You’ve started on your memoir, and even though you’ve made an outline, you find your family and childhood taking over your story. You began to see your family through new lenses, and then your writing veered off way off course—or so you thought. The “writing warrior” inside us “knows” what we need to write, and leads us unplanned directions. This can alarm your inner critic!
It starts saying, “Oh, why do you insist on staying stuck in the past, why do you write about the same damn thing over and over again, can’t you just forget this writing jag and live a little?” You know, the inner nagging voice of doubt. It goes on about the fact that you’re writing about your family—again—and that you haven’t “gotten over all that yet,” have you?
We grow up thinking that the way we lived in our family was “just the way it was,” unaware of the many different ways families live and cope with life the positive and the stressful events and disappointments. As we write a memoir, we come to have new insights about how our family shaped us. It’s important to understand how psychological it is to write a memoir. If you are writing a story you hope will offer a new understanding of your family, let’s look for a moment at family psychology.
“Family” is defined in many ways. It once referred to a nuclear family of parents and children, but now of course there are so many different kinds of families: extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, great-grandparents. Close friends, alternative families, gay and lesbian couples, and mixed race families all sharing a multitude of cultures. People who were orphaned or grew up in an atypical family have a complex history that can be hard to write about. They had parents, yet they felt something else too, a sense of being on the outside looking in. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if the parents neglectful or abusive. Mental or physical illness in a family can create a feeling of abandonment too.
There are healthy families, and perhaps less healthy families—but everyone in the family is trying to survive, to find a way to live. Each family is unique, with strengths that balance the negative traits. In some families, it can be difficult to see these points of light early in the healing process because of the emotional pain that interferes with finding compassion for those who were unkind or selfish. The writing process may or may not create a new point of view, but it will allow you to see your family from different angles, and you may also find stories coming out that you didn’t realize you wanted to tell. New memories may arise, which offers another lens.
I grew up with my grandmother and lived far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. My grandmother acted superior to others, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem, but I didn’t know that then. I hated filling out forms in school where we had to write our mother’s and father’s names. I had to fill in “guardian” while trying not to see the questioning looks from the other kids. I imagined they were thinking, “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. I didn’t realize that my grandmother had left my mother when she was young too. I could see their pain, but I just wanted us to be normal. When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist told me she was manic-depressive, bi-polar, naming the struggle that had affected our family for generations. That helped me to understand my mother and grandmother, to realize that they had an illness that guided their actions. I wrote about their childhoods and wrote stories through their point of view, trying to stand in their shoes, seeing if I could find compassion and learn how to forgive them. I write about this search in my book Don’t Call me Mother, and in Power of Memoir, I guide writers to use writing to help them on the journey from sorrow to joy, from dark to light.
My early healing work convinced me that in order to find myself, I had to confront the buried feelings of anger and sorrow I’d carried for so long and had tried to deny. Through therapy and writing, I learned to better understand the forces that drove my grandmother, mother, and even myself, to do things that weren’t healthy, and through story writing, I gradually found the threads of compassion and understanding. When I began my own healing process over thirty years ago, my goal was to break the pattern that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters. I can say that I succeeded in that goal, and one of the major ways for this healing was through writing.
It’s a great exercise to write from the point of view of others in the family, to learn to “see” them through new eyes. And keep writing your own stories–digging deep into the truths that live in your body and soul. It’s freeing, even though at times painful, to explore these inner riches, to explore how you came to be who you are now!
Write about the history of your family—who married whom, who stayed in the family, and who might have left or died. Where did you learn these stories?
What family patterns confused you in your family? List them and sketch out some moments you remember best. Combine “dark” and “light” moments in your memory sketch.
Write about the positive traits in your family that you feel that you have inherited, and show how these traits give you happiness or pleasure now.
How did you feel during family conflicts–in your body and in your mind? Write from the place in your body where you feel these conflicts live–either through sickness or tension in your body. Try to release the “story” living there.
