Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Today is International Women’s Day. I reflected again on the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with stories from the 19th century; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me. She started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, who took ships across the ocean. And my mother, Josephine, who’d been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary in the early 1920s while her daughter lived in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle as women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much of their history is the history of America.
In my book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what others have lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, lost narratives, lies, and pregnant silences. I felt each of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, and the secrets and silences that always hovered underneath. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes in my body. I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.” Because they were different. Because they both dared to take a different path from the traditional farm woman who would sacrifice herself and die young.
Lulu, about 25
What do we do as women with these inheritances? We search for our identity. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what happened that created the silences. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when did Lulu leave Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl. Why did they fight fought and struggle with each other until the last day of Frances’s life? She died without any reconciliation with my mother.
My mother Josephine was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped she’d at last claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself. The sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or able to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days she could no longer prevent me from loving her. The silences lifted and there was a purity beyond the story we’d lived.
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
The search for their history continued for twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I pieced together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are revealed in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By doing the research and writing their stories, I healed myself, and could offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. We need to teach the new generations the histories that shape women and help them understand.
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Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknown on our journey and discovering ourselves. It means striking out for the gold of truth and honesty, exposure and even a spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory. Writing a memoir is a lot like the pioneers that my great-grandmother told me about. She was in her eighties and I was about eight years old. Her face was deeply grooved, her eyes sank deep in her sockets, her voice sometimes sounded far away, like she was still back there where her memory took her.
She was still a young girl on the farm near the Mississippi River when the neighbors drove up in a covered wagon and got out to say goodbye. They were going to Kansas—this was in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains. They knew they had to cross the Missouri River, but they didn’t know what they would encounter along the way. The Indians were more or less removed from the Great Plains by then, but there were outlaws and roving bands, there was not much civilization, and towns were far away from each other. The woman was pregnant, the children barefoot. Blanche never found out what happened to them, but she watched them drive off into the unknown. If any of you have ever driven on a regular road, not a freeway, between Iowa and Kansas, you know it’s quite a ways.
They had a map, there were guides, and they must have gotten to Kansas eventually. We memoirists need maps and guides. One form of the “map” that we can use is what I call writing your “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing was the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your hometown, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love. Notice that these are examples of emotionally significant events.
Dorothy Allison says to write “where the fear is, where the heat is.” That way we delve into the heart of our stories, of who we were, the high and low points in our lives. Emotion guides us into our journey toward truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. We are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, just like the pioneers.
When I was little, my great-grandmother and my great-aunts were busy. They were either washing and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great-grandmother still used a wood cook stove, even in the summer! They would bake and can the bounty from the garden, or they were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in the design.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. They’re vignettes that we can write in any order. Again, if we write where the heat is, we will gather the sections that one day will be quilted together into a more finished work of art.
Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline can be another guide. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper, large enough to hold several decades. Your memoir will most likely be a part or a theme from your life, but when you start writing, you may not yet be clear on your focus. It is not a waste of time to write more stories than you might end up using as you assemble your quilt, as you may have more than one quilt—I mean memoir! The way the turning points cluster on the timeline can offer new insights into your life, revealing things that you were unaware of. A visual element in creating our memoir is helpful. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a kind of vision board, where you weave the colors and the images of your past.
All these techniques help you to write with more power and focus, help to fuel your journey into your memories. The richness stored there goes beyond what you think you remember. The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, in her eighties weaving the stories of the 19th century for me as we rested side by side in the featherbed. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to write, to capture what she showed me, and honor the history that was within her.
And you too will weave magic as you write your memoir.
While you write your memoir, your family and childhood come to life on the page. As the narrator, you present the significant things that shaped you through your own eyes and your own point of view.
Most of us grow up thinking that our family and childhood as “just the way it is,” unaware of the many different ways families live and cope with stressful events and disappointments. We begin our writing from this internalized perspective, only to find ourselves surprised by how other people react to our story. As we write a memoir, we learn how the family crucible has shaped us. You find that you’re writing a story that is giving you a new way of looking at yourself and your family. You might even find yourself re-defining what family is.
