I just returned from a retreat sponsored by She Writes Press, an event offer by my publisher in gorgeous Boulders Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. Brooke Warner, my co-teacher for the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course for the last five years, is also the publisher for SWP. The amazing stark landscape of Arizona with its cacti, road runners, and cottontail bunnies on the trails, nurtured us with its beauty as we worked on being authors, becoming authors. Trusting that we are good enough and powerful enough to be authors—sound familiar?
At the retreat, Brooke gave a workshop that challenged us about our relationship to empowerment and trust in ourselves, how we can believe in ourselves and connect with our own energy and power to be creators and artists. This is what we all have to do as we wrestle with the various elements of writing our books! We need to feel connected to the energy of creativity, and be able to draw from our passion and inspiration for a year or more as we write our books. Then we need to continue that process as we move into publishing and designing the look of our books. Being empowered and inspired is one topic at the NAMW Fall Telesummit November 11. The Heart and Soul of Memoir Writing.
We need to connect to our power and belief and at the same time continue to educate ourselves about how to write a book—from idea and conception all the way to having a beautifully designed book in our hands! Even though I have published four books, I have to say that learned a ton about writing, designing, and publishing books during the weekend. Our philosophy at NAMW is to continue to offer topics and opportunities to learn more about writing and creating a book that will be successful and that you’ll be proud of.
The Telesummit this week is set up so you can have that experience—to gather knowledge and inspiration as you connect with each presenter. We offer this Telesummit at a super low rate so you can benefit, less than $10 per session. You can keep the audio recording as your resource in ongoing education. I know that many people are now using podcasts and audios as part of their learning regimen, putting it on their iPod and talking a walk. May listen to the event after the Telesummit is over so they can focus on certain parts they need the most. We love giving the audience the opportunity to learn in so many ways!
During the last session of the Telesummit, Brooke and I will be talking about inspiration and empowerment. We’re proud of our new anthology Magic of Memoir—Inspiration for the Writing Journey to be released next week. It’s made up of stories from writers like you about how memoir is magic for them, and several NAMW members are featured. The writers talk about how they find their way to the page, how they sustain their writing and believe in their book. What inspires them and what gets in the way—and how they keep on no matter what.
I think you’ll be inspired to rush to your computer as you read their stories! We’re jazzed that the book also features interviews by well-known memoirists like Dani Shapiro, Sue William Silverman and Mark Matousek, our frequent guests here at NAMW; Mary Karr tells us what make memoir magic for her, as does Azar Nafisi, Hope Edelman, and Jessica Valenti. You will see how these writers struggle with what you struggle with day to day. We hope you come away with fire in your heart for your writing project as you join us for all the sessions and ask your own questions of the presenters.
When you sign up you receive the call-in phone number, but you do not have to be present to join us, though we would love to hear from you in person during the question and answer period. You will receive the audio for your own use to drawn from for years to come.
I love Robin Brooks’ designs and her artistry as she works with authors, and how Lisa Cron always nails it in both her books Wired for Story and Story Genius about the engines that drive a great story. And I know you all need to hear from Helen Sedwick as she reveals the mysteries of the Legal and Ethical questions that all memoir writers struggle with.
We all have stories, as humans we are made of stories. I was eight years old the first time I realized this was true for all of us. I was lying on a feather bed beside my great-grandmother Blanche for the first time. She bewitched me with the stories from her life, the 19th century when she was a midwife, made bread, kept a garden, milked the cows, and fired up her wood cook stove every day, winter and summer. She raised seven children, including the grandmother who was raising me. She was a great ship of a woman lying in that bed, lisping her stories, her teeth in a jar by the bed, weaving her life into my dreams.
My eyes were opened in those moments long ago when she told me about the wedding to her new husband on a snowy New Year’s day in 1894 when they were twenty years old, how he died eight weeks later, not knowing he was gifting the generations to follow with his lovely soulful eyes and cheekbones and full sensuous lips.
I saw Blanche at that moment as a walking storybook, which is what all of you are too—full of stories, bursting with knowledge and wisdom. Her stories inspired me to write my life, and just as I learned from her, you have the power to gift the world with what you know, what you have witnessed and seen through the decades of your lives, stories that no one will know if you don’t tell them.
