Recently I had the privilege of moderating a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival. The panel was titled “Why Write Memoir: A Conversation about Truth, Exposure, and the Genre People Love to Hate.”
The title shows a perfect combination of the issues that memoir writers struggle with. In every workshop and class I teach, the conversation that brings the most questions and angst has to do with writing the truth, feeling “too exposed,” and writing material that seems to attract pointed criticisms: memoir writers are narcissistic navel gazers, all we do is moan and groan, we see ourselves as victims, and on and on.
While a few writers may be guilty of this, most memoirists are working to tell an authentic story Because It Needs To Be Told and to give testimony about life as it is lived. One of my former students who decided to continue working on her memoir after taking a break told me, “I want to write this so I can be in charge of my story, instead of it being in charge of me.”
While I could cite statistics and studies about how writing our stories is healing—and there are many of these studies—or mention the current epigenetic research that shows how we carry inherited trauma from previous generations, the truth is that memoirists use writing as a way to ask questions that have not been asked before, to seek answers that only reveal themselves through writing. This process offers new information, firing up our nerve endings and giving us a new experience. We are changed by it. Writing comes from deep within and draws upon hidden and unconscious layers of who we are. Often we write what we didn’t know that we knew! Not all of that writing will end up in a book, these essential truths that we mine get us closer to figuring out what belongs and what needs to be told. The process is about finding out who we are as well as who we are not.
During the panel discussion the panelists—Jessica Fector, Jasmine Singer, Faith Adiele, Meredith Maran—and I talked about how each of us struggled with the “what happened?” version, fighting our own inner critics along the way. In this wrestling with the truth, and balancing that with the art and craft of shaping our own stories into books, something transformational happens. In the act of creation, we develop a new relationship with the truths in our story. Our story changes us. There were a lot of great points made but a couple of them stand out: Jasmine said that her mother was a major character in her book, and she told her that she could not read it until it was completely done, and that she had to read the WHOLE book before she commented to Jasmine about it. This gave her room to write her truth and also she took shaped her experience with her mother by offering boundaries. Faith talked about structure—there are so many ways now that memoir is being written: using subtext, journal entries, poetry, and various voices—the “you” voice in memoir is being used a lot. Feel free to experiment with your voice and your structure. Be creative and be true to your vision. My advice to memoir writers is this: write your truth, and put your worries about exposure and family voices and your own inner critic aside. Write out everything—it can be edited later. Keep a journal of your process—it helps take the heat off of writing “for the book.” Find a writing community, a supportive writing buddy and/or coach who will hold your story with respect, and cheer you on, make you accountable. Your story deserves to be told. And it won’t leave you alone until you do.
If you want to learn more about writing memoir, join us for the Magic of Memoir Conference in October. The Early Bird Rate ends July 1st. As an active memoirist, I will be moderating a panel on Why We Write Memoir.
Register here: http://magicofmemoir.com/
Authoring Your Life—Encouragement to Write Our Stories by Brooke Warner
As a writing coach through the years, I’ve often found that women in particular struggle with having a voice—and with feeling empowered to get their work out into the world. I myself spent years battling my inner critic about my own memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, believing that the world would judge a story about three generations of dysfunctional mothers, that it was a domestic story and therefore not important in the world’s eyes. When I started writing, memoir was not a “thing” and fiction was king, so it’s lucky for us memoir writers that the world has shifted to be more welcoming to our stories eagerly awaiting the inside stories about our lives. We learn from others’ stories about ourselves, and take these profound lessons to hear. And the world still offers profound challenges and blocks that women struggle with.
My colleague and co-teacher Brooke Warner presented an inspiring keynote at the Story Circle Conference that addresses many of the issues that women struggle with. It was worthy of a standing ovation by the audience, so I want you know what she said to encourage us all.
