Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Today is International Women’s Day. I reflected again on the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with stories from the 19th century; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me. She started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, who took ships across the ocean. And my mother, Josephine, who’d been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary in the early 1920s while her daughter lived in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle as women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much of their history is the history of America.
In my book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what others have lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, lost narratives, lies, and pregnant silences. I felt each of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, and the secrets and silences that always hovered underneath. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes in my body. I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.” Because they were different. Because they both dared to take a different path from the traditional farm woman who would sacrifice herself and die young.
Lulu, about 25
What do we do as women with these inheritances? We search for our identity. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what happened that created the silences. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when did Lulu leave Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl. Why did they fight fought and struggle with each other until the last day of Frances’s life? She died without any reconciliation with my mother.
My mother Josephine was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped she’d at last claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself. The sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or able to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days she could no longer prevent me from loving her. The silences lifted and there was a purity beyond the story we’d lived.
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
The search for their history continued for twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I pieced together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are revealed in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By doing the research and writing their stories, I healed myself, and could offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. We need to teach the new generations the histories that shape women and help them understand.
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In July, I spoke at the Story Circle Women’s Writing Conference—a group of bright, energetic, and eager writers of all genres. What moved me most was the look in some of the women’s eyes as they told me how much they needed to hear permission, again, to write and tell their stories–from me and from other teachers at the conference. Most of us struggle with how to feel internal permission to write what most needs to be written—the deep truths that have shaped and governed our lives. It helps to get encouragement, to hear how important this is, over and over again.
We know that there are things that get in the way—shame, fear of judgment from family and friends, and our own reluctance/fear to put into words painful things that we have experienced. These reasons not to write or explore the depths and layers of our stories fight with the need to be authentic and real, and to be who we really are.
How can we break through these barriers? It’s not easy—just “deciding” may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we can and should write our truths, that it might be beneficial. Freeing. It says yes, and it knows that may other people have done this. That it’s possible. But…the real problem is our emotional self. It’s cautious and protective of us. Sometimes we call the voice that silences us “the inner critic.” But perhaps it’s not only critical—it’s protecting you from being hurt.
How do we work toward breaking open and telling the truth? How can we feel more permission? One technique for protection is to make lists—lists help to contain the emotions that can feel like they are “too much” when we’re exploring truth and secrets.
Another technique is to keep your writing private. Share carefully when you decide to share, and remember that family and friends may have a different perspective from you. If you get negative feedback, it can stop you from writing honestly. Protect your creative self!
- List the 5 things that you are most afraid to write about.
- Take each one on your list and freewrite for 3 minutes why you are afraid what you think might happen.
- List the secrets that you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write your truths.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to.
- Take classes, and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies grow better with more water.
The more you write, the more you will write! It’s amazing, as if you become your own cheerleader. And community offers help–writing conferences, writing sites online, and bookstore readings. All these connections feed your writing soul. Each new piece leads to another. Enjoy!
When the invitation to join our Enid High School 55th graduating class reunion arrived, at first I tossed it aside. Enid, Oklahoma is a long way from California. It takes a whole day to get there by two planes and a car. Would I really connect with “kids” I knew back in the fifties after all these years? Then, curiosity–who are these people now? Perhaps I could attend and include a book reading. Is there a bookstore that would host me? A few Google clicks later led me to “A New Chapter Bookstore,” a new bookstore owned by two women who are indeed starting their own new chapter in life by creating a place for people who love books. A phone call set up my path to take my books home. Thank you Becky and Coral! Before I left, I was tempted to cancel several times. Talk to people I knew about all my secrets? So scary. Too revealing. For days before I left, I hoped that I might not have to go. Yet, I knew I had to go. There was something there for me to discover. When I landed in Oklahoma City, the sweet wind caressed me, as it always had, and I began to cry. I was home. This land I loved so much embraced me as I drove to Enid in a long languorous dusk filled with silence, and wheat fields, and the two-toned call of a bird.