One of the challenges writers face is having the inner permission to tell our stories. Women in particular tell me their stories are just “domestic” or not very interesting, or not unique—they were brought up to be polite, not to offend people, don’t say too much, don’t be brash. Be silent, be a lady.
As a psychologist, I sense that at some level most of us still have to deal with the unconscious conditioning we grew up with, and we need to keep getting encouragement and giving ourselves pep talks to make our voices known and express ourselves freely. The research by Dr. James Pennebaker and others about how writing heals shows how writing deep truths can heal physical ailments like asthma and arthritis. Most of us know how much value there is in writing in our journals and expressing what is happening in our hearts and minds.
Yet, there is another factor. We need our stories to come out into the world too. I constantly hear from people I work with that they had been writing journals for years, but when they learned to write stories and share them with others so they could step into the scenes and moments from the past, they would find a new level of self-acceptance. The power of their stories was reflected back to them by the comments and responses of others who were witnessing their lives.
How do you tap into this power?
First, there is the power of permission. Write affirmations that invite you to take your stories seriously, even if at first you write just for yourself. There is huge value in just getting your stories on the page for yourself. If you have a big inner critic, write down the negative things it says to get them out of your head, then offer an affirmation as a way to balance those voices.
Next, there is the power of finding and shaping language, of trusting in your own imagery and the unique poetry of your own language as you write. Writing something brief, a haiku or a poem or a paragraph can help you feel the power of words under your fingers.
Finding the turning point moments, the moments that made you who you are is a powerful exercise in validating your experiences, and offers you an opportunity to contemplate your life.
Learning to shape a story—discovering the craft of bringing someone deeply into your experiences is a heady power. It’s amazing that if we arrange these curlicues of black marks on the page in a certain way, our brain changes—there is a lot of research on that—that the reader’s brain mirrors your experience in their own mind and body. We all have known this since we could read, but sometimes we may forget that this is a power that we have, that we can tap all the time.
Set your writing time, keep a journal by the bed; allow yourself to dream and sketch, meander and muse. Invite the power of your stories into your waking and dreaming life, and enjoy.
Writing a memoir is a powerful act. That is why my book is called The Power of Memoir. The act of remembering, writing, and exploring the deepest reaches of the heart takes courage, and it will change you. Writing a memoir is a way to value yourself and your story, to honor those you have loved and who have loved you. It’s a way to heal, to come to terms with your life, and to leave a tale that others can appreciate.
Most memoir writers struggle with reasons for writing their memoir. Their inner critic pops up with, “What a waste of time, who would want to read this,” and other nonsense. Write for yourself, write the stories that fill your mind, heart, and dreams. Find the stories that have meaning to you, stories that give you pleasure to remember. You will be rewarded beyond measure, and your family might thank you too.
I like to share on this blog what I’ve learned from writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother and what I learned from publishing it and sharing it with others, but it was a long journey. I began by writing in my journal, and then “translating” those rough drafts into the computer where they began to form chapters.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR REASONS FOR WRITING
Stories—they beckon us to tell them, we pull up a chair and turn our ear to listen. We connect with others and parts of ourselves through stories. Before birth, we’re woven into other people’s stories. Our own spark of life begins at a turning point in our family—that of our own birth. We enter the world at the beginning of our family’s story and become one of the main characters in its drama. We’re woven into the tapestry of family, friends and community from the beginning.
As in a fairy tale, on our journey we encounter wizards, witches, dark forests, and good fairies; we experience joy and challenges, heartache and hope. Through our struggles, failures, and successes, we discover our own unique story. We learn who we are and where we’re going.
Writing a memoir is like taking a journey without an itinerary. We begin at a certain point and stop at certain stations, only to hop on another train going somewhere else. As long as we are courageous about the journey, and keep track of where we visit, we learn from the process. We will be changed by this journey.
Some reasons why you might want to write the stories about your life
- To gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the life you’ve lived.
- To heal the past, and create hope for the future.
- To create a legacy for your family, a family history.
- To expose injustice or abuse.
- To settle emotional scores—from anger and revenge to acceptance and forgiveness.
- To present a point of view about a controversial issue.
- To share with the world your unique experiences with travel, education, illness and recovery, family, or your spiritual quest.
- To taste again the joys of friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers.
- To honor those we have loved.
- To capture another time and place, now gone.