First, she talked about how lucky she was to have been raised to believe in herself and her ideas. Many of us in the audience had grown up with the messages that we should stay silent, or mute our expression. Particularly, we often feel we have to be careful about saying or writing anything that might offend, hurt, or make someone uncomfortable. Brooke told us about her passion in championing women to publish during her eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press. She was happy to be exposed to the huge variety of women’s stories, but came to realize that only a small percentage of the stories she loved could be published in the publishing environment that’s developed over the last decade. She began to think about a press that would publish women’s voices based on the merit of their writing and not their brand or platform—and She Writes Press was born in 2012. This year the press is celebrating multiple winners in the IPPY, Ben Franklin, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Brooke became aware through her experience and research to the degree to which women writers have been silenced. Messages from society and our upbringing, both subtle and overt, affect our ability to claim our stories and get them out into the world.
Brooke cited statistics about women and publishing, pointing out the huge gender bias in publishing for women, and particular memoir. Women are less likely to be reviewed, less likely to win contests, and less likely to resubmit after receiving a rejection. Women tend to take rejection harder—and these statistics are sobering. Men are 5 times more likely than women to resubmit if their piece has been rejected. We need to change that!
Well-known writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, have been subjected to the bias against memoir. Gilbert likely received less accolades for her novel, The Signature of All Things, as a result of writing Eat, Pray, Love. Mary Karr, in her book the Art of Memoir, dedicated one chapter to discuss how Katherine Harrison was attacked for her book The Kiss.
We need to be reminded of our passion and motivation to write and to express ourselves. For some of us, including me, the story has been chasing us and won’t leave us alone. We need to write the book we couldn’t find in the bookstore. If it doesn’t exist, write it! We write to understand ourselves and our families, or to help someone who will benefit from our life lessons. There are many reasons to write, and reasons not to become discouraged.
“We have to keep saying yes, our story matters!” Brooke said.
Brooke offered 5 C’s that can help us stay inspired to write our stories.
- Community—we write our stories in community and we need the support of community.
- Commitment—we need to keep the commitment to ourselves and our story—and stay committed to getting our story out in the world, to share it with others through publishing.
- Championing—we need to champion each other and all writers by supporting, reading, and reviewing each other’s work.
- Claiming your work—we have to claim our right to write and publish our stories. No one will do this for us.
- Courage—it takes a lot of courage for us to dig deep and reveal our stories, and more courage to publish.
Brooke ended by urging us to take the time to get our stories written and to get past the fears and critical voices we carry. We have to champion ourselves and take the risk to be seen and heard. We need to write, and keep writing! We can change the world with our stories.
We all have stories, as humans we are made of stories. I was eight years old the first time I realized this was true for all of us. I was lying on a feather bed beside my great-grandmother Blanche for the first time. She bewitched me with the stories from her life, the 19th century when she was a midwife, made bread, kept a garden, milked the cows, and fired up her wood cook stove every day, winter and summer. She raised seven children, including the grandmother who was raising me. She was a great ship of a woman lying in that bed, lisping her stories, her teeth in a jar by the bed, weaving her life into my dreams.
My eyes were opened in those moments long ago when she told me about the wedding to her new husband on a snowy New Year’s day in 1894 when they were twenty years old, how he died eight weeks later, not knowing he was gifting the generations to follow with his lovely soulful eyes and cheekbones and full sensuous lips.
I saw Blanche at that moment as a walking storybook, which is what all of you are too—full of stories, bursting with knowledge and wisdom. Her stories inspired me to write my life, and just as I learned from her, you have the power to gift the world with what you know, what you have witnessed and seen through the decades of your lives, stories that no one will know if you don’t tell them.
One of the challenges writers face is having the inner permission to tell our stories. Women in particular tell me their stories are just “domestic” or not very interesting, or not unique—they were brought up to be polite, not to offend people, don’t say too much, don’t be brash. Be silent, be a lady.
As a psychologist, I sense that at some level most of us still have to deal with the unconscious conditioning we grew up with, and we need to keep getting encouragement and giving ourselves pep talks to make our voices known and express ourselves freely. The research by Dr. James Pennebaker and others about how writing heals shows how writing deep truths can heal physical ailments like asthma and arthritis. Most of us know how much value there is in writing in our journals and expressing what is happening in our hearts and minds.