Before my reading the next day, I ran into some women who were the popular girls back then, girls I had admired, but now we were all grandmothers and none of that mattered as we warmly greeted each other. We had so much in common being from that place, growing up in a time so different from now. Free of my old shyness, I invited them to my reading. To my happy surprise, they came and compassionately listened to my story, and what I revealed for the first time.
Talking about shame and silence, reading from very personally revealing parts of my books to people who knew me as a child seemed to smooth away the edges of shame I had always carried. There was so much to be ashamed about–my parents were divorced, which was “not done” at the time–they considered it shameful, as did society at the time. My grandmother, who had loved her Chicago life, and who dressed like she was still in Chicago, had traveled to England on ships and brought a flair to any conversation, did not fit into that town, nor did she try to. She was an interesting “character” but no one wants their parental figure to be so different with her fake English accent and put-on airs. Later, I had to hide the darkness inside the house–her beatings, screaming, and rages as she descended into what later I would learn was depression and mental illness. I was related to someone who acted like that? No one could know and no one did know these and other shameful things. Of course, what I didn’t know then is that everyone, every household and child has their secrets. Everyone carries their own burdens,
The edges of reality blurred, the then and the now, as I stood in the bookstore in the town where I grew up, the big sky and breezes anchoring me once more to the place where my bones grew and my mind searched for understanding. At the reading, I faced people I knew and met new people. I talked about my books and my truth. The rules of silence from so long ago dissolved as I spoke, the need to hide and lie to myself and others about who I was had fallen away because I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains. Because I wrote what was true, because I visited the past so often in real life, and in my dreams and my writing, I had laid out the stories and they were now resting in my books. These acts of witnessing my young self, coming to understand and forgive my mother and grandmother for the heartache we all shared are part of the gift of memoir writing–a gift first to myself, and later, to others who identify with the story in their own way.
I had to laugh at my own joke–they say that writing a memoir will heal you–which is what I teach every day and for the last two decades. It’s true. I could see that writing had freed me of the energetic old burdens of the past as I drove around the streets of Enid, said hello to the lovely graceful wheat fields, met other classmates, and spoke of my books and my story. I was free as I spread my wings under the big sky, and welcomed a powerful hailstorm and sun that quickly shone afterward, knowing that I had indeed come Home.
In 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:
- Write for yourself first, imagining your family far away from your writing space.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Write your story! See what it can teach you. It’s an exploration.
What Made Love Warrior a Best-Selling Memoir?
A Free Webinar Monday, April 17, 4 PM PDT/7 PM EDT
With Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers of WriteYourMemoirInSixMonths.com
To sign up, Click here: http://writeyourbookinsixmonths.com/love-warrior-free-webinar
In Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton has written about emotional pain in a way that most memoirists struggle with. She grapples with addiction, painful insecurities, her husband’s infidelity, maternal overwhelm, and questions about her own lack of sex drive. Tackling a single one of these issues is tough; to expose all of them and handle them with care requires bravery and skill.
In this free webinar, memoir experts Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner will address the fears that invariably come up for writers who want to write their deepest truths and expose their most intimate—and often shameful—secrets. The webinar will address the fallouts of such naked writing—and talk about how sharing your truth has a way of both leveling everything and setting you free.
During this Free Webinar You Will Learn:
The hard truths—how to share them, why to share them, and what the consequences are for you, the writer, and the story if you don’t.
Intentional omission. What did Glennon leave out? How did this impact the story and her readers?
How to tackle hard themes, and the balance a memoir must strike when you’re sharing the intimate details of your sometimes-messy life.
Whether the fallout is worth it. A look at the repercussions of writing a memoir, how to determine your tolerance for other people’s reactions, and ways to know whether the timing is right, and if you can weather the possible consequences.
To sign up, Click here: http://writeyourbookinsixmonths.com/love-warrior-free-webinar