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!
I’m excited to announce the pub day for my new memoir, Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence. As I look at the cover of the huge sky and golden earth, I marvel at how ideas and stories are born into the world. It’s amazing to see the scenes and stories that have been locked in my memory show up in a book! And it’s surreal to see in print our family history that goes back more than 100 years. I think all memoirists feel both awe-stricken and a little panicked when their book comes out!
My new memoir was inspired by an obsession to learn more about my family, especially my grandmother and my mother. I wrote about our three-generational pattern of mother-daughter abandonment in my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother through the point of view of a child, but now I wanted to explore the story through a longer lens and from an adult perspective. Decades after they died, I was still getting insights and deepening my compassion for them. Most of my life, I didn’t know the details of what had happened to my mother as a little girl.
My grandmother raised me after my mother left when I was four, and when I was very young, my great-grandmother Blanche told me that my grandmother had left her daughter, my mother, behind when she left to work in Chicago. I first met Blanche when she was eighty and I was eight. Together on a featherbed the first night I met her, Blanche whispered the stories of the times she’d lived, life in the 19th century—her marriage in 1894, the death of her husband two months later, unaware he was going to be a father. Blanche told me about midwives, baking bread in a wood cookstove summer and winter, feeding a family of nine, and the hardscrabble life of farm women. She told me about my mother, called Jo’tine when she was young, and how sad it made her that my mother and grandmother didn’t get along. That night, I stared at Blanche in wonder—she was a walking history book!
After that, I was forever hooked on stories—I’d eavesdrop on the adults’ conversations, ask endless questions about who and why and when, eagerly searching for the layers of truth and lies. I believed that these stories were clues to why people acted the way they did. I thought that if we understood someone’s history, we could put aside our differences. We could tolerate and even love each other better. Of course, that does not always happen, no matter how much we know.
This book is bigger story than just my family. For forty years, I continued the genealogical research I’d started as a child, searching in dusty courthouses and finally on Ancestry.com for clues about my grandmother, who had rebelled against the expectations of her family and society by eloping when she was seventeen, and later leaving her daughter behind to work in Chicago, away from the farm work she hated. I learned about the permissions neither of them had to explore their world freely, to become a whole person. I saw that our family’s past revealed the history of America, a story bigger than we were. The history of the Great Plains is woven into our own history, a land where the blood and bone of family hearken from and where we are released. The song of the plains I listened to as a child comforted me in times of strife, woven through with the sounds of birdcall, and the wind. The swish of the wheat in June, golden fields as far as the eye could see.
I was surprised as I wrote the book that all these themes wanted to become part of the story. My friend and colleague Brooke Warner says, “Listen to what the memoir is telling you it wants to be.” So I did!To read more about Song of the Plains, please find my author page lindajoymyersauthor.com.
Please join me at my launch events: Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, CA, June 24, 6:30 PM
Please read this post about Gallery Bookshop.
Book Passage, in Corte Madera, CA, June 30, 7 PM.
I would love to see you there and talk with you about your writing journey!
I was one of those children who found refuge in books—burrowing down in bed at night, the golden light of a flashlight creating an illuminated cave as the light played across the pages. Great stacks of books were piled on my night table, and I made my way quickly through them. Books were a refuge, they were my friends, and they helped me escape from the drama in my life that I write about in my two memoirs. There was a pattern in our family—three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. I am the third daughter who took it upon myself to investigate the history that made its way to me. Even when I was young, I knew I had to break the pattern.
I grew up with my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Though not formally educated, my grandmother was woman who was thirsty for knowledge. Her books were piled up on bookcases, desks, and side tables. I was grateful that we both shared a passion for books and stories. When my mother visited and their screaming fights broke out, I tried to understand why, but that would take years of research to piece together their history. Books however were wise, teaching me that people were complicated, helping me to stand back as an observer. Eventually, I became a narrator of our story, investigating our family history for ten generations. The layers of our story are in my new book Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence.
