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!

Writing Reflections

  • 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?