What generational patterns do you want to change and why? Track the patterns you know about, and write about how you are changing them and offering a different legacy to your own family.
Do you feel you need to forgive someone for an injury they caused you? Write truthfully about this person and the injuries. Write these several time, and later, when you are in the mood, write about the incidents from the point of view of the other person. Then reflect on this exercise. What did you learn?
On the subject of thanks-giving, I remember a poem by e. e. cummings this way:
Thank you god for this amazing day,
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees…
In my twenties, I discovered e. e. cummings, his flashes of wit and image and fragmented verses that somehow reassembled themselves in my mind as I read them as wholly delightful and encouraging–enlivening. I didn’t know then that I was struggling with what would be called depression later, or a version of it, the result of growing up with ever increasing verbal and physical attacks by my grandmother. Later I would find out that she was suffering from depression, and that her striking out at me was a result of a disease that was undiagnosed and untreated. This same grandmother had books stacked up beside her bed, read everything from novels to serious tomes of history, and who encouraged my creativity in music, art, and taught me to think beyond the rigid structures set up in school. She had traveled on ships to Europe between the wars, and saw enough of the world that she understood the Midwest where we came from was not the be-all and end-all of life. That there were castles to visit, art to view in museums in London, landscapes that were amazing and mystical.
But when she was shouting or ranting, I learned to turn toward beauty for comfort, I learned to be thankful for what I had, which was many good things: friends, nice clothes, the ability to play the cello and piano and transcend the painful “regular” world. Later, when I discovered e. e. cummings and other writers on my own, when I discovered the transcendent power of art, especially the art of Van Gogh, the thanks-giving became a day to day antidote to the darker issues yet unresolved. Later in my life I brought in therapy, journaling, memoir writing, and teaching–and these would become my guides for the gritty internal work of healing.
Thanks-giving is something we need to offer ourselves every day, and offer others as well. The exchange “thank you” can be immensely powerful, a giving circle that returns and creates ever-evolving circles beyond ourselves. Therein lies grace, the peace making power of connection, compassion, and communication.
I wish you a beautiful Thanks-giving, with all the trimmings on this amazing day!
I spoke with Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar. about the legacy of mental illness.
Those of us who come from families with hidden or diagnosed mental illness feel “Other,” the ghosts of our legacies chasing us in our dreams, making us shrink down in our waking life.
In my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I talk about beautiful women who have a pattern of leaving their children behind, beautiful women who scream and rage irrationally, but who are just thought of as eccentric or different. As a child, of course this is “just the way it is.” After my mother’s terminal diagnosis of cancer, she tormented the nurses so much that her doctor ordered a psychiatric evaluation. That’s when she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, that’s when behavior that was cruel, irrational, and off-the-wall finally got a name.
In her informative and teeth-clenching memoir, Victoria does a brave thing: she combines her considerable scientific research about the causes and treatments of mental illness—the history of and the current state of treatment—with her own family’s case study—the story of herself and her children. She makes an excellent point with this book—that no matter how much we know or how smart we are, there are mysterious forces in life that blindside us, that bring us to our knees. Mental illness does that to families, and worse—it’s often a hidden illness shrouded in ignorance, guilt, and shame, and often a secret even from the sufferers themselves.
As ubiquitous as mental illness is in our society, too often diagnoses are incorrect or non-existent when, if properly understood, lives could be saved and immense suffering prevented. Since funding has consistently been cut for programs that include treatment for the mentally ill, too often treatment even for adolescents is non-existent, leaving people to fall upon impossible conditions—living on the street and/or families trying to help someone who is beyond their help or expertise. And for families like Victoria’s, once the child is of age, the parents no longer have any power to insist on medication or treatment, even if it were available. Since the teen years are when children are more vulnerable to the onset of mental illness, it stands to reason that the child might not be out of danger when they become of age and have to make their own decisions. One of the frustrating aspects of trying to deal with the mentally ill is that they believe that they are either fine or all-powerful, when in fact their thinking and perceiving are distorted. What a nightmare for any family member.