If you love books, you of course will find refuge and delight in bookstores. I’ve long been a bookstore lover. I love the smell of the books—I’m a self-confessed book sniffer, the aroma of ink and paper a heady mix. The rows of enticing new worlds on each side of the aisle always has been and still is wonderful to me. For nearly forty years, one of the bookstores I have loved and embraced is Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California. When I first started roaming the aisles of Gallery Bookshop, I would arrive hungry, often in the throes of emotional angst that was a part of years of healing from the dramas and traumas of the past. Just like when I was a child, I’d look for books where I could disappear for a while, books that would teach me something new about life. Gallery Bookshop always offered new treasures. I would find unique books, lovely literary novels, adventures, and psychologically intelligent books. And the best part of being at the bookstore is the people who work there. They know their books well, as if they were family members, books beloved and shared and hand sold.
The bookstore faces the sea, the sound of waves rumbling below the cliffs is part of the sound track of the store, inviting you to walk at the edge of the world. You can imagine how deeply I will enjoy talking about my new memoir at Gallery Bookshop on June 24, 2017. It’s like coming home to speak with other book lovers there as the white spray from the waves lifts up over the rocks.
Now, when I visit Gallery Bookshop, I remember all the years when it sheltered me, offering me hope and stories, and a vision for a life where writing stories might be possible, though for years I didn’t believe that I could write. Story by story, I developed my craft, and the permission to find words for my experience.
Books still feed me, as does this special bookstore by the sea, and I am more than delighted to be a guest on June 24. Please join me to share your own family stories, and how books have changed your life.
In the last post, we examined the inner critic—how it can sow seeds of doubt about the validity of your story, and how we can worry about how the family will react, claiming that their own version of the past is the only “true” one. My advice was to accept that you are not alone! That all writers have doubts about their story, their writing, and how others will interpret the story differently and see it through their own eyes.
When we write a memoir, we’re called to write OUR story, our version of the truth of our lives, the story we need to tell. To do that, we need to trust in the process, which is its own challenge, as there are so many layers—of time, identity, truth, and outcome—to explore, and more will show up as we write. “The process?” my students say. “How can I trust in that?”
It means that each stage of writing and each challenge has a possible solution that will evolve as we write. We need to keep writing with the faith that it will all work out. It’s important to keep the passion and motivation to write our story no matter what. We build strength for each new stage of the process as we keep writing.
Let’s explore the very real problems memoir writers face crossing the boundary of what most people consider private—the family and its history. When we write memoir, the family stories will become public when your memoir is published.
But remember this: when you are just starting to write, the story is not published yet. It’s still in your head, clamoring to get out. So worrying about publication early on is a cart-before-the-horse problem. As I mentioned in the previous article, we need to feel free to write without censoring ourselves as we explore what our story needs to be. We need to feel free to dig deep into the moments that shaped us into who we are now, and reveal what we’ve learned once we understand it—which is part of the process for the writer. When we understand that, then we offer the reader a chance to learn from our experiences—we offer universal truths. We explore these insights privately though at first as we write scene by scene.
There’s so much wisdom to be found in discovering the stories you need to tell and getting them on the page. When you first start writing, most likely you’re not fully aware of how deep your wisdom may be.
So at this stage, keep in mind these points about exposure and family:
- Write for yourself first, imagining your family far away from your writing space.
- Dig into your own truths, the experiences that shaped you. Go beyond what you’ve already written or said. Freewrite—write without stopping for 10 minutes to blow by the inner critic.
- Imagine that you’re writing in a sacred, safe space where only your voice matters. Some people create a ritual to help them remember they’re writing in this space by lighting candles or putting on soothing background music. Sometimes it helps if the music is from the era you’re writing about.
- Put photos around you that inspire you to write. Write from a photo—telling the story of that moment as you remember it. Who is in the photo; when, where, and why was it taken? What is your favorite memory about the photo you chose. What happened after the photo was snapped?