Yet, there is another factor. We need our stories to come out into the world too. I constantly hear from people I work with that they had been writing journals for years, but when they learned to write stories and share them with others so they could step into the scenes and moments from the past, they would find a new level of self-acceptance. The power of their stories was reflected back to them by the comments and responses of others who were witnessing their lives.
How do you tap into this power?
First, there is the power of permission. Write affirmations that invite you to take your stories seriously, even if at first you write just for yourself. There is huge value in just getting your stories on the page for yourself. If you have a big inner critic, write down the negative things it says to get them out of your head, then offer an affirmation as a way to balance those voices.
Next, there is the power of finding and shaping language, of trusting in your own imagery and the unique poetry of your own language as you write. Writing something brief, a haiku or a poem or a paragraph can help you feel the power of words under your fingers.
Finding the turning point moments, the moments that made you who you are is a powerful exercise in validating your experiences, and offers you an opportunity to contemplate your life.
Learning to shape a story—discovering the craft of bringing someone deeply into your experiences is a heady power. It’s amazing that if we arrange these curlicues of black marks on the page in a certain way, our brain changes—there is a lot of research on that—that the reader’s brain mirrors your experience in their own mind and body. We all have known this since we could read, but sometimes we may forget that this is a power that we have, that we can tap all the time.
Set your writing time, keep a journal by the bed; allow yourself to dream and sketch, meander and muse. Invite the power of your stories into your waking and dreaming life, and enjoy.
Writing a memoir is a powerful act. That is why my book is called The Power of Memoir. The act of remembering, writing, and exploring the deepest reaches of the heart takes courage, and it will change you. Writing a memoir is a way to value yourself and your story, to honor those you have loved and who have loved you. It’s a way to heal, to come to terms with your life, and to leave a tale that others can appreciate.
Most memoir writers struggle with reasons for writing their memoir. Their inner critic pops up with, “What a waste of time, who would want to read this,” and other nonsense. Write for yourself, write the stories that fill your mind, heart, and dreams. Find the stories that have meaning to you, stories that give you pleasure to remember. You will be rewarded beyond measure, and your family might thank you too.
I like to share on this blog what I’ve learned from writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother and what I learned from publishing it and sharing it with others, but it was a long journey. I began by writing in my journal, and then “translating” those rough drafts into the computer where they began to form chapters.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR REASONS FOR WRITING
Stories—they beckon us to tell them, we pull up a chair and turn our ear to listen. We connect with others and parts of ourselves through stories. Before birth, we’re woven into other people’s stories. Our own spark of life begins at a turning point in our family—that of our own birth. We enter the world at the beginning of our family’s story and become one of the main characters in its drama. We’re woven into the tapestry of family, friends and community from the beginning.
As in a fairy tale, on our journey we encounter wizards, witches, dark forests, and good fairies; we experience joy and challenges, heartache and hope. Through our struggles, failures, and successes, we discover our own unique story. We learn who we are and where we’re going.
Writing a memoir is like taking a journey without an itinerary. We begin at a certain point and stop at certain stations, only to hop on another train going somewhere else. As long as we are courageous about the journey, and keep track of where we visit, we learn from the process. We will be changed by this journey.
Some reasons why you might want to write the stories about your life
- To gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the life you’ve lived.
- To heal the past, and create hope for the future.
- To create a legacy for your family, a family history.
- To expose injustice or abuse.
- To settle emotional scores—from anger and revenge to acceptance and forgiveness.
- To present a point of view about a controversial issue.
- To share with the world your unique experiences with travel, education, illness and recovery, family, or your spiritual quest.
- To taste again the joys of friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers.
- To honor those we have loved.
- To capture another time and place, now gone.