A Lethal Inheritance also points us toward the need to understand and research the genetic and genealogical backgrounds in our own families. In her family as in mine, mental illness, mostly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, has planted seeds in later generations, the societal, biological, genetic, and psychological factors all aligned for a perfect storm. Victoria’s book is easy to read, despite the intensity of the material. Perhaps it’s because she weaves the cool-headed research in with her often painful story. It’s a success story too—told by someone who knows the journey and can help you on yours.
Is this subject part of your story in some way?
Have you ever looked into your family legacy and found secrets that explain things? What was that like for you?
Forgiveness means letting go of the past.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in healing. As I grew up, I learned that I was the third daughter in my multi-generational family to be abandoned by a mother, and I was desperate to break a pattern that I’d seen cause much misery and pain.
I’d watched my own mother and grandmother fight since was little; when I was an adult, my mother refused to let anyone know she had a daughter. The pain of these realizations haunted me, but I found relief through creativity; playing in a symphony, painting, and reading books. I devoured fiction—in those days only famous people wrote memoirs—trying to find some kind of code that would help me live my life.
And, I kept a journal. Little did I know that one day there would be programs all over the country about therapeutic journaling, art therapy, and bibliotherapy.
As a “wounded healer” I became a therapist, and learned how the sacred and mysterious process of psychotherapy facilitates healing. Being a client while working as a therapist gave me a perspective and a deep respect for the healing process. It was clear that sharing stories in the therapy hour helped people break through walls of silence and shame into a previously unknown freedom of expression, healing wounds long suppressed and buried and wordless.
During those years, I poured out the feelings, thoughts, drawings, and the stories of my life into those journals, gathered them into boxes, and put them away for a long time. But the process of finding words and even writing stories was a way for me to see past the darkness and find some light throughout the losses and traumas I experienced from a mother and grandmother who turned out to be mentally ill.
I often felt alone in the struggle, but at least I had my journal. One of the therapies I experienced had us write the dark stories of our lives, the ones we’d been trying to escape. The leaders insisted that we must write all the ways we had suffered or been traumatized in exact detail. While this was grueling and difficult, it paved the way for resolution and forgiveness later in the process. I experienced profound relief and appreciated the insights of digging deep into tough truths, and having others understand and witness me for the first time. Thus was born my certainty that writing needed to be a part of the healing process, but there was no scientific evidence to prove it—only my experience and the stories of others who were journaling.
The Research on Writing That Heals
A few years ago, studies about how writing influenced the process of healing began to be publicized in the press. The studies talked about how the power of using words, particularly writing, helps to heal emotional distress, trauma, and various physical ailments.
Recent developments in technology have made it possible to study how patterns in the brain are affected by words, and these studies are still yielding their results.
The Early Studies
As a therapist, I’d learned about Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, who carried Reich’s work into Bioenergetics, Arthur Janov who created Primal Scream therapy, and other body workers like Peter Levine and Babette Rothschild. Their theories have to do with how trauma and stress are suppressed in the body, causing emotional and physical reactions that talk therapy doesn’t touch.
These therapies include special breathing and body oriented techniques to help the client release the pent up emotions that have been lodged in the body and in the unconscious mind. Most of my clients had been severely abused as children, and seemed stuck in their bodily and emotional memories. I thought it was important to explore different ways to help them, so I studied these alternative approaches in the field of holistic health as I searched for integrative ways of helping people to change their lives for the better.
So it was with eagerness and surprise that I discovered the research showing that writing true stories about significant and meaningful events in their lives helped people heal not only mentally but physically. For example, in 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth in the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed the positive effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers. Discovering that writing was a factor in healing physical illnesses and trauma was big news to the medical and psychological community.
