If you are writing a memoir, or even a novel, and wonder how you can break through the inner critic that silences you, this is a perfect moment to move forward and get unstuck.
As a memoir writer, I know how tough it is to confront the forbidden stories and write them down. Once voice says, “Go ahead, it’s the truth,” while another says “You can’t say that, it’s rude.” Or “What will people think if they know these things about me?” Or the real stinger, “They might get mad at me. They might accuse me of lying.”
You have your own list of what your inner critic says.
Typical Inner Critic messages:
- I don’t know how to write.
- Who cares about my story anyway?
- I’m too self-involved.
- What difference does it make if I write my
- Maybe I’m making it all up.
- My family will never speak to me again if I write that.
- This is boring
Family and friends are the “Outer Critics.” These are some of their voices:
- You’re writing a memoir?
- For heaven’s sake, must you air the family laundry?
- Don’t you dare write that while we’re alive!
- You think you have a right to these stories?
- Don’t darken our door if your write about
- .It didn’t happen that way!
- All you can do is think about the past!
TIP: The best thing to do with your list is to write it down and get it out of your head. Then argue back with it. Answer each doubt that is raised, work on affirmations like, “This is my story. I have a right to tell it.”
TIP: In your first draft you can spill out the whole story. No one knows what you are writing until you share it. Sharing should be done carefully! You want to keep up your story energy all the way through your first draft.
TIP: Write out as many affirmations as you can think of and put them on your wall. They might be phrases like this:
- The words that flow are good, just right for that day.
- I will protect my writing from naysayers, including myself.
- Each paragraph I write gives me strength and forward
- Every scene I write helps me to find a new perspective
- and joy in my life.
- When I learn new skills, I am energized and excited
- about my writing.
- I look forward to my writing time.
- I honor and preserve my time to write
These practices about the critic voices may need to be repeated as you write your book. I used to have a vile, abusive inner critic that kept me silent for months at a time, but I kept returning to these exercises, I kept working on my story bit by bit as I tried to free myself. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping you learn to break through and write your stories.
For years, I wanted to understand Lulu Frances, the girl who became the woman who was my grandmother. She was always “Gram,” the person who rescued me and raised me, the person who offered me the gifts of music and culture. She also grew to be fierce and scary, out of control at times with her anger. But Lulu’s beauty and innocence in the early photographs I have make me feel tender toward her. Perhaps they reveal her original self, who she was before she was hurt or disappointed or lost. Maybe she was lost even then—I’ll never know. The photographs of Lulu when she was young are the ones that stop my heart.
In that little girl above I see wistfulness, resignation, and a clear eyed view toward her future. She told me of her big imagination then, how she’d run through the corn fields laughing as the big leaves slapped at her body. Her world, if she had not escaped it would have been years of washing, childbirth, rough hands, and more resignation. Perhaps even then she was wanting something more. It is the girl who wanted something more, and got it, that I celebrate today. It’s her birthday, and I have spent years trying to understand her. Through writing Song of the Plains, I believe I have woven the fragments of story together and can honor her. Certainly I have forgiven her for the years of abuse. My guess is that she might have needed to forgive herself. That when she was older and dying slowing of smoking and depression, her young life was a dream.
By the time this photo was taken, she had eloped–gasp–an act that was “against the rules” in 1911. She escaped her working class background by marrying up. Her husband, Blaine, was 18 years old, she was barely 17, and they scandalized their families and community. No, she was not pregnant.
Miss Lulu Garrett, who resides at the Stineman home, had been united in Marriage to Blaine Hawkins at Des Moines, IA, on April 4. The letter which conveyed the announcement of the nuptial event was from Miss Garrett. Mrs. Hawkins, who is less than eighteen years of age and has been a student of the Muscatine high school, left this city at the opening of the spring vacation and declared at that time that she was going to Sterling, Ill., to visit with the La Grille family, formerly of Muscatine. It appears, however, that the girl proceeded to Des Moines, where she met Mr. Hawkins and the matrimonial event took place that had been previously planned.The groom is the son of R. G. Hawkins, editor of the Wapello Republican, and is well known at Wapello. He left there a short time ago for Des Moines and had been employed as a printer in the Capital City. He is under 20 years of age. The many Muscatine friends of Mrs. Hawkins will be surprised to hear of her marriage, as not the slightest intimation had been given out as to the romantic turn which affairs were given.