There are so many reasons to write a memoir. You can begin by writing in your journal so you don’t feel pressure to make it “perfect.” Allow yourself to write fast, and let the words flow. After you feel ready to share some of your stories, you can blog them to have them online where you can read them more objectively as a reader would who doesn’t know you. You can practice being published long before your book is done. Most people feel the need first “just to write,” to discover the stories they have been thinking and dreaming about all their lives. They need to write freely and without pressure. We need to enjoy the process of remembering.
Make your own list of why you want to write your memoir. Share it with your friends, writing buddies, Facebook friends. Gather support as you begin. It takes a community to write a memoir!
Keep your journal by your bed, be ready to write down dreams and little flashes of memory. Give yourself full permission to explore. All creative activities begin with desire and permission—and keeping that inner critic at bay.
Start today—write a story about the happiest moment in your life.
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.
Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/clt3jxm-48600
When you write a memoir, you take on the task of exploring your life and being willing to write with truth and honesty. Writing a memoir is a journey that leads us away from known territory into the unknown and unexplored parts of our lives. We need a map to guide us as we write so we can find our themes and the moments that have meaning, moments that shaped us into who we are.
Being a memoirist is to encounter your brave self. I liken the courage to write a memoir as similar to the pioneers my great-grandmother Blanche would tell me about when I was a little girl. She was eighty and I was eight as we lay in her featherbed on summer nights where she spun the stories of her life. She was still a young girl on a farm near the Mississippi River when neighbors drove up in a covered wagon. They were on their way to Kansas in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains from settlers who wanted to explore the larger world beyond the Mississippi. Tribes of Native Americans were still inhabiting the Great Plains, along with outlaws and roving bands of ne’er do wells. Blanche watched them drive off into the unknown with a crude map, but going on that journey meant that they had to advance into unknown territory while still raising children, giving birth, and fixing dinner. Memoirists need maps and guides for the journey too.
Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says “Write where the fear is, where the heat is.” That encounter with what is difficult takes us into the heart of our stories, the high and low points in our lives. Authentic emotion guides us into our journey of speaking and writing with truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. As readers, we are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, the private world of the writer that is unfolding story by story.
To help writers get started and find their way to the end of the first draft, I teach the turning point and timeline exercises.
Find Your Turning Points
Your turning points are the emotional hot spots of your life. Focusing on these points will help to sort through the file cabinet of your memories and will help to build the spine of your memoir structure.
These are moments of BIG CHANGE, the times when your life took a turn in another direction, propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces, such as a spiritual awakening, a moment of complete clarity, or outer forces such as an illness, a move, a sudden loss.
A turning point can be a powerful moment of utter happiness, a marriage, traveling to another country, or the birth of a child. These are special times that have deep meaning to you, and that made a difference in the course of your life. Your turning points taught you a lesson, woke you up, shaped you into the person that you are now.
Ask yourself: what moments ended the life I was living before, and changed the direction of my life? In a fictional story or a movie, we know that the plot is going to change when someone new wanders into town, when this new person shows up, we expect there to be important changes or we would not, as readers/viewers, be shown this event.
Make a list of the 15-20 most important moments of your life—emotionally significant events.
Women used to belong to quilting bees. They would sit around the quilting frame, chatting and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns from old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the patches came together in new designs.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. We can write our vignettes in any order. If we write where the heat, and heart, is, we are gathering the pieces that will be quilted together into a finished work of art.
The Timeline Technique
The visual map of your memoir journey is the timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline. Draw a horizontal line across a large sheet of paper, preferably 18×24–large enough to hold several decades. Divide the line into 10 year sections, and then divide those into years.
List your turning point stories on the timeline by drawing vertical a line at the date you selected and put a circle at the bottom. In this circle, name the story, chapter, or turning point moment you want to include.
This exercise reveals many things: you see how some events cluster together, and how certain events followed other ones, revealing lapses in your memory. How your turning points cluster on the timeline presents new insights about time and relationships—memory is not always accurate. You can use your journals from the past and other research to help fill in your turning pints and your timeline. To enhance the visuals on your timelines, copy out photos to place on or near your turning points, creating a kind of vision board.
These techniques will help you to have a focus and structure for your memoir. As you write, you will continue to develop your turning points and the specific details of your life. The more you work with your list, timeline, and stories, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, who in her eighties was weaving the stories of the 19th century for me. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to honor the history she shared, made me want to be a storyteller.
You too will weave magic as you write your memoir.