Dr. James Pennebaker’s Broad Research
As I searched for more studies, I discovered the work of Dr. James Pennebaker, the chair of the psychology program at the University of Texas. In the 1990s, he began to be curious whether writing about important and painful feelings would offer the same relief as talking. He and his colleagues investigated the therapeutic benefits of writing in various settings and with a large range of populations, including prisoners and crime victims, arthritis and chronic-pain sufferers, new mothers, and people with various physical illnesses, across different social classes and demographics.
During the experiments, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day. The expressive writing group received the following directions:
For the next four days, I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes on each of the four days of the study. The intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories impressed and surprised Pennebaker. They wrote about tragic and traumatic events, such as depression, rape, suicide attempts, child sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and family violence. They often wrote of powerful emotions associated with these stories. Sometimes they left the sessions in tears, but they eagerly continued the experiment. No one suffered adverse effects of the writing, and many reported emotional relief at finally writing out deeply buried secrets. The research results showed a significant number of reduced doctor’s visits, and improvements in health markers. In another study in the group who wrote, there was a significant increase of the T-cell count, showing improvement in the immune system.
In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses the ways that writing about emotional events relieves stress and promotes a more complete understanding of events. He concludes that simple catharsis, the explosive release of emotions, is not enough. Feelings, thoughts, and a new point of view need to be integrated with memories of an upheaval to create a new perspective.
Writing a story and putting events and upheavals into a narrative helps to create meaning and understanding about stressful or traumatic events. Writing is similar to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure is a part of the healing process, but writing is a solitary activity, done alone, whereas in the therapy office, there’s another person, the therapist, whose presence may affect the content and delivery of the story. Writing may yield different and surprising material that was not shared in therapy.
Second Generation Studies on Writing and Healing
In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore are the editors of a series of studies. This next generation of research covers more topics: depression, recovery from breast cancer and other questions the researchers developed after the first studies.
These studies showed that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period of time, soon both mood and physical health improve. More revealing was the research by Laurie King showing that writing about positive emotions and a positive future lead to improvements in physical and emotional health. A further surprise came when subjects wrote about someone else’s trauma—the results were nearly as positive and those who wrote about their own traumas, paving the way to consider fiction writing as a healing path as well.
The research also showed that people’s personality styles affected the benefits measured. If a person tends to withhold emotions and to be more stoical, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person focuses on negative feelings much of the time and ruminates, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect.
Trauma Research and the Brain
Trauma and its effects on the immune system, body, and mind have been studied by many scientists and psychologists over the years, and now the research is focusing on studying the brain and how it processes trauma.
Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain, writes about the parts of the brain in a style that invites everyone to understand this important organ in the body. The brain is composed of several “brains”: the older, reptilian part of the brain, the old mammal brain, and the neo-cortex, or higher level brain, which distinguishes more recent evolutionary human functioning.
Scientists are now able to study how the brain fires and responds under certain stimuli, especially the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are part of the limbic system and have to do with fear responses and their regulation. When we are triggered by fear, even subliminally, immediate hormonal and nervous system responses occur that were originally designed to and trigger the fight or flight hormonal reactions to save our lives. The amygdala reacts to fear stimuli, which sends messages to the hippocampus which is supposed to regulate the responses of the amygdala, but in conditions of ongoing trauma, the fear response seems to be “hard-wired” into the brain, making it difficult to process into regular memory that would allow the event to be put into perspective.
Traumatic memory is different from regular memory. It’s as if the traumatic memory is a phonograph record needle stuck in a groove, keeping the upsetting events fresh and recurring.
“The amygdala’s emotional memories…are indelibly burned into its circuits, “ says le Doux. “The best we can hope to do is to regulate their expression. And the way we do this by getting the cortex to control the amygdala.” This means that the cognitive part of the brain needs to overcome the emotional responses that overwhelm the person. This is where using words comes into the picture.