“Family” can be defined in many ways. “Family” once referred to people who had a common ancestor or were related by marriage. The nuclear family included parents and children; the extended family included a collection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, great aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, and close friends of family.
People who were orphaned or grew up in an atypical family have a complex history that may hard to face when writing memoir. There is the heartache that accompanies the early death of a parent, abandonment, or divorce. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if they are so dysfunctional they can’t be present for the children. Mental or physical illness creates a kind of abandonment as well.
It’s important to remember that not all atypical families are dysfunctional. Each family is unique, with strengths that balance some of the more negative traits. In some families, it is difficult to see these points of light early in the healing process, because of the emotional pain that interferes with finding compassion. It’s important to keep writing, inviting your authentic voice to tell the stories that will help you to heal.
I grew up with my grandmother far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. But my grandmother acted superior, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem, so I couldn’t talk about my true feelings or perceptions. I hated filling out those forms where we had to write our mother’s and father’s names. I had to fill in “guardian,” trying not to see the questioning looks I got from the other kids. I imagined they were saying: “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”
It didn’t help that I held the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying during each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. Early on, I didn’t realize that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a young child. I could see their pain, but I just wanted us to be normal. When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist diagnosed her as manic-depressive, finally giving a name for the pain we’d carried in our family for generations. Understanding this helped me to find compassion for them. I know that my story is not that different from that of others. Writing down all the stories helped me to claim what I’d lived through and find my voice in the present, a place where I could see them and myself through new eyes.
Like it or not, family and our childhoods train us for our adult lives and our belief systems. I discovered that I could change the feeling of otherness and abandonment through therapy, but first I had to make a bunch of mistakes along the way to see how far from normal my life had been.
My early therapy experiences showed me that to find myself, I had to confront the repressed “bad” feelings I’d carried through the years when I was trying to be “good” and likeable. Only then could I see the past clearly and to understand who I am, and who my parents and grandmother were. The idea that “Our True Selves” are loveable, and valuable gave me the freedom to search for healing and helped mem see how to change the patterns that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters.
My first therapy required that I write my autobiography in all its painful truths, raw and visceral. I wrote in my journal for hundreds of hours which tore the veils from my eyes, and broke me down in such a way that I could put myself together differently.
When we write about our families, we embrace our own voice, and we see more clearly who we truly are. Writing a memoir means claiming all the parts of ourselves and holding them tenderly.
- Write about the history of your family—who married whom, who stayed in the family, who left, and when. These might become several story threads.
- Write about how you felt during family conflicts–in your body and in your mind. What did you think and feel? What did you do when there was conflict?
- What is the most important thing you learned in your family?
- What generational patterns would you want to change and why?
In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes about freeing the mind through meditation, creating the possibility of a fresh and truly open mind, especially when approaching new things. He says that we should look at everything with curiosity and acceptance and be vulnerable enough and strong enough to not know everything, to withstand discomfort, to be humble.
When you write with a beginner’s mind, you’ll see your family story through new eyes. When you write your story the way you see it, not the way it has always been told, you free yourself from the strictures of a “right” way to view the world. Perhaps you are the one in the family who doesn’t agree with the point of view of other family members. You may feel lonely or even crazy under such circumstances. But this is what you know, this is your truth.
Using beginner’s mind gives us permission to write what we don’t know and to write what has never been written before. It’s a healthy, open approach to writing from your heart and putting aside the critical voices.
Writing and meditation have much in common: inner listening, quiet and isolation, openness. Sometimes we resist writing just as we resist being alone with ourselves. We stay busy and don’t take time to escape from the demands of a noisy, outward-directed life. The Buddhists call a mind filled with these mental distractions a “monkey mind.” Like a monkey, it chatters away, distracting us from our true self, a deeper part of ourselves that might be called spiritual.
Meditation is about awareness without attachment to a particular idea or thought. When we meditate, our thoughts are allowed to pass across the mind like clouds. When we write, critical thoughts can get in the way as we judge and critique our writing, and ourselves. Part of our healing practice is to accept our inner creative voices, to hear the deeper truth of who we are. We need to write with openness.
