When the invitation to join our Enid High School 55th graduating class reunion arrived, at first I tossed it aside. Enid, Oklahoma is a long way from California. It takes a whole day to get there by two planes and a car. Would I really connect with “kids” I knew back in the fifties after all these years? Then, curiosity–who are these people now? Perhaps I could attend and include a book reading. Is there a bookstore that would host me? A few Google clicks later led me to “A New Chapter Bookstore,” a new bookstore owned by two women who are indeed starting their own new chapter in life by creating a place for people who love books. A phone call set up my path to take my books home. Thank you Becky and Coral! Before I left, I was tempted to cancel several times. Talk to people I knew about all my secrets? So scary. Too revealing. For days before I left, I hoped that I might not have to go. Yet, I knew I had to go. There was something there for me to discover. When I landed in Oklahoma City, the sweet wind caressed me, as it always had, and I began to cry. I was home. This land I loved so much embraced me as I drove to Enid in a long languorous dusk filled with silence, and wheat fields, and the two-toned call of a bird.
Before my reading the next day, I ran into some women who were the popular girls back then, girls I had admired, but now we were all grandmothers and none of that mattered as we warmly greeted each other. We had so much in common being from that place, growing up in a time so different from now. Free of my old shyness, I invited them to my reading. To my happy surprise, they came and compassionately listened to my story, and what I revealed for the first time.
Talking about shame and silence, reading from very personally revealing parts of my books to people who knew me as a child seemed to smooth away the edges of shame I had always carried. There was so much to be ashamed about–my parents were divorced, which was “not done” at the time–they considered it shameful, as did society at the time. My grandmother, who had loved her Chicago life, and who dressed like she was still in Chicago, had traveled to England on ships and brought a flair to any conversation, did not fit into that town, nor did she try to. She was an interesting “character” but no one wants their parental figure to be so different with her fake English accent and put-on airs. Later, I had to hide the darkness inside the house–her beatings, screaming, and rages as she descended into what later I would learn was depression and mental illness. I was related to someone who acted like that? No one could know and no one did know these and other shameful things. Of course, what I didn’t know then is that everyone, every household and child has their secrets. Everyone carries their own burdens,
The edges of reality blurred, the then and the now, as I stood in the bookstore in the town where I grew up, the big sky and breezes anchoring me once more to the place where my bones grew and my mind searched for understanding. At the reading, I faced people I knew and met new people. I talked about my books and my truth. The rules of silence from so long ago dissolved as I spoke, the need to hide and lie to myself and others about who I was had fallen away because I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains. Because I wrote what was true, because I visited the past so often in real life, and in my dreams and my writing, I had laid out the stories and they were now resting in my books. These acts of witnessing my young self, coming to understand and forgive my mother and grandmother for the heartache we all shared are part of the gift of memoir writing–a gift first to myself, and later, to others who identify with the story in their own way.
I had to laugh at my own joke–they say that writing a memoir will heal you–which is what I teach every day and for the last two decades. It’s true. I could see that writing had freed me of the energetic old burdens of the past as I drove around the streets of Enid, said hello to the lovely graceful wheat fields, met other classmates, and spoke of my books and my story. I was free as I spread my wings under the big sky, and welcomed a powerful hailstorm and sun that quickly shone afterward, knowing that I had indeed come Home.
This is “Mental Health Week.” It amazes and pleases me to see that there is a week set aside in our culture where we’re invited to celebrate health of the mind. In contrast to the fifties when I grew up, nowadays we’re informed about things that previously could not be named: depression, bi-polar illness, anxiety, and PTSD among others. PTSD is a condition that only recently has been given a name and treatment plan in the diagnostic manual used by therapists and doctors.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of extreme shame and silence, with only the term “eccentric” to apply to the extreme behaviors and patterns of my grandmother and mother, it still amazes me to see ads for medicines on TV in that promise to combat these conditions. I loved my mother, who left me when I was six with my grandmother, and I loved Gram too. I don’t know if it was karma, payback or simply synchronistic timing, but I was the same age as my mother was when Gram left her behind to seek her fortune in the big city of Chicago. I grew up in an atmosphere of arguing, broken dishes, weeping, and watched the two women I loved tear each other apart when my mother came to visit us. I also watched my grandmother literally sink into a hole in the couch in the living room, endlessly smoking. She’d pace, rant, and seemed lost in some kind of darkness that I wanted to escape. They both had abandoned their daughters. My mother denied me as her daughter. These behaviors and conditions had no name.
Years later, during my own career as a therapist, and as I was writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother to try to shape what happened into a story that made some kind of sense, my mother was diagnosed on her deathbed with manic-depressive illness. Finally, this thing that had haunted us for decades had a name.
