are worrying about you write, you’re writing editing and deleting—not a good idea if you want to get your first draft done! It’s very important that you don’t delete! I make my students raise their hands and promise to save work to a “saved writing” file, or “Will read later” file. In a few days or weeks, you might discover jewels in the piece that you can’t see or judge properly thanks to your severe and unfriendly inner critic. DO NOT DELETE!!
How Do you Write?
What is your writing process?. Some need absolute quite, while others prefer a café where they aren’t tempted to clean or answer the phone. Leave your cell phone at home or turn it off. Don’t surf the net in the café. Make it a retreat where you can enjoy your coffee and enough general noise to keep yourself awake and active while you write.
Do you write by longhand, or on the computer? Studies show that writing from the body by hand can be healing if you’re writing something painful or challenging. Your thoughts seem to flow directly into your hand as you write are in the flow of ideas, images. If you flow better on the computer, then it’s best for you.
Dreaming Our Stories
Dreams and freely journaling are a way to access your stories. Each day, tune into your muse. Write as if in meditation. Listen deeply. The creative well is within you, and it need to be cared for and refilled with an encouraging attitude. Be your best writing friend!
Despite our best intentions, internal and even external, critical voices can interfere with our writing process and create a block to our heart’s desire.
Inner Critic voices
Most people have a pesky critic, the voice inside that fosters doubt, the voice that whispers our fears of self-expression—“you can’t say this, why do you even try, this is bad, this makes no sense, what will people think?”
Even famous authors have this voice—but they write anyway. When people come from judgmental or abusive homes, the negative voices can take on a particularly sharp edge. If we grow up learning to be silent, or to quash our natural voice, we learn to stay hidden. To break free from this silencing, you have to face the inner voices, listen to find its origins in your mind, and then fight back. The critic remains stronger in the shadows of silence.
Families teach us to keep the secrets—don’t talk about what really happened, and don’t talk about what sets us apart from other people. Don’t talk about our pain, we are trying to forget it. Let’s pretend that everything is all right. The past is the past.
In the beginning of writing your memoir, don’t have to follow your family rules or listen to those voices. Your first draft needs to be permission giving. You don’t have to ell your family that you’re writing a memoir. Just write, invite your stories through free writing—writing nonstop for twenty minutes.
Everyone has some kind of negative voice:
- No one will be interested.
- Who else cares about what happened.
- People will get mad at me.
- Who do you think you are?
- I’m boring.
- I didn’t get good grades in English.
- I’m not really a writer.
- I’m too ashamed to write this.
- What if my memories are wrong?
- I don’t really know the truth.
- My family will disown me.
Try the exercises below to break away from the critic voices in your writing life. Freewriting speeds us beyond the critic for a few minutes, but if we have transgressed beyond our “normal” boundaries, the attack may grow louder. Just keep writing the negative voices and answer them back with power and justification for your own right to have a voice. Do the exercises below and claim your right to write!
- Write down exactly what the inner critic says. Get it out of your head and onto the page. Write freely all the phrases you hear in your head, couched in second person. “You…. e.g. “You are boring.”
- This is important: Answer each accusation with an argument against that statement. Argue against the voice that is saying negative things about you and creative spark. “Many people do seem interested in what I have to say. At times, I feel my writing is good and I need to get these stories out.”
- Write down the truths that you feel you mustn’t share with anyone.
- Make a list of people who don’t want you to write your stories. List why they want you to be silent. AND—answer back why you are going to write your stories.
- Write a letter to the critic. Talk to it directly about its power, how it hurts and frustrates you. “You get in my way. You stop me from what I want to say, just like when I was a child. I’m sick of your negativity! I want to write and tell my story! You can’t silence me!”
- Keep a list of affirmations by your computer and in your journal. Affirmations, even if you don’t believe them all yet, help to shape your mind in a new direction. If you practice them, you’ll begin to believe them.
Affirmations You Can Practice
• Every day I eagerly approach my writing desk.
• I plan my writing every week, giving it a special slot in my busy life.
• The words that flow are good, and just right for that day.
• My truths need to be expressed, and will help me heal and move forward in my life.
• By writing out the secrets and shame, I’m freer to live my life as I want to live it.
• I will protect my writing from grumblers and naysayers, including myself.
• I treat my writing like a tender plant, careful to nurture it and help it to grow.
• Each paragraph I write gives me strength and forward motion to write more.
• Every scene I write helps me to find a new perspective and joy in my life.