Meditation to Relax
To encourage our inner listening process, we need to put aside the stresses of regular life and relax. We need to let go of our busy thoughts and make room for other voices, feelings, and parts of ourselves.
To help access our inner listening, we can focus on our breath. Breathing well and deeply is the basis for all letting go of stress. When we focus on our breath and our relaxed muscles, we can feel ourselves getting pleasantly heavier and warmer. When we relax the tension in our muscles, a tense mind lets go as well, promoting the flow of creativity.
When you’re ready to do this relaxation meditation, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Set a timer for twenty or thirty minutes. After you learn how to relax, you can obtain the same benefit in less time.
Settle in a comfortable place and take some deep breaths. Feel yourself becoming present and aware of your body. This will enhance listening to your inner voice, the positive one, the one that nurtures you, the one that supports all your efforts to write and to speak.
Bring to mind an image of a living being that makes you happy. Some people think of a loved one—a mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, or favorite pet. Feel the feelings you have when you are being hugged or touched lovingly by this person or being. As you think of this, imagine golden light flowing down from the top of your head into your shoulders, and let it spill down your body, breathing deeply without forcing, just gentle breaths. Allow yourself to feel the warmth that this visualization brings, filling your body with well-being.
Feel the warmth in your wrists and hands, your fingers, your arms. Let your muscles relax, the muscles of your body and mind that sometimes keep you tight. Ask them to allow you to write, to express yourself. Think of being encouraged by your pet or favorite person. Have fun with this; don’t be too serious. Imagine being gently massaged or comforted. Breathe these feelings into your body. If you have a favorite, safe place, either in real life or in your imagination, bring it to mind now.
When you’re relaxed, when the mind and body are in harmony and your thoughts are flowing freely like a stream, rest in the peace of this state for a few minutes, then write for five minutes or longer.
Meditation to Your Past Self
Now you will be guided into remembering earlier parts of your life. Follow the exercise as far as you like. If you become uncomfortable, stop and return to the present.
See yourself at the age you are now. Picture how you look, what you are wearing, the shape of your life. See yourself in your mind’s eye: your body, your clothes in your favorite colors, your hair, face, and skin. See the people you spend time with, the things you are most proud of.
Imagine the calendar flying back to ten years ago. What did you look like then? What style of clothes were you wearing? Where were your favorite restaurants or clubs? What did you do in your leisure time? See if you can remember who you spent time with and what you did. What were your hopes and dreams?
Go back another ten years and ask yourself these same questions. Decade by decade, revisit who you were, what you were doing, what you were feeling, wanting, and dreaming.
Notice—but don’t dwell on—any issues and problems that you faced during each decade. What were you trying to heal or avoid? How did that work for you? Think about your hopes and dreams. What was the best part about your life? How did you feel about yourself during each period of your life? What was your favorite color, food, vacation? Who were your friends, pets? What books influenced your life?
See yourself all the way back into your adolescence and then into childhood. See your body, feel how it felt to be twenty, fifteen, ten, five. See yourself in your clothes, inside your room, in your house. Who were the people in your family back then? What did they look like, sound like? Notice the memories that have formed you and are a part of you.
Now pick up your pen and write about one of the scenes you just pictured. Write a vignette; freely sketch out what you remember without anchoring it to a story. This memory exercise can help you bring the past into focus and help you picture important scenes in your life that may have receded into your unconscious mind.
- Write about what “Beginner’s Mind” means to you. What new beginnings have you had in your life? List at least ten.
- Find photos for each decade of your life. Write about these topics for each decade:
- What was most important to you during these years?
- What was the best part of your life; the worst?
- Write about your hopes and dreams.
- Describe your favorite clothes, and activities.
- What were your mother and father like during this time?
- How about brothers, sisters, or other family members?
- Describe your grandmother and grandfather through what they did and what they said. Put them in a scene and show them to us!
- Write about the life lessons you learned from them and how they affect your life now. What legacies did they pass on to you?
