Writing to heal yourself is a powerful tool—a means of personal transformation. In my book The Power of Memoir, I present a step-by-step program to help writers grab onto the images and memories they want to explore, and to move past the pain and trauma to get to the “takeaway” of survival, learning, self-knowledge, and deep personal change. When a writer has a deeply personal and even painful story, here are some ways to help get that story out and onto the page.
First, think about the special moments, the turning points that changed the direction of your life in a significant way. Make a list of these moments, at least ten to twenty, and write down each event and when it occurred.
Memoirists get overwhelmed by the large number of memories that spill out in all directions. The turning point and timeline tools that I talk about in The Power of Memoir help organize memories and give a focus to creating a narrative. You need to sift through the jumble of memories to find the most important stories as a spine around which to build a longer work. You need to find a focus and a message–and you may have several messages to share. This is great—allow the creative juices to flow, using brain storming and journaling to invite your ideas to the page where you can objectively sort through them.
A way to help manage the emotional aspects of writing a memoir, particularly if there are dark parts to the story, is to keep track of the “dark” and the “light” stories. Again, list making helps to contain and focus what the lighter—happier, joyful, and inspiring moments were in your life. Perhaps you need to revisit the darker moments to help banish the stories that swirl in your head—and create a new narrative with the perspective you have now as an adult.
It’s very important to learn about story structure and scenes. A story, unlike a journal entry, must have a structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and is constructed with an aim toward a goal and the unfolding of a plot where dramatic action guides the reader through the story. I devote a whole chapter in Power of Memoir to sketching out how a new writer can approach and learn about structure—it does not tend to be a strong point for most memoir writers, but you can learn it! Step by step.
Scenes bring your world alive!
Scenes are important! When we write a scene, we find ourselves in the places and times of our lives in a kind of creative hypnosis. A story uses scenes to bring the past to life. A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, and taste, along with characters, dialogue, and action. In a memoir, you are both the narrator and the “I” of the story—the main character. This dual point of view helps to create a witnessing experience of yourself as you write from your current point of view about who you once were, an artful weaving of then and now, past and present.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, says that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process, and of course we know that when we are seen and acknowledged, we feel affirmed and stronger. We are able to confront past experiences in a new way. Writing helps us to do this ourselves through the power of story. Writing a memoir allows us to witness all the stages of our lives, and when we read others’ memoirs, we witness and empathize with them, thus deepening our connection with humanity.
Tips for writing darker stories in your memoir.
- Create distance from the story. Write about what happened in the third person: “she” or “he” instead of “I.”
- Write as if you are watching the event unfold in a movie.
- Write a scene about a difficult incident, but make it turn out the way you wanted it to, ending it positively.
- Tell what happened before and after a difficult incident. Write around it, but not about the event itself.
- Only write a darker story for 20 minutes.
- Follow up a darker story with a lighter, happier story.
- If the past is too painful, write about the blessings in your life now.
- Write about yourself as a survivor and hero of your life.
What helps you to write past your painful memories? How do you balance the dark and the light as you write? Share your tips here. We all need to weave these elements when we write a memoir.
I’m pleased to present a guest blog post by Kathy Pooler. She has been in my workshops and is one of my premier blogger friends. Please join her blog at Memoir Writer’s Journey.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.” Robert Cormier
Photo Credit: “The Editing Process-Before and After” uploaded from Flickr
One of the greatest benefits of a critique group is receiving constructive feedback that enables you to take your writing to the next level. That can only happen if you allow yourself to be open to hearing from others what is working and what is not. I have been participating in Linda Joy’s Spiritual Autobiography and Healing Memoir Teleworkshops since January, 2010, where I have learned that writing is truly rewriting.
Revision is part of the process, as much as we’d like to think we can get it done on the first try.
Let’s face it, we all want our readers to fall in love with our little darlings. Our stories are our babies. We have created them with our own hearts and hands, but sometimes we are so close to our own words that we can’t see the discrepancies, missteps and omissions–the tweaks here and there that will make our stories and our characters become alive on the pages. Learning to self-edit is essential to our growth as writers. Read this excellent post by author, Nicola Morgan, comparing self-editing to weeding a garden.
Jody Hedlund, author of several Christian novels, Preacher Bride and The Doctor’s Lady,has an excellent blog post on her reactions to her own revision process “Getting Feedback That Makes You Cry.” About the “initial sting” of feedback, she states, “You need to give it some time and then come back to the suggestions with humble and objective eyes.” I really appreciate Jody’s honest sharing about the human aspect of receiving feedback.
The point is we have to be able to separate our emotions from the process of revising, and convince ourselves that revising will make our stories stronger.
We have to get over ourselves so we can go on to craft the best story in the best way.
“Writing is rewriting” is a common mantra in writing circles. In his book, Revision and Self-Editing, novelist James Scott Bell,talks about the importance of “rewriting with know-how” and lists the following tips in the revision process:
* Cool -Down …Take a break and walk away when your first draft is done.
* Prepare… Read through your first draft completely for the first time.
* Print out and prepare a fresh copy…with red felt pen and notepad handy.
* Get ready to read your manuscript… in a couple of sittings.
