Those of you who have been writing memoir know that it’s not just as simple as sitting down and letting words pour forth out of your fingers. It is a journey—I’ve written about that before—and it’s a challenge emotionally. We run into all kinds of memories on that journey, and we need some help along the way to keep us from sinking into the darker memories and to help us heal and forgive–a positive side benefit of writing your story. In order to find greater peace and happiness, we have to write down what went wrong first so we can see it with a new perspective, as a story.
I draw upon my therapy background to help guide my students into the calmer waters of memoir writing, while also supporting them in the excavating the darker caves of their memories.
I’m pleased this week to be speaking with Jason Marsh, one of the directors of The Greater Good Science Foundation about How Art Can Heal—The Power of Compassionate Connections.
He has this to say about the importance of art in creating a good quality of life.
“A recent wave of studies is suggesting that art can play an important role. This research suggests that creating art–through writing and other methods–brings many of the same therapeutic benefits as maintaining close relationships. What’s more, studies have found that art can boost important qualities–including greater empathy–among people who consume art, not just those who create it.”
Jason is co-editor of the book The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, an inspiriting collection of 33 articles collected from the Greater Good online magazine.
In an article the “Compassionate Instinct” Dacher Keltner says that scientific research confirms we are biologically wired to feel good if we help to alleviate another’s suffering. Kristin Neff writes on the blog http://greatergood.berkeley.edu a great article about the importance of self-compassion. This becomes an important tool for writers. Guess what is one of the greatest impediments to writing a memoir: yes, the Inner Critic, that nagging, negative voice that stops you from writing your true thoughts, even though you are alone at your computer. Your negative voice aims its sights way down the road toward publication instead of staying right where you are: in the first draft of your manuscript.
I love this quote from Kristin’s book The Science of Self-Compassion:
“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”
These links on the Greater Good Science Foundation site offer some great articles about happiness, compassion, raising children to be healthy and happy, and the power of mindfulness and meditation to create new positive parts of the brain. Our brain is always growing and changing, which supports the research on how writing helps to heal.
Please join us at the National Association of Memoir Writer special membership Teleseminar to find out what Jason has to say about how to create and draw upon compassion as you create your art, and the ways this can benefit your life.
Take a look at the tips I wrote for your memoir journey at Nina Amir’s special blog to celebrate National Lifewriting Month! This is the month that memoir writers join the fiction folks over at NaNoWriMo to write as much as 50,000 words in 30 days. 6.5 pages a day–can you do it? Can you dedicate a couple of hours a day to get your memoir first draft done?
Tips for what we’ll call MemoirWriMo:
1. Write fast, let ‘er rip.
2. Feed your imagination with photos and research when you’re not writing.
3. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or details. Get the basics down.
4. No time for that inner critic either. Blow on by it!
When you have a few minutes, stop by Nina’s blog: http://writenonfictioninnovember.com
Go to this link to sign up for the FREE Roundtable Discussion at NAMW this Thursday with Nina and veteran memoir workshop leader Denis LeDoux.
Read more about memoir writing in my book The Power of Memoir. It’s a whole course in memoir writing–8 steps to a completed memoir!
See you there!
At the NAMW Telesummit Friday starting at 10 AM PDT, I get to talk with several fantastic authors and teachers. Their books have shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, and pushed me toward using language to carve out even deeper truths. The experts I get to hang out with are Jennifer Lauck, author of Blackbird and three other amazing and deep memoirs, including her last book Found. Dinty W. Moore’s collection of memoir essays Between Panic and Desire show us how we can weave small pieces into a memoir, while Robin Hemley’s Nola is another kind of weaving that examines the nature of memory and the sources of “truth” –whatever that is. The topic of the Telesummit is Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction, and also features a panel of young memoirists who couldn’t wait for people to die before they wrote about their lives! And the best news: it’s FREE to everyone. Just sign up at the link below.
Robin’s memoir asks: whose version of “truth” is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs?
Quotes from Nola:
How can one be objective about one’s family? How can one resist the urge to edit, to become the family spin doctor?
…There is no real past, it’s all a daydream is seems, or an endless series of clues and discoveries…
…everyone’s life is a kind of detective story, every clue of our forebears’ lives, every decision, missed opportunity…are part of the solution to our own existence.
To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir Writers to sign up. You will receive a link to the downloadable audio after the conference is over.
Robin will talk about “The Trouble with the Truth,” which is the troubling and challenging issue for all memoir and nonfiction writers. His introduction to the teleconference:
Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no single truth to our lives. To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and we show different faces to different people. The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing. While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room transcript. It’s not all about content. There are aesthetic concerns as well. Above all, you have to remember that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event. They can only create a semblance of the event.