What story chases you? What are the moments you can’t forget? These are clues that you have a story to tell, that a memoir is knocking on your door. For me, it was wanting to understand my mother, who’d left me with her mother when I was four. She’d visit once a year, and I loved her desperately, always getting close to inhale her skin, loving the way her dark eyes and shapely lips made her so beautiful. I wanted to understand her, and her mother, my grandmother, who had taken me in. They must have loved each other, but each visit, dishes were broken, their arguments rising to the ceiling along with the blue-gray smoke of endless cigarette. But these were stories of shame–mothers abandoning their children. Be silent! Don’t tell a story that shows how damaged we were. Don’t speak of what was wrong. But the stories had a life of their own. I lived them, they were part of me. There was no escaping them.
All right, the inner critic wants to silence us, I know, but there was more going on than my mother and missing her. There were those who had saved me–my cello teacher Mr. Brauninger, who revealed the deep beauty and healing power of music. My grandmother’s best friend, Aunt Helen, who blessed me with her brand of southern love: “God love ‘ya darlin'” she’d say, enveloping me in her generous bosom.
What are the stories that call out to you? Moments that shaped you into who you are now? What voices tell you to write them, and what forces stop you? What I learned in wrestling with my inner critic is that writing will cure it. To write, freewrite, write in a journal, just get something down on the page. Allow my voice to show up. I learned that one scene can lead to another scene, and these will be building blocks to a chapter. the stories that won’t leave us alone are the ones that have a key to freedom. The stories that will lead us to resolution–but only if we allow ourselves the voice that is our own. Our truth. And what we make of it.
Start today. Write about a moment you love remembering. Write about someone who touched your life and who you can never forget. Write about your grandmother’s garden or your father’s eye. Find details that make your heart pound a little harder. You’re on the right track.
Fear–everyone experiences an uncomfortable tension, a flutter in the stomach, when they think about writing about their lives and revealing themselves. But most of us come to the page with a need–to explore our lives and memories. To understand something. To muse and wonder about life, relationships. What are the stories that haunt you? What do you need to say and what stops you? What memories won’t leave you alone? Write them down. For now, just write a list.
What gets in the way of writing your truth: shame, fear of judgment from family and friends? Sometimes it’s hard to express the truth of what we’ve lived through, what we’ve done to ourselves and others. And what others have done to us. In writing memoir, we have the opportunity to explore the deeper layers of memory and self. We try to make sense of what happened. Writing allow us to explore our minds and dreams, it gives us permission to discover who we are.
How can we break through the voices of doubt? It’s not easy—just “deciding” to push through may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we need to write our stories. But the real problem is our vulnerable emotional self–it wants to protect us from hurt or criticism. (Often we are our own worst critic.) The silencing voice, “the inner critic” is a part of everyone. Every famous author will tell you in their presentations how hard it was to write, how their inner critic started shouting or whispering. But they write anyway!
Journaling, morning pages, a poem a day–you don’t have to write a great deal to feel the joy of seeing your words flow onto the page. Then celebrate and reward yourself for your efforts. Bit by bit you will be able to write more. Someone once told me “Writing leads to more writing!” It’s true. Every time you write, you’re breaking your silence and freeing your voice.
Make lists of the significant moments you remember, moments that won’t leave you alone. Lists help to contain overwhelming emotions and allow you to slowly immerse yourself in a few memories at a time. Be sure to balance the light and dark memories.
Another technique: Keep your writing private through the first draft. Share carefully and protect your vulnerable early thoughts and remembrances from outside comments until you have written a lot without worrying about what your family might say. Remember that family and friends might have a different perspective of events. Negative feedback or the fear of it stops us from writing freely and honestly. Protect your creative self! Get your stories down and live with them for awhile before sharing them.
- List the 5 things that you are most afraid to write about.
- Take each one on your list and freewrite for 3 minutes why you are afraid. What would happen if you wrote your truths?
- List the secrets you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write what you really think and feel.
- Make a list of the 5 best memories in your life.
- Each week, choose a story from your lists and write at least 500 words.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to and who can support you. Mutual support and witnessing helps with the process.
- Take classes and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies will grow better with more nurturing.