- Much later in your writing process, after your first, or even third or sixth draft, you’ll have a sense of how much of the family story needs to be in public form, how much you need to tell, and what you feel better about editing out. You’ll be able to draw upon your inner editor, not your inner critic, to make those decisions.
- Write your story! See what it can teach you. It’s an exploration.
When you begin to write a memoir, you soon discover several layers to the process: there’s the emotional angst most people feel about writing about themselves, the worry about exposing yourself and your family to public scrutiny when the book is published. And there are questions about the craft of writing a story. After all, your story is so much more than what happened when, though time frames and timelines are important when writing a memoir. When confronted with these complicated questions, there can be a temptation to give up and walk away. Or you can contact a writing coach or join a class to keep going with support and discussion that help you find your way.
From having written two published memoirs—my new one, Song of the Plains, will be released in June, and with four non-published versions filed away, I know the struggle well!
I’m going to address questions about the process of memoir writing in a series of articles, each one focusing on one of the problems. The first one is about the emotional angst.
The angst people feel when they begin to write may lead to these questions:
- Will my story be interesting to other people?
- I’m afraid to start because then I’ll feel too exposed. There’s a lot in my story that no one else knows.
- What about my family? They won’t want me to write this story.
- The whole world will find out about things that will expose other people.
- The family will say that I’m making these things up.
First, let me tell you that I’ve been a family therapist for 38 years, and I bring to this discussion my years of work with people and knowledge of family dynamics and the challenge of revealing secrets or silence. I know how hard it is. I used to feel I’d dissolve in shame when I first wrote the truths of my life—it was a secret shame then because I didn’t know that other writers went through the same thing. I also never thought others could relate to my story—another issue that I found out most writers have. But I kept writing, alone. I kept trying to find the voice for my story and write it because it wouldn’t leave me alone!
You want to know if your story will be interesting to others, but you can’t answer that—it’s really the inner critic talking, the voice of doubt. As I said, it’s a question that every writer asks. We all wonder if we’re blabbing stuff that’s going to be boring, or too shocking, or too something, and we pull back. The inner critic is like that—it creates doubt, and it silences us.
The solution: jump in and freewrite your story. A freewrite means to start writing and go for 15 minutes without stopping—this bypasses the inner critic. Get out as much as you can. Announce to your inner critic that everyone asks those questions and right now you’re going to give yourself permission to explore your story.
Then there is the problem with family and exposure. While it’s natural for family members to be concerned about how they’re portrayed, when you begin, you are not showing your work to them. It’s important to feel free to write what’s on your mind, to write your truth without censoring. I strongly advocate not sharing your early writing with anyone except your exclusive, safe writing group and your writing coach. And don’t show your work to your family yet. If you write in private for a while, they won’t know about it, and won’t judge it or you.
Some writers have told me their family has explicitly told them not to write certain truths about the family, not to reveal certain secrets or embarrassing information. Each writer has to decide whether to step across that “permission” line or not. You need to consider the family “rules”—and whether you’re going to break them. What would the outcome be if you did? What if the revealing of certain stories presented an opportunity for healing? Sometimes there’s positive outcome when you’re ready to share your story with family. There can be fresh perspectives, and a chance for a new kind of conversation about things that have never been talked about before.
But I can’t emphasize enough that in the early stages keep your story private so you can explore your memories and your point of view freely without worrying about the feelings of other people or possible outcomes. As a family therapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’d sit in a session with a group of six or eight people and hear how each of them had a different point of view about a single event—the same event, and each believed they were right. It’s common for people to see things differently, but when you’re writing your point of view, it can feel invalidating to hear these different opinions. So it’s best to hold off until later.
As you begin writing your story, you’re trying to discover your own truths, you’re writing to explore yourself, your story, and how your past has affected you. Write your story to get it down on the page where you can read it as a witness to your former self. This is freeing and is often a healing experience.
In the next article, we’ll look at the issues around publicly writing about other people and how to handle that.