There are so many reasons to write a memoir. You can begin by writing in your journal so you don’t feel pressure to make it “perfect.” Allow yourself to write fast, and let the words flow. After you feel ready to share some of your stories, you can blog them to have them online where you can read them more objectively as a reader would who doesn’t know you. You can practice being published long before your book is done. Most people feel the need first “just to write,” to discover the stories they have been thinking and dreaming about all their lives. They need to write freely and without pressure. We need to enjoy the process of remembering.
Make your own list of why you want to write your memoir. Share it with your friends, writing buddies, Facebook friends. Gather support as you begin. It takes a community to write a memoir!
Keep your journal by your bed, be ready to write down dreams and little flashes of memory. Give yourself full permission to explore. All creative activities begin with desire and permission—and keeping that inner critic at bay.
Start today—write a story about the happiest moment in your life.
When you are writing a memoir, your childhood comes to life, along with the stories of your family. As the narrator, you shape the story through your own experience, and tell the truth about your life as you experienced it. Most people grow up thinking that our family and childhood was “just the way it was.” Until we share our stories, and learn about the lives of others, we don’t know about the different ways that families live and the challenges that everyone faces.
We begin our writing from an internal and subjective place, but when we share our stories in writing groups or with our writing coach, we can be surprised by how they react to our story. They shine a light on the tender, loving aspects of our family members, as well as the cruelty that we learned to accept and take for granted. As we write our memoir, we learn how our family has shaped us, for better or worse. As a family therapist, I find that offering a few principles about how families work help writers understand family psychology, and can help to free them from the voices of the inner critic. Everyone has a family, and all of us have endured or exalted in the dynamics of our families.
These days, “family” is defined in multiple ways. In the past, the word “family” referred to people with a common ancestor or who were related by marriage—the nuclear family, the extended family. But people who were orphaned or raised in an atypical family are challenged about how to present their stories. They have a complex history that’s painful to face when writing their story—there’s the heartache that accompanies the early death of a parent, or abandonment, or divorce, and this can be difficult to re-experience when writing. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if the adults are so dysfunctional they can’t show up for the children. If a caretaker has a mental or physical illness the child can feel abandoned too. These layers of complexity are an emotional challenge when writing memoir.
Of course, not all atypical families are dysfunctional. Each family is unique, and most have strengths that balance the negative traits. For some people, it’s 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. Just write the basic “what happened” at first. List the positive traits. Find moments that were positive and write them along with the darker stories.
I grew up with my grandmother far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. My grandmother acted as if she was superior to others, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem. Of course, I didn’t realize then what she was doing, but I knew the rules: not to talk about how I felt. Make sure I stayed silent—which I carried long into my adult life. At school I hated filling out forms where we had to write our parents’ names. I filled in “guardian,” trying not to notice questioning looks from the other kids. I imagined they thought, “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”
I kept the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying—these dramas happened on each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. When I was very young, I didn’t know that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl. I could see their pain, but I didn’t know what caused it. I just wanted us to be normal.
When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist diagnosed her, and by implication my grandmother, as manic-depressive. Finally, I had a name for the pain in our family. Understanding that their behavior was driven by an illness helped me to find compassion for them and helped me to heal. My story is not so different from that of many people, but until I began writing and reading memoirs over the years, I didn’t know that. Luckily, I had kept a journal through the years where I could allow some of my truths out of my mind and body.
In the seventies when I first began therapy, I learned that to find myself, I needed to confront the repressed “bad” feelings I’d carried when I tried to be “good” and likeable, hoping that I could create peace in the house, hoping for approval. I learned that we had a “True Self”—the part of all of us that is the essence of love, compassion, and understanding. It’s the part of us that remains free of the painful conditioning we encounter as we grow up. Understanding this principle helped me to feel freed of the shame of the past and offered hope that I could break patterns that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters.
During my first therapy all those years ago, I had to write my autobiography and all the painful truths I had never told anyone, never had written. I wrote them all down, raw for hundreds of hours. This writing was the first step to uncover my anger and pain, and it led ultimately to being able to see my family as imperfect, women who were trying their best to live their lives, unaware of the harm they were doing. I was able to see them as little girls who themselves had dreams, who wanted to be happy.