Years later, when I met my grandfather, Blaine, I could sense the electricity between them. Even at the age of eight, I sensed a history through their body language, the way that words hung in the air. I would spend my life trying to find out their story. It’s in my book Song of the Plains.
It’s this woman, traveling by herself in the 1930’s that I discovered in my research. Four times she traveled on the Ausonia, the Montclaire, the Duchess of Bedford to England, staying a month at a time. She traveled on buses and trains, traveled to Scotland, to Ireland, and soaked in the history and the landscape she loved so much. She used to say to me, “I stood in front of a castle and knew that I was born at the wrong time.” So romantic she was.
Following in her footsteps–I didn’t know these details about her travels until I researched her in Ancestry,com, I have traveled to England and Scotland, and I would take her with me, the few shreds of stories I had. I too visited castles, ruins, and took tea in London. This year I found out through the DNA test that we are 75% English. Well, some things ARE inherited!
I celebrate you Lulu for the courage for the life you lived, at least for a while. I wish you good travels today.
It’s a question that people have been asking me: why write another memoir? This summer, I’m excited to be involved with book launches, reviews, and discussions about my new memoir Song of the Plains. I asked myself, what still needs to be said after my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother?
Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness
My first memoir is about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. It’s a coming of age story through a child’s eyes that begins when my mother left—I was four. The book follows the theme of mothers and daughters who were estranged, and struggled with their relationship. When I discovered that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl, I knew that something was wrong, that there was a generational pattern that demanded to be explored. The story takes the reader on a journey that shows how I coped with a volatile and rejecting mother, and my grandmother. She had saved me and raised me with great flair—sharing her passions about music, history, and literature, but she deteriorated as she got older into an angry, punishing person. My mother’s diagnosis of manic-depressive illness on her deathbed offered some insights into our family pattern—it often runs in families. Having a name for some of the crazy things that happened as I grew up helped me to understand the struggles I’d witnessed. Knowing that there was a mental illness explained in part what happened in our family and helped me to have compassion for my mothers by the end of the book.
Song of the Plains
The themes of this book had been whispering in my ear for decades, though the cadence grew louder last year, which reminded me that I’d been gathering books and quotes about the Great Plains for years. I was a history buff fascinated by archeology, geology, and the westward-ho movement that sent pioneers across America, not yet knowing how deeply that history was engraved in my DNA.
Growing up in Oklahoma put me in touch with western history—wild and reckless and “Indian country” until well into the 20th century. I had a personal relationship with the Great Plains—its huge spaciousness felt like a protection when I was stressed by my grandmother and mother’s conflicts. The beauty of the azure sky and huge towers of clouds offered peace and inspiration. And the wind has always been a character in stories about the west.
Since I was a child, I had a powerful curiosity to know what happened in the past, ever since my great-grandmother whispered her stories to me in a featherbed when I was eight and she was eighty. From that time on, I was a genealogist and a historian, always searching for more insights.
The voice for this book began to whisper in my ear, and there also was the familiar inner critic voice: haven’t you said too much already? Isn’t one story enough about all those people? What’s new that hasn’t been said? Aren’t you writing too much about yourself?
We all have that voice, but there’s another voice that whispers invitations—have you heard it, too? It goes like this: What if…
My voice said:
- What if… you learned more about your grandmother’s life—maybe that would change your perspective about her.
- What if… you could find out what happened to your mother as a little girl—maybe that could explain why she was so angry and sad.
- What if…there are more stories about them you don’t know. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to find out?
These questions led me to do decades of genealogical research, which for years had still left me without a story I could piece together. The “What if” questions are what drove me to the courthouses and graveyards for the last forty years as I tried to discover the hidden stories about my family. I found a treasure of information in the small town newspaper in Wapello, Iowa.
For seven years, I searched for our family names in the microfilm archives, and luckily was rewarded by finding pieces of my mother’s story—when she was born, where she lived. It was exciting to see my mother there as a little girl, and my grandmother, when she was only twenty-one years old. Suddenly, people who had a story in the misty far past became real and in focus. They came alive to me, proving that history is not only something that happened long ago. History is a living story, lived moment to moment, and when we can follow the breadcrumbs, we can find to a deeper understanding.
My book weaves the themes of history, of land and people, and hope and failure. Hard work and adventures across the sea. It’s bigger than me and my story—and I’m happy for that. I hope my book encourages you to look for your roots and celebrate your heritage. Perhaps you will even want to write about it!