Matthew Lieberman’s Brain Scan Studies
Matthew Lieberman, an Associate Professor at UCLA, studies how words can change the processing of strong emotion in the brain. His research acknowledges the previous work of Pennebaker:
The insight that putting one’s feelings into words can have mental and physical health benefits was captured experimentally in work on disclosure through expressive writing…In the 1980s, Pennebaker began a program of research (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997) in which participants were asked to write about past negative experiences on four successive days and these participants were found to have visited the doctor less often over the following half year compared to those who wrote about trivial experiences. Lieberman’s research goes on, however, to use new MRI imaging to measure how words affect the amygdala. In one study, the researchers were surprised to see that the right side of the brain was processing language, when usually it’s the left side of the brain that processes words. It could be interpreted that both sides of the brain are integrating when language is used to process strong emotion.
Studies involving the brain and writing are being done by Liebermann and other researchers to show physiological changes in the brain that occur when language is used as a tempering mechanism for strong emotion.
When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
Bessel Van der Kolk and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Bessel van der Kolk, Director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, is internationally known for his extensive research in the field of PTSD. He has written many articles and books on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress and how it can be healed.
In his article, “In Terror’s Grip: Healing the Ravages of Trauma,” he lists some elements of PTSD: repeated re-experiencing of original trauma through physical memory triggers, an attempt to avoid the memories by withdrawing from the world, and extreme vigilance and startle reaction. The altered function of the brain, due to trauma, “causes the memories to be stored as fragments rather than being organized into the higher brain’s autobiographical self.” He acknowledges the work done by Pierre Janet, a colleague of Freud’s, who wrote extensively about trauma, and the need for witnessing and the restoration of narrative memory.
To help heal trauma, van der Kolk says, “It’s important to help people with PTSD find a language for understanding and communicating their experiences.”
For writers who want to use writing to heal, we can see that the research supports what many of us may have felt intuitively for a long time—that writing your true thoughts and feelings about something upsetting releases them from occupying your attention.
Writing for Better Health
To summarize the research:
- Knowledge is power. Most people who want to write feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or shy to put pen to paper, their minds spinning with inner critic messages which can be a symptom of past traumas. But if you write the experiences directly and with the simple language of truth, then your higher brain processes are stimulated to integrate and eventually release the effects of stress and trauma.
- Though writing may be uncomfortable at first, after writing four times for fifteen minutes, intrusive memories may begin to recede, and you start to develop a new perspective. You may need to write the scene more than once or use different points of view such as the third person instead of first person “I.”
- The studies seem to agree that a certain amount of “downloading” of negative experiences is helpful. Expressing the unexpressed through words labels the feelings and helps the neo-cortex, the newer and more evolved part of the brain, integrate them into normal memory banks, removing them from the ever repeating timeless quality of traumatic memory.
Your Words Matter
Pennebaker’s research went beyond exploring trauma to investigating the effect of certain words on the immune system. When writers used a large number of positive words (happy, good, laugh) along with a moderate number of negative words (angry, hurt, ugly) in their writing, health improvements were more likely to increase. Cognitive or thinking words (because, reason, effect) and words of self-reflection (I understand, realize, know) created the most emotional resolution. So if you want to experience the greatest healing benefit from your writing, pay attention to the emotional content of your words, and keep writing about a particular memory until you have causally linked the events with your feelings and integrated feelings and thoughts.
Causality means that one thing is linked to another; a particular stimulus leads to an outcome—this happened because that happened first. There is no causal linkage between the two events in the following sentence: George went to the store with a gun. Bob died. But in the next example, you can see a connection: Because George went to the store with his gun, it went off and killed Bob. There is a link between the first phrase and the second. There is meaning and causality.
Another one: “That day I couldn’t know that because I wore the pink dress, my life would never be the same.” In this example, the narrator is linking the pink dress with events to follow. This is an example of integration, which allows the separated events of a life to be linked into a narrative with a plot. In this way, we weave a sense of meaning about what happens to us. Fragments of disconnected events serve to maintain anxiety and symptoms of stress, but connecting events and finding meaning helps us to create a sense of self that is calming and comforting.
