Memoir: The Power of Claiming our Stories
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.