How to Write Your Truths—and Keep Writing

How to Write Your Truths—and Keep WritingIn 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:

  1. Write for yourself first, imagining your family far away from your writing space.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. Write your story! See what it can teach you. It’s an exploration.

Weaving Family History into Your Memoir


I’m lying in a feather bed in an upstairs bedroom with my great-grandmother, Blanche. Lights from the highway sweep across the angled ceiling above the bed as she begins to whisper the stories of her life, her teeth in a jar by the bed. I’m eight and she’s eighty and it’s the first time I’ve met her. She’s my grandmother’s mother–I live with Gram since my parents have not been able to take care of me. My mother left when I was four, and today, I find out there is a huge family I’m related to–Gram’s brothers and sisters in Iowa, friendly folk who smile and pat me on the back, surrounding me with a web of family.

Born  three years before Custer’s Last Stand, Blanche begins to tell me the stories of her life in the mid-19th century. She was the first of six children, doing the back-breaking work of farm women–raising gardens and children, canning and baking, serving the farm hands, washing clothes in a pot in the yard.

“I delivered the babies too, and I’ll never fergit”–she says it like that–“the first time I heard a voice over a telephone. I cried. And the radio–the first time…” her voice dims while she stirs her memories. I prod her to go on, trying to understand who she is, and where we came from. “You’re Gram’s mama? Did you know my Mama?”

“Lands sake, girl. I’m Lulu’s Mama, all right. I knew your Mama–Jo’tine we called her–when  she was a little girl, sweet thing she was.” I think about my beautiful mother I miss so much, her dark eyes and pretty face, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to see me. “Lulu’s Papa, Louis was his name–we got married on a snowy New Year’s Day, 1894, and two months later he died of pneumonia.”

I could see it–the snowy day, the squeak of saddle leather on the horses, the crunch of hooves, Blanche’s face smooth and young, as I try to imagine the woman I know as my grandmother being a little baby. There is so much to know.

“It was all so long ago. We worked hard, we women was midwives to each other, and there was all the cannin’ and the bakin.’ Sweatin’ at the cook stove. Things was different then. Land sakes.”

In the silence I realize she’s the mother of the mother of the mother, and knows everything. I have to find out what she knows–why did my mother leave me and why did my grandmother leave my mother? I want to understand the birthing of babies and the canning in the summer and how you light a fire in the wood cook stove.

Blanche seared into me a curiosity about the past. Knowing the past held some kind of magic, in the past was answers that could explain and even change the present. Over the years, I pursued my family story, searching in libraries and dusty courthouses for documents that proved the stories to be true–or not. I spent seven years, an hour each year, trying to track my mother’s childhood through old newspaper snippets where the family name was mentioned. I wanted to get to know her story, so I could understand my own.

Our history is alive in us, it is part of us–our blood, our cells, and the silent, secret history that has shaped the family and each person in it. When we unlock these stories, we release knowledge and wisdom, the gifts and transformation that wait for us to discover them.


PS Blanche is holding the car tire in the photo, and my mother is the little girl in the center.

I’m going to speak with Dan Curtis of the Association of Personal Historians Friday, June 15 at 11 AM. Join me there for a rich conversation!