Witnessing and Being Witnessed as a Healing Process
One of the ways that we break out of the isolation and secrets that are woven into many traumatic experiences is to bring these secrets out of the darkness and into the light. If we are witnessed, if we are received with positive empathic regard, we are able to more quickly heal.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, has written many books on child abuse and how to heal its effects. Her work about witnessing can be directly applied to our writing practice for healing.
Alice Miller and Witnessing
In her books Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and The Truth Will Set You Free, Alice Miller writes about the horrors of child abuse and how the wounds of such abuse continue to affect people in adulthood. She believes that for victims to heal, the secret, shameful stories of childhood must be revealed and expressed to a compassionate, enlightened witness.
An “enlightened witness,” is someone trained to fully understand the painful story we need to tell and sees us with compassion and empathy. The enlightened witness sees us as the whole, beautiful being that we are, not just someone who was wounded. Miller says, “Therapists can qualify as enlightened witnesses, as do well-informed and open-minded teachers, lawyers, counselors, and writers.”
So many children suffer in silence, afraid to reveal to anyone else the truths of how they live behind the closed doors of the family, when disobeying family rules of loyalty can lead to punishment. But Miller says that when we were young, if someone, either from outside the family or a family member, knows of our abuse or unhappiness, and if they respond in some way with compassion or kindness, we’re less likely to become trapped in the darkness of the trauma. Some of us might have been lucky enough to encounter an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or teacher in that role:
“A helping witness is a person who stands by an abused child . . . offering support and acting as a balance against the cruelty otherwise dominant in the child’s everyday life.”
When we write for ourselves, we witness ourselves in a new way, and when we share our work in a group, usually the first stage of trying out our writing on the world, we are witnessed by them. Be sure to have a trustworthy group as part of your support team. It’s important to have partners in the creative endeavor with you.
To write a memoir is to embark on a long journey of the imagination and of memory. My path of gathering memories, images, and stories was first through autobiographical art–painting, collage, etching, and mixed media. But I knew that words were necessary as well, and began to capture moments through poetry. From time to time, I’ll post some of the poems that eventually led me to my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, that were part of the process for finding the story. Photographs and art work can show what words can’t.
My great-grandmother Blanche was a powerful figure for me–in her eighties, she taught me about a kind of pioneer woman strength and steadfastness that were missing with my grandmother and mother, and shared with me the stories that helped me to understand who I was and where I came from.
This poem is about her, and the photos are of her and my grandmother as a baby, in 1895. This poem won first prize at the East of Eden Writing Conference. Later, Blanche at 90.
First Place Prize Winning Poem
East of Eden contest
My great-grandmother Blanche washed her sheets in an iron caldron
August heat spilling down her neck,
eyes moist from heat and steam and memory.
She plunged the stick, churned the suds,
her knotted hands
wringing dirty water into a chipped porcelain pan,
blue veins bulging,
bones and spine hard like a man’s.
I held up clothespins for the hanging, Hollyhocks bursting high
against her outhouse, pink flowers like skirts.
The white sheets snapped,
the plains wind blew, the perfume of sheets, roses,
sweat, the summer sun
burned into memory.
She beat the featherbed with her fists as if against a jealous lover,
slamming against it with a startling fury.
What anger did she remember?
“Like this,” she said, but I couldn’t make a dent with my child fists.
I watched her, expert featherbed beater,
grateful she was not angry at me.
As crickets sang in the coming darkness,
she smoothed the sun-drenched sheets on the featherbed,
slipped a white nightgown over her drooping flesh that had known eighty years of life,
and curled her body around me.
She whispered stories into the pillows, the pendulum clock
tocked and ticked. She remembered the first radio song,
how after the first ring of a telephone and the voice out of clear air,
she held the phone, and cried.
The first time the Ford, not the horse,
took her past fields of rustling corn
while the harvest moon rose.
