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.
The holidays are the season of gratitude—a time when we reach out to family and friends to celebrate all the ways we appreciate them, a time when we count our blessings. During the holidays we make a priority to gather and share joy and stories, though for some people, it can be a time of stress and loneliness. If that is the case, then use your journal to write out how you feel and what you remember.
If you are planning to visit with your family, it can be an opportunity to dig out the photo albums and tell stories around the fireplace: “Remember when, see what you looked like then?” as you pass around the album—or share the photos on your computer.
I advise memoir writers that the holidays is a good time to do some “research” about family stories. As you write your memoir you discover your memories through writing prompts and digging into your memories as best you can, but it’s amazing what immersing yourself in family can bring up. Being “at home” brings you into the family circle in two ways—as a family member and as a memoir writer. Not only are you with the people you are writing about—which can feel like a strange situation at times!—you’re also in the settings, the houses, towns and landscapes of your past that trigger evocative memories.
You might wonder at these gatherings if your family members will share more of their stories—or will they try to keep them closer to the vest if they know you are writing a memoir?
Doing research about family stories requires a decision tree
- If you have told your family that you’re writing a memoir, your research may need to be subtle—especially if some people are feeling sensitive or worried about being exposed, or if there are secrets in the family that some people want to protect. These techniques include talking innocently over the family photo album and finding innocuous ways to ask questions. See if some of the questions mentioned in point number 4 below are helpful to you.
- If your family does not know you are writing a memoir, you need to gather data, dates, and stories carefully—again depending on how open your family is about talking about the past. You can disguise your research as you seek family stories about the holidays or about the far past, or about people they used to know. Sometimes these stories lead to them being more willing to share more personal and private stories.
- If your family is open about talking about the past, you could prepare questions about the family history ahead of time for them to think about, or ask them beforehand if they would consider being audiotaped when are all talking together about family stories. If a family gets along and is supportive of the memoir, this can be very helpful. Think of the questions you have never asked before, or points that you feel are tender, and probe gently from your now-adult perspective. You might be surprised at how willing people are to revisit the past, especially if you are accepting and gentle about creating a positive “remembering” atmosphere.
- In a situation with a closed family dynamic, you can gently ask leading questions:
- When you were young, what is your favorite memory?
- What did people used to say about Uncle Joe (substitute the person you want to ask about here) back then?
- What were the best and worse stories you remember about me?
- Tell me about the best holiday you remember. Why was it so special?
- What was the most challenging thing you had to do when you were younger?
- Questions about weather and how personal history intersected with public events can be fruitful.
- What new items were the most shocking to them?
- Who were their favorite family members?
- What were their favorite books and movies and why.
- Think of other favorite topics like sports, politics, or possibly religion—that they are willing to talk about. Sometimes this can lead to inroads to what you want to know more about.
Gentle leading questions can open doors to more questions, if your relatives and friends are cooperative and curious. Your own curiosity, especially if you don’t have a grudge, can be contagious and help to open up the conversation.
5. Remember, family stories are like slices of a pie—each person has a different angle of view toward the story being told—people remember different aspects of the same event. One might remember colors and clothes, another what happened in vivid detail—from their POV of course—and another who said what to whom. Just listen to the different ways people remember—and marvel at it! Your story can include other people’s versions or not—it’s up to you. The memoir you are writing is ultimately about your memories!
I want to thank you all for joining me in the joy of memoir writing. I wish all of you a happy holiday season, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year.
Be Brave—Write Your Story!
Linda Joy Myers
President of National Association of Memoir Writers
Photo credit: Free digital photos
My mother Josephine, age 10, with the dark hair. She had lived with her great-grandmother since she was 6.
All of humanity has something in common: we were born to a mother. We might not know who she is/was, or we might have been blessed to be bathed in her love–however she might have shown that love. Perhaps we were close to our mother, or yearned to be closer. Once she became a mother, she may have lost her original identity–what was her maiden name. Do you know what her life was before she had children–before you were relating to her as “mother?”
Look at photographs of your mother–was she smiling? What was she wearing? Is there a familiar mood she exudes? Can you tell what she was feeling; do you know what she was doing just before or just after the photograph was taken? What do you imagine she felt/thought/did that day so long ago?
I’m often asked by people who are writing memoirs, “How can I write about my mother’s life? I don’t want to write fiction, but of course I wasn’t born yet for a lot of what she lived through. The stories I know are from others, from letters, from journals.”
Here’s a great way to learn about your mother or grandmother:
1. Read about the era she lived in–clothes, furniture, food, holidays, schooling, expectations of those times. These can be found in history books, online, in diaries and in fictional stories set in that era.
2. Look at a photograph of your mother–is she smiling, posed or casual, what is her body language, what do you know about her at that age?
3. From what you know or imagine about your mother, write some pieces about her–from her point of view. Write a letter from her to her mother when she was 18 years old. What might she have said?
4. Write a diary entry about a secret your mother had, or might have had. See what comes out.
5. Write a diary entry she might have written on the day, or week, of your birth.
6. Create a scene where something in her life that was negative turned out to be positive. Rewrite her history.
7. Journal about your experiences as you create someone new in your imagination. Call it fiction, call it body knowledge or intuition. Who knows? But these exercises might tempt you to know more about her, or see her as separate from you–as a person with her own life, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.
It’s Muscatine Iowa, circa 1926. Josephine is playing with another child in the family who lives with her great-grandmother, also called Josephine, the mother of Blanche.
The woman who became my mother was an abandoned child, like me. As a little girl she would wait and wait for her mother to visit, and melt into her arms for the few moments of ecstasy before having to face the “real” world, which later she would describe as dingy and depressing.
Muscatine was the home of several generations of her mother’s side of the family. Her father lived about 20 miles away with a new wife and their baby daughter. I see her feeling displaced, I can see the sadness in her eyes from the time she was very young. This photograph was given to me by a relative after she died. I stare at the photos of mother when she was young, and I can see her then, her small limbs, her dark wistful eyes.
Little Josephine used to walk up and down the sidewalk on Iowa street, glancing at the boats and barged that plied the Mississippi River just a few blocks away. The button factories, the alcohol plant, the industries along the wharf were more interesting to her than the women’s life at home, cooking, taking care of everyone.
She yearned for Chicago where her beautiful mother would come from on the train. She ached for the big city clothes and excitement. Her mother has planted hope in her heart. “Someday,” she says, brushing the dust off her smooth wool coat.
For now, Josephine must practice piano, study her lessons, and put up with farm people who have no dreams. She squeezes her eyes shut, and grits her teeth. One day, she will have her mother and all the finery and live in the big city. One day.