I’m grateful that depression is not a dirty word like it was when I grew up—though I never heard the term until I was in my twenties. At that time, it seemed to apply to suicidal people like Virginia Woolf or Hemingway, which meant it was a very bad thing, something that could lead to death, but only for “other people,” many of whom were famous. No one in our own family would/should/could have such a problem. The stigma against mental problems of any kind was paralyzing. Even when a classmate and good friend of mine killed himself when I was sixteen, the word “depression” was not uttered by anyone. And within a few weeks, people were trying to get back to acting cheerful despite this tragedy that I mourned for years. It was understood that the good people of my small town didn’t want to be tainted by discussing the death of a boy who was so desperate that he took his own life. And none of us knew he wanted to die.
There’s still a huge need for more education about what mental health and mental illness is. People need to know that there is a continuum and that each person’s struggle is unique. No two people experience anything in exactly the same way. It’s interesting that “OCD” has become a household term that we can claim as an issue without having to die from shame. It’s become a joke: “I clean my house a lot, I’m a little OCD about it.” People now speak about depression more openly—there are memoirs, movies, and blog posts about it, but still, depression is still a grey cloud that hovers over people all over the world, and too many people still struggle in silence.
Amy Ferris, editor of Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue has set out to do something about this silence and loneliness and shame. Last year she put out the word to friends and writers who have stories about depression and suicide, and many people responded with a huge range of stories—naming what could not be named, offering hope and support and community that will help others who are still lost in the silence. Seal Press will release the book in October but you can pre-order it.
I am inspired by the quote by Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing and Writing as a Way of Healing, who explored the psychohistory of Virginia Woolf and her family in Virginia Woolf-the Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. In her introduction, she says, “…as [Virginia] put it near the end of her life, ‘Only when we put two and two together–two pencil strokes, two written words,…do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion.’ Virginia Woolf was engaged in a lifelong effort to put together those words which helped her overcome her own feelings of dissolution, which set up her own stake against oblivion. And, fortunately, we too can read her words.”
I believe that writing and exploring the deep truths of our lives, especially the ones that society wants us to keep silent, is a way to help the world heal from the stigma that only words can offer.
This guidebook through the complex layers of writing a publishable memoir gives you all you need to begin a memoir and find your way through the labyrinth of memories and writing challenges that come with crafting a true story about your life. This is a good companion book to Linda’s other book on memoir writing, The Power of Memoir.
Myers three stages of memoir writing are:
Kick Starting Your Memoir
The Muddy Middle
Birthing Your Book
Journey of Memoir delivers skill sets and problem solving, with hundreds of exercises and thought provoking questions that a serious memoir writer needs to consider in today’s market. You will find information on how to write a great scene; the difference between freewriting and outlining and why you need both; timeline and turning point exercises to help you track your story; advice for how to conquer the inner critic, deal with legal and ethical issues, and whether to change names, compress time, or do composite characters. Finally, the workbook offers a social media marketing outline, as well as what you need to be thinking about early on when it comes to getting published. There are ample pages provided for sketching your ideas, building your plot, and troubleshooting your family critics. This unique workbook gives you the tools you need to begin, develop, and complete your memoir.
Linda Joy Myers is founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and past president of the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco. A national memoir speaker and coach, she’s the author of The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story and the prizewinning memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. She co-teaches the program “Write your Memoir in Six Months” with Brooke Warner, and offers teleseminars and workshops monthly. Read more about teleseminars and writing skills for memoir writers at namw.org.
“I wanted to tell the secret stories that my great-grandmother
Blanche whispered to me on summer nights in a featherbed in Iowa.
I was eight and she was eighty . . . ”
At the age of four, a little girl stands on a cold, windy railroad platform in Wichita, Kansas, to watch the train take her mother away. For the rest of her life, her mother will be an occasional and troubled visitor who denies her as a daughter.
Linda Joy Myers’ compassionate, gripping, and soul-searching memoir tells the story of three generations of daughters who long for their absent mothers, all the while unwittingly recreating a pattern that she’s determined to break. Accompany Linda as she uncovers family secrets, finds solace in music, and begins her healing journey. Learn how she transcends the prisons of childhood to seek forgiveness for her family and herself.
This new edition includes an afterword that wraps up the saga as Myers confronts her family legacy and comes full circle with her daughter and grandchildren, seeding a new path for them.
Praise for Don’t Call Me Mother
What I admire most about this book is the way the author takes you to her most sustaining love — the prairie land of the Midwest — and concludes her story as a return to that place where forgiveness becomes “a feather on my heart, as natural as the plains wind.”
–Shirley Showalter, former president of Goshen College, author of the blog I Have a Story
Don’t Call Me Mother takes me deep inside the mind of a young girl who has been spurned by that most important person in her life, her own mother. Without a guide to help her develop into a woman, Linda Joy is forced into a vulnerable, innovative search for dignity and survival that is at the heart of every hero’s tale.
—Jerry Waxler, M.S., founder of the Memory Writers Network, author of Memoir Revolution, and Four Elements for Writers
For anyone yearning for self-discovery, Don’t Call Me Mother serves as a compelling guide on a journey to wholeness. I loved the book.”
—Michele Weldon, assistant professor, Northwestern University and author of
I Closed My Eyes, and Writing to Save Your Life.