As we breathed in and out the afternoon’s sun
and her memories, I knew skeins of time before my own,
before machines and gadgets,
the froth of new buds in her father’s apple orchard,
how she stopped and listened
for ripples of time yet unknown.
Never imagining me curled inside her cocoon,
never knowing her featherbed and stories
would feed lonely nights fifty years in the future,
or how I would sleep on that same bed
in a white nightgown, and think of her when she was young,
time suspended in silence,
apples and death pausing,
while she inhaled the future,
By the time you read these words, the “I” that wrote them will have forgotten
what it was, though the it lingers on, haunting the paper, unheard until you
happen across it and your energy field activates it. –Margaret Atwood
We write into the unknown, we launch ourselves onto tiny rafts of words so lacy and insubstantial that we wonder how it’s possible–how these black dots on paper hold the most important moments of our lives. Can words truly free us from some of the prisons we have been locked into? I have seen this happen countless times in my memoir writing workshops—the writer is surprised at how powerful her words are to unlock, to open, and to heal.
If you have been writing or journaling, you know that words can lead you out of darkness and help you to find the light. People in workshops talk about this all the time, but even though our identity and our tools for self-expression are words, at times we are at a loss to express how words can help us feel better. It seems like magic sometimes. We write into that unknown, especially when we are journaling, not knowing where we will end up. Story writing is a little different, though it too is open ended and magical.
Story as a Way of Knowledge
A story, in contrast to journaling, invites us to put events into a time frame and make choices. A story has a structure—a beginning, middle and an end that you choose and construct out of your fragments of dream and memory. Creative people—poets, painters, musicians, and writers enter into a kind of reflective dream, written about beautifully by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. A story writer selects words that convey feeling, action, and reflection, bringing the lived moment alive to the reader. Writing creates a new experience with what had been chaotic. I like to say that story writing, including memoir, personal stories, and even fictional writing, is a “Way of Knowledge.”
Through story, you can learn about the self, about the narrator, the characters, the actions taken and the theme and outcome of the story. This creates a new world on the page and in the heart of the writer. What was perceived as “reality” before writing the story is changed by the act of writing.
Dr. James Pennebaker, who did the major research on writing as healing, points out that once we write a story, we no longer remember what “really” happened—we remember the story of what happened. The story inhabits us, and we are different as a result. Our imagination and the art of the story have created a new reality.
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
There are some openings in my online tele-workshops at the National Association of Memoir Writers for the spring session. Tuesday session begins March 27, 3 PM PDT. Monday begins April 2 at 1 PM PDT.
- Think about one of your favorite family stories–would you like to develop it further?
- What time frame have you covered in your early vignettes? Place them on the timeline to get a visual image of the quilt of your memoir.
- Character sketches: Choose some of the people you have written about in your memoir, and create a more complete scene with them. Learning about scene writing is an ongoing challenge–but rewarding. Scenes are how you bring your world to life.
- Do you struggle with writing your truths, the right to write your stories? Support and community can help you move forward with more confidence.
- Learn about quilting your vignettes into a larger work.
- Does your inner critic bother you? Learn new techniques to help silence the inner critic.
- Write about the landscapes and places that are part of your soul.
- Editing: We teach you gently how to become your own editor.
- Revision—means “seeing again.” Writing means revision, an important skill as you grow as a writer.
- Organization: we will discuss how to organize and keep track of your vignettes.
… Linda Joy is an inspirational mentor who truly makes a difference and convinces you to believe in yourself and your story…..She always provides compassionate and meaningful support and expert guidance and direction.
Re-membering through memoir writing patched together important pieces of myself long ago forgotten or abandoned. After several rounds of classes under Linda Joy Myers’ priceless guidance, all of me is finally snuggled well into my body, mind, and spirit. Prior to Linda Joy’s memoir classes, I never would have called myself a writer, Now, I can say with pride and certainty that I am indeed, a writer.
—-Author Dawn Novotny