Fear–everyone experiences an uncomfortable tension, a flutter in the stomach, when they think about writing about their lives and revealing themselves. But most of us come to the page with a need–to explore our lives and memories. To understand something. To muse and wonder about life, relationships. What are the stories that haunt you? What do you need to say and what stops you? What memories won’t leave you alone? Write them down. For now, just write a list.
What gets in the way of writing your truth: shame, fear of judgment from family and friends? Sometimes it’s hard to express the truth of what we’ve lived through, what we’ve done to ourselves and others. And what others have done to us. In writing memoir, we have the opportunity to explore the deeper layers of memory and self. We try to make sense of what happened. Writing allow us to explore our minds and dreams, it gives us permission to discover who we are.
How can we break through the voices of doubt? It’s not easy—just “deciding” to push through may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we need to write our stories. But the real problem is our vulnerable emotional self–it wants to protect us from hurt or criticism. (Often we are our own worst critic.) The silencing voice, “the inner critic” is a part of everyone. Every famous author will tell you in their presentations how hard it was to write, how their inner critic started shouting or whispering. But they write anyway!
Journaling, morning pages, a poem a day–you don’t have to write a great deal to feel the joy of seeing your words flow onto the page. Then celebrate and reward yourself for your efforts. Bit by bit you will be able to write more. Someone once told me “Writing leads to more writing!” It’s true. Every time you write, you’re breaking your silence and freeing your voice.
Make lists of the significant moments you remember, moments that won’t leave you alone. Lists help to contain overwhelming emotions and allow you to slowly immerse yourself in a few memories at a time. Be sure to balance the light and dark memories.
Another technique: Keep your writing private through the first draft. Share carefully and protect your vulnerable early thoughts and remembrances from outside comments until you have written a lot without worrying about what your family might say. Remember that family and friends might have a different perspective of events. Negative feedback or the fear of it stops us from writing freely and honestly. Protect your creative self! Get your stories down and live with them for awhile before sharing them.
- 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 would happen if you wrote your truths?
- List the secrets you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write what you really think and feel.
- Make a list of the 5 best memories in your life.
- Each week, choose a story from your lists and write at least 500 words.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to and who can support you. Mutual support and witnessing helps with the process.
- Take classes and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies will grow better with more nurturing.
You’ve started on your memoir, and even though you’ve made an outline, you find your family and childhood taking over your story. You began to see your family through new lenses, and then your writing veered off way off course—or so you thought. The “writing warrior” inside us “knows” what we need to write, and leads us unplanned directions. This can alarm your inner critic!
It starts saying, “Oh, why do you insist on staying stuck in the past, why do you write about the same damn thing over and over again, can’t you just forget this writing jag and live a little?” You know, the inner nagging voice of doubt. It goes on about the fact that you’re writing about your family—again—and that you haven’t “gotten over all that yet,” have you?
We grow up thinking that the way we lived in our family was “just the way it was,” unaware of the many different ways families live and cope with life the positive and the stressful events and disappointments. As we write a memoir, we come to have new insights about how our family shaped us. It’s important to understand how psychological it is to write a memoir. If you are writing a story you hope will offer a new understanding of your family, let’s look for a moment at family psychology.
“Family” is defined in many ways. It once referred to a nuclear family of parents and children, but now of course there are so many different kinds of families: extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, great-grandparents. Close friends, alternative families, gay and lesbian couples, and mixed race families all sharing a multitude of cultures. People who were orphaned or grew up in an atypical family have a complex history that can be hard to write about. They had parents, yet they felt something else too, a sense of being on the outside looking in. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if the parents neglectful or abusive. Mental or physical illness in a family can create a feeling of abandonment too.
There are healthy families, and perhaps less healthy families—but everyone in the family is trying to survive, to find a way to live. Each family is unique, with strengths that balance the negative traits. In some families, it can be difficult to see these points of light early in the healing process because of the emotional pain that interferes with finding compassion for those who were unkind or selfish. The writing process may or may not create a new point of view, but it will allow you to see your family from different angles, and you may also find stories coming out that you didn’t realize you wanted to tell. New memories may arise, which offers another lens.