We’re so lucky to be able to meet with people you normally have to pay hundreds of dollars to see, so join us for Free! See you there!
with Robin Hemley at the National Association of Memoir Writers Teleconference Oct. 21
As most of you know, one of the events I most enjoy putting together as president
of the National Association of Memoir Writers is our bi-annual Telesummit. This
Friday I’m spending 5 hours with authors I admire, whose works have changed me,
shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, pushing me toward using
language to carve out even deeper truths. Robin’s memoir Nola makes me ask the questions that he asks: whose version of “truth”
is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs. His book Turning Your Life into Fiction is one of the best books I’ve read about story writing, all the angles to look at when drawing
from our lives to create a story.
Robin Hemley is going to talk with us about one of the most important issues in memoir writing Truth—how
to find it within us, and how reflect upon our personal truths and agendas as we write.
To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir
Writers to sign up. You will receive a link to the 5 hour downloadable audio after the conference is over.
Robin has shared with us his outline for our discussion at the teleconference.
The Trouble with the Truth
Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no
single truth to our lives. To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and
we show different faces to different people. The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers
strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing. While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room
transcript. It’s not all about content. There are aesthetic concerns as well. Above all, you have to remember
that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event. They can only create a semblance
of the event.
We will discuss
- Distance and the imagination
- Precision of language versus precision of memory
- Writing associatively rather than chronologically
- Including primary texts in your memoir
- Legal and ethical issues that arise whether you write
fiction or nonfiction
I’m eager to talk with Robin, and I hope you all will join us for this fabulous free conference!
When we begin a journey, we’re excited. We pack our suitcase, imagining the moments to come. The thrill of our destination courses through us, spurring us on. We begin with high hopes for what we’ll encounter.
Recently, I went to France—first to Paris, then Lyon and the southern mountains where Cezanne and Van Gogh used to paint. It was of course a wonderful trip—the vision of the Eiffel Tower even better than my imagination, but there were challenges—the suitcase was too heavy to lift up stairs, the Metro was stuffed with TONS of people, and I got lost hundreds of times on tiny country lanes. There were moments of being exhausted, and others of being exhilarated. But the images I had when I packed my suitcase changed. The real journey was different, and it changed me.
So it is when we write a memoir. We begin putting in our suitcase the memories, people and events that we are eager to celebrate and remember. Even if our story is a dark one, we have a handle on it, we’ve been journaling and we know the basics of the story. We launch into our writing eagerly, capturing images and moments, freely writing, remembering and even doing research. We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book!
Then something happens. The doubts creep in, “I’m not sure what I wrote is the real truth. My sister says I made things up.” Or, “Gee, I don’t want to reveal x and y and z. It’s too personal. I don’t want people knowing all these things about me.” Or you read a bunch of other memoirs and realize that you can’t write all that well, you feel that it’s really too big a job, this memoir project. You decide to put it away for a while.
There’s another scenario: You’re starting to remember things, memories you thought you’d handled, you begin to reflect on the past in a new way, and start to write about it, but you feel sad, depressed or angry. You try to put it all aside, but you can’t. The writing doesn’t work. You are stuck in the middle of your book, you feel conflicted. You put the project away.
This is all good news. I know, it doesn’t sound like good news to you. You just want to get your memoir done, you want to brush away the doubts.
The good news is that you are in the middle of your memoir journey, and you’re doing fine. There are three major stages in writing a memoir. The first is the eager beginning, “downloading” as Jennifer Lauck calls it. Then the muddy middle, where themes, stories, and memories begin to build up into a larger story, one that you don’t have control of. The muddy middle is the biggest part of the journey, by the way.
The later stage is where you have found your stride, the journey has changed you, and you are grateful for the riches. It is not the same journey you imagined. You are different. The muddy middle becomes your teacher, your mentor. As Dr. James Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.”
Some tips for your trip:
1. Accept that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
2. Take good care of yourself on the journey. Rest, set a schedule, make a map.
3. Allow the writing process to guide you, allow in the unwanted stories, images, and memories. They have something to teach you.
4. Trust in your creative muse, the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow it to urge you forward.
5. Invite your unconscious to help you write and remember.
6. Know that you will write the same story over and over again, but in a new way. Know that you will find the muddy middle, that you will get stuck and lost, but keep going.
7. You will find your way out of the muddy middle if you just keep writing!
Learn more about the trip at the National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit—FREE all day phone conference on October 21. You get the audio of the whole day if you sign up! Learn from the journey of other memoir writers.