Writing a memoir is a lot like therapy—this is not news to anyone who has taken on writing a memoir! As we write, we find the stories and the moments that shaped us and we put ourselves back into the time machine that allows us to create the world of the past. Sometimes there is pain involved, but when we understand that our story is about healing, letting go, a resolution of some kind, finding a way to see our loved ones as whole people, it is rewarding indeed.
Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/clt3jxm-48600
When you write a memoir, you take on the task of exploring your life and being willing to write with truth and honesty. Writing a memoir is a journey that leads us away from known territory into the unknown and unexplored parts of our lives. We need a map to guide us as we write so we can find our themes and the moments that have meaning, moments that shaped us into who we are.
Being a memoirist is to encounter your brave self. I liken the courage to write a memoir as similar to the pioneers my great-grandmother Blanche would tell me about when I was a little girl. She was eighty and I was eight as we lay in her featherbed on summer nights where she spun the stories of her life. She was still a young girl on a farm near the Mississippi River when neighbors drove up in a covered wagon. They were on their way to Kansas in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains from settlers who wanted to explore the larger world beyond the Mississippi. Tribes of Native Americans were still inhabiting the Great Plains, along with outlaws and roving bands of ne’er do wells. Blanche watched them drive off into the unknown with a crude map, but going on that journey meant that they had to advance into unknown territory while still raising children, giving birth, and fixing dinner. Memoirists need maps and guides for the journey too.
Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says “Write where the fear is, where the heat is.” That encounter with what is difficult takes us into the heart of our stories, the high and low points in our lives. Authentic emotion guides us into our journey of speaking and writing with 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. As readers, we are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, the private world of the writer that is unfolding story by story.
To help writers get started and find their way to the end of the first draft, I teach the turning point and timeline exercises.
Find Your Turning Points
Your turning points are the emotional hot spots of your life. Focusing on these points will help to sort through the file cabinet of your memories and will help to build the spine of your memoir structure.
These are moments of BIG CHANGE, the times when your life took a turn in another direction, propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces, such as a spiritual awakening, a moment of complete clarity, or outer forces such as an illness, a move, a sudden loss.
A turning point can be a powerful moment of utter happiness, a marriage, traveling to another country, or the birth of a child. These are special times that have deep meaning to you, and that made a difference in the course of your life. Your turning points taught you a lesson, woke you up, shaped you into the person that you are now.
Ask yourself: what moments ended the life I was living before, and changed the direction of my life? In a fictional story or a movie, we know that the plot is going to change when someone new wanders into town, when this new person shows up, we expect there to be important changes or we would not, as readers/viewers, be shown this event.
Make a list of the 15-20 most important moments of your life—emotionally significant events.
Women used to belong to quilting bees. They would sit around the quilting frame, chatting and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns from old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the patches came together in new designs.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. We can write our vignettes in any order. If we write where the heat, and heart, is, we are gathering the pieces that will be quilted together into a finished work of art.
The Timeline Technique
The visual map of your memoir journey is the timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline. Draw a horizontal line across a large sheet of paper, preferably 18×24–large enough to hold several decades. Divide the line into 10 year sections, and then divide those into years.
List your turning point stories on the timeline by drawing vertical a line at the date you selected and put a circle at the bottom. In this circle, name the story, chapter, or turning point moment you want to include.
This exercise reveals many things: you see how some events cluster together, and how certain events followed other ones, revealing lapses in your memory. How your turning points cluster on the timeline presents new insights about time and relationships—memory is not always accurate. You can use your journals from the past and other research to help fill in your turning pints and your timeline. To enhance the visuals on your timelines, copy out photos to place on or near your turning points, creating a kind of vision board.
These techniques will help you to have a focus and structure for your memoir. As you write, you will continue to develop your turning points and the specific details of your life. The more you work with your list, timeline, and stories, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, who in her eighties was weaving the stories of the 19th century for me. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to honor the history she shared, made me want to be a storyteller.
You too will weave magic as you write your memoir.