Memoir: The Power of Claiming our Stories

Memoir: The Power of Claiming our Stories


Power of MemoirWe 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.

The Power of Memoir: Finding Your Stories

The Power of Memoir: Finding Your Stories

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.


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

  1. To gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the life you’ve lived.
  2. To heal the past, and create hope for the future.
  3. To create a legacy for your family, a family history.
  4. To expose injustice or abuse.
  5. To settle emotional scores—from anger and revenge to acceptance and forgiveness.
  6. To present a point of view about a controversial issue.
  7. To share with the world your unique experiences with travel, education, illness and recovery, family, or your spiritual quest.
  8. To taste again the joys of friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers.
  9. To honor those we have loved.
  10. 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.