* Use outside readers…for objective opinions.
* Analyze… Does my story make sense, is my plot compelling, are my characters believable? Think about the effect on your reader as you write and revise, particularly in the later stages. Then, there’s the idea of deciding when our manuscript is done–after we’ve rewritten, incorporated feedback, deleted, added on, transformed our story and owned it. Perhaps this is another topic for another time.”
It seems to me that it’s essential to accept writing as rewriting, and revising as a natural part of the process. Constructive feedback helps us to see our blind spots, and offers us a chance to see through another reader’s eyes. These steps strengthen our stories and give them every possible chance to get into the hands of readers who will devour them with the same gusto it took for us to write them.
Perhaps the real starting point is when we accept that our first draft is lousy and needs to be rewritten, revised, and reconstructed. In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls a first draft “a child who is let loose and romps all over.”
I’d love to hear how you feel about revising and editing your work.
Are you rewriting with “know-how?”
Any ideas on how to get through the revision process as painlessly as possible?
Photo Credit: “The Revision Process” uploaded from Flickr
Join Kathy and me and other memoir writers at the National Association of Memoir Writers Free Telesummit Friday March 30. Sign up to join, or get the all day conference on audio to listen to later. Guests include Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, Dan Blank, Social Media guru and founder of WeGrowMedia.com, Tessa Smith McGovern founder of eChook, Lynn Serafinn, author of the 7 Graces of Marketing, Brooke Warner, expert writing coach at Warner Coaching, and me–Linda Joy Myers, author of The Power of Memoir. See you there!
Writing stories heals body and soul, and is a powerful way to change our perspective about the past. Not only that, it’s a creative way to learn about yourself. Dr. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smith published the first research on writing as a way to heal and recover from past injuries in the Journal of the American Medicine Association in 1999. Pennebaker states that writing stories is even more healing than journaling, and helps to heal asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Pennebaker’s site has a lot of articles about writing, healing, and the benefits of using certain language as a means for healing. Though we all have sensed that writing allows self expression and opens up awareness about our life, the research is a powerful testament to the power of words and story to create change.
For most of us, it’s easy and fun to write good memories, but most people have negative memories that linger and need release–the death of a loved one, depression, illness, or anxieties because of family dysfunction or various kinds of abuse. Society seems to try to get us to forget the past, but traumatic memories do not go away by will power alone, or even years of therapy. The ways we try to escape–through alcohol or addictions, for instance–only makes us more alienated from ourselves. Traumatic images and reactions disappear underground for a time, only to reappear when triggered by an event in current time–often called flashbacks. But these incidents can be healed through writing–and rewriting. Sometimes the same event needs to be written about many times in order to be released.
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in a different way than regular memories, but research continues to show that writing allows a new kind of processing to occur.
When you integrate the memories into your regular memory, you can move into a present and future renewed and with more energy–the pain of the past is put into perspective–perhaps not forgotten, but no longer seeming like an immediate and current injury.
Writing a story is different from journaling. When we journal, we spill out whatever we are feeling in a random way, and it doesn’t matter how we write it. Writing a story requires that we choose its shape and focus. This structuring and choice about scenes, dialogue, and characters opens up a creative space where writing can work its magic, where something new is created. Where we encounter the unknown. Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” We learn about ourselves throught writing story.
And there’s another exciting aspect to story writing in memoir: you are both the narrator and a “character” in the story. The narrator choosing what to write as an objective observer helps us to witness our younger self, and reveals a new perspective on the past. We weave a new place in the “now.”
In my book The Power of Memoir, I present an 8 step pathway to write a memoir–from researching your past to character studies, using turning points and the timeline to sort through your memories, and techniques of story structure. The research by Pennebaker and others is presented–and it’s quite exciting stuff. Writing really does help to heal physically–several writers I know with arthritis have improved functioning after writing for a few months, telling their truths, freeing themselves from the past.
The upcoming webinar at Writer’s Digest I’ll be offering a whole course in memoir writing in 90 minutes–which includes a recording, the live webinar, Q&A, and free critique. It will include techniques for writing freely and quickly, taming the inner critic, creating the arc of the narrative, writing powerful scenes, and much more.
Tips for writing a memoir:
- Make a list of the ten most important turning points in your life. Then choose a story from each one and write a new story each week.
- Write a list of the critic voices –either your inner critic or the voices of family or friends.
- Put the worry-critic list aside and begin writing using the turning point list.
- Capture your stories in vignette form without worrying about chronological order.
- Use photos to spark your memories. Think about what happened before and after each picture and describe the photo in detail.
- Create a sacred-space around you while you are writing. Don’t share your stories with anyone for a while. Protect them as if they were tiny plants in your garden.
- Write in the “I” voice in present tense for maximum intensity and immediacy.
- If you write in the past tense, you can easily move back and forth through time–using reflection as a way to create perspective.
- Think about your themes–asking “what is this about? What important message to I want to share with others?”
- List 5 things a reader will take away when they read your memoir.
- Create a writing schedule –writing 500 words–two pages–per day gives you a whole book in six months.
- Meditate on a mountain pool in France–see the above photograph. Linger in the reflections and start writing!