I grew up with my grandmother and lived far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. My grandmother acted superior to others, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem, but I didn’t know that then. I hated filling out forms in school where we had to write our mother’s and father’s names. I had to fill in “guardian” while trying not to see the questioning looks from the other kids. I imagined they were thinking, “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”
It didn’t help that I held the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying during each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. I didn’t realize that my grandmother had left my mother when she was young too. I could see their pain, but I just wanted us to be normal. When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist told me she was manic-depressive, bi-polar, naming the struggle that had affected our family for generations. That helped me to understand my mother and grandmother, to realize that they had an illness that guided their actions. I wrote about their childhoods and wrote stories through their point of view, trying to stand in their shoes, seeing if I could find compassion and learn how to forgive them. I write about this search in my book Don’t Call me Mother, and in Power of Memoir, I guide writers to use writing to help them on the journey from sorrow to joy, from dark to light.
My early healing work convinced me that in order to find myself, I had to confront the buried feelings of anger and sorrow I’d carried for so long and had tried to deny. Through therapy and writing, I learned to better understand the forces that drove my grandmother, mother, and even myself, to do things that weren’t healthy, and through story writing, I gradually found the threads of compassion and understanding. When I began my own healing process over thirty years ago, my goal was to break the pattern that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters. I can say that I succeeded in that goal, and one of the major ways for this healing was through writing.
It’s a great exercise to write from the point of view of others in the family, to learn to “see” them through new eyes. And keep writing your own stories–digging deep into the truths that live in your body and soul. It’s freeing, even though at times painful, to explore these inner riches, to explore how you came to be who you are now!
Write about the history of your family—who married whom, who stayed in the family, and who might have left or died. Where did you learn these stories?
What family patterns confused you in your family? List them and sketch out some moments you remember best. Combine “dark” and “light” moments in your memory sketch.
Write about the positive traits in your family that you feel that you have inherited, and show how these traits give you happiness or pleasure now.
How did you feel during family conflicts–in your body and in your mind? Write from the place in your body where you feel these conflicts live–either through sickness or tension in your body. Try to release the “story” living there.
What generational patterns do you want to change and why? Track the patterns you know about, and write about how you are changing them and offering a different legacy to your own family.
Do you feel you need to forgive someone for an injury they caused you? Write truthfully about this person and the injuries. Write these several time, and later, when you are in the mood, write about the incidents from the point of view of the other person. Then reflect on this exercise. What did you learn?
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it seems like a good time to start talking about this sometimes very touchy subject of writing your memoir and being able to face your family. Today I’m sharing part 1 of a 3 part series on the topic, so be sure to visit often or sign up for my feed so you won’t miss the whole series.
Everyone takes a collective breath at conferences and in my workshops when the words “memoir” and “family” appear in the same sentence. Hearts beat faster and pulses race as visions of upset family members point imaginary fingers. Sometimes this is all it takes to silence a beginning memoir writer; others go into overdrive trying to figure out how much to leave in or take out so the family won’t be displeased, or worse, uninvite them to family gatherings.
This kind of stress needs to be managed for memoir writers to unfold a very personal story, and explore their deepest truths. All of this must occur for a memoir to be a vibrant and important story. That is what memoir writing is all about—finding our own voice and telling our truths.
During my upcoming NAMW workshop, I’ll address the issues I’ve encountered both in my personal writing journey and the ones where I’ve mentored others.
Be sure to join me for the workshop to find out how to solve for some of the most problematic issues that memoir writers face:
* writing your truths
* defeating your critics
* how to focus on & develop your plot
When these issues are unresolved, the memoir writer screeches to a halt, hounded by guilt and those imagined pointing fingers. The inner critic wins, and the writer is silenced.
When you have the proper tools and perspective all for these challenges, they can be overcome. You are then free to write with a full, clear voice and complete your memoir. Remember, your memoir is about you and how you remember your life–and you don’t need to get approval to write. Be brave and write your story now.