Do you feel that memoir writing is like taking off your clothes in front of everyone? Being raw, exposed, and vulnerable on the page for all to see?
According to Susan Shapiro, author of this NY Times article, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K. that’s what memoir writers need to do. She has her students write a “humiliation essay” where the masks of being perfect, acting properly, or using dainty language are torn away to reveal layers of experience, an imperfect person who isn’t what we feel we “should” present to the world. In her class, the students had to reveal their vulnerable selves. Memoir writing does demand that we explore, reveal—if only to ourselves at first—who we are and what makes us tick. Shapiro says in her essay, “The author Phillip Lopate complains that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. And I agree.”
Having offered many workshops on “Writing as Healing” and “Spiritual Memoir,” I have been blessed to spend time with writers whose goal is to strip down and reveal themselves, exploring beneath the superficial story of who they are, digging deeper into their psyches—motivations, needs, fears, revealing the confusion that reigns underneath the personas that we normally show the world.
You need trust for this kind of writing. First, you have to trust yourself—you need to stand behind who you are or were, you need to invite your true voice to appear on the page. If you’re in a class, you need to feel assured that you are safe in pulling away the masks. Remember that each vignette, chapter, or meaningful moment contains a takeaway, a lesson in how you’ve lived and what you’ve learned. It’s in the silent and small moments that we turn off the noise and come to terms with who we are in full. It takes a strong person to be vulnerable, willing to confess and tell the truth. And when we do, we offer hope to others who are trying to be authentic and real too.
Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer?
Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. Take a risk and write, whether in a class, workshop, or at your private computer, moments that you’ve been afraid to encounter, give yourself permission to discover layers of your truths, and keep writing to explore and expose yourself.
Your first draft is for you. It’s where you can try out “peeling the onion” of the layers of who you are and putting these insights into words. Allow yourself to freewrite, and also set a goal of setting a theme and word limits to challenge yourself not to just write “this happened and that happened.” Writing reveals surprises, writing invites our whispers of knowledge on the page. It exposes us to parts of ourselves we may not even know.
In this New Year, offer yourself the freedom and the invitation to reveal your inner life in stories—that illuminate you, and that allow others to learn from you. That is what memoir is—sharing through literature our common humanity.
Reminder: I’m one of the editors for the Times They Were A’Changing—Women Remember the 60s and 70s anthology and contest. I have to say that I’m very moved by many of the stories that have been shared. The writers have dug deep into their histories, writing stories that bring us readers back forty years into an era that no longer exists. We see those two decades through their personal lens and their translation of those times. They offer us new insights through their vulnerability and honesty about how they lived then.
Please consider “exposing” yourself and sending your 2500 word piece. Go to our website and submission page to find out the rules and address for submission.
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.
Last week at the teleseminar hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers, Jason Marsh, one of the directors of The Greater Good Science Foundation spoke with me about the power of art and social connections to help the healing process. Thanksgiving is one of our “official” gratitude holidays—while also being the “eating holiday.” There has been an astounding amount of research about how writing and writing a “gratitude journal helps to heal and create an ongoing sense of greater happiness and satisfaction in life. Happiness—we all want that, don’t we? Below is an article by Jason about the research and suggestions for what you can do to improve your life.
Happy Gratitude Day—Thanksgiving!
Keeping a Gratitude Journal—Jason Marsh
Researchers have identified the great social, psychological, and physical health benefits that come from giving thanks and zeroed in on some concrete practices that help us reap those benefits. Perhaps the most popular practice is to keep a “gratitude journal.” As we’ve reported many times over the years, studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike. We’ve even got our own “community gratitude journal” on Greater Good.
The basic practice is straightforward. In many of the studies, people are simply instructed to record five things they experienced in the past week for which they’re grateful. The entries are supposed to be brief—just a single sentence—and they range from the mundane (“waking up this morning”) to the sublime (“the generosity of friends”) to the timeless (“the Rolling Stones”).
But when you dig into the research, you find that gratitude journals don’t always work—some studies show incredible benefits, others not so much. To understand why, I took a closer look at the research and consulted with Robert Emmons, arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude and an author of some of the seminal studies of gratitude journals.
Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, shared these research-based tips for reaping the greatest psychological rewards from your gratitude journal.
- Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if you first make the conscious decision to become happier and more grateful. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
- Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
- Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
- Try subtraction, not just addition. One effective way of stimulating gratitude is to reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things.
- Savor surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
- Don’t overdo it. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
In looking over this list, what strikes me is how keeping a gratitude journal—or perhaps the entire experience of gratitude—is really about forcing ourselves to pay attention to the good things in life we’d otherwise take for granted. Perhaps that’s why the benefits seem to diminish when you start writing more than once per week, and why surprises induce stronger feelings of gratitude: It’s easy to get numb to the regular sources of goodness in our lives.
Indeed, Emmons told me that when people start keeping a gratitude journal, he recommends that they see each item they list in their journal as a gift—in fact, he suggests that they “make the conscious effort to associate it with the word ‘gift.’” Here are the exact instructions he gives participants in his studies:
Be aware of your feelings and how you “relish” and “savor” this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude.
“In other words,” he says, “we tell them not to hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”
So why might this particular practice do such good for our minds and bodies? Emmons points to research showing that translating thoughts into concrete language—whether oral or written—has advantages over just thinking the thoughts: It makes us more aware of them, deepening their emotional impact.
“Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context,” he says. “In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”
It has become common for therapists to recommend writing about unpleasant, even traumatic events. Similarly, says Emmons, gratitude journals may help us “bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to a difficult life situation.”
Though he does have suggestions for how to keep a gratitude journal, Emmons also stresses that “there is no one right way to do it.” There’s no evidence that journaling at the start of the day is any more effective than journaling before you go to bed, for instance. And aesthetics really don’t matter.
“You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar,” says Emmons. “The important thing is to establish the habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.”
Today in the New York Times, an article reviews the findings of Emmons and other researchers. Check it out! Start your Gratitude Journal today.
Those of you who have been writing memoir know that it’s not just as simple as sitting down and letting words pour forth out of your fingers. It is a journey—I’ve written about that before—and it’s a challenge emotionally. We run into all kinds of memories on that journey, and we need some help along the way to keep us from sinking into the darker memories and to help us heal and forgive–a positive side benefit of writing your story. In order to find greater peace and happiness, we have to write down what went wrong first so we can see it with a new perspective, as a story.
I draw upon my therapy background to help guide my students into the calmer waters of memoir writing, while also supporting them in the excavating the darker caves of their memories.
I’m pleased this week to be speaking with Jason Marsh, one of the directors of The Greater Good Science Foundation about How Art Can Heal—The Power of Compassionate Connections.
He has this to say about the importance of art in creating a good quality of life.
“A recent wave of studies is suggesting that art can play an important role. This research suggests that creating art–through writing and other methods–brings many of the same therapeutic benefits as maintaining close relationships. What’s more, studies have found that art can boost important qualities–including greater empathy–among people who consume art, not just those who create it.”
Jason is co-editor of the book The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, an inspiriting collection of 33 articles collected from the Greater Good online magazine.
In an article the “Compassionate Instinct” Dacher Keltner says that scientific research confirms we are biologically wired to feel good if we help to alleviate another’s suffering. Kristin Neff writes on the blog http://greatergood.berkeley.edu a great article about the importance of self-compassion. This becomes an important tool for writers. Guess what is one of the greatest impediments to writing a memoir: yes, the Inner Critic, that nagging, negative voice that stops you from writing your true thoughts, even though you are alone at your computer. Your negative voice aims its sights way down the road toward publication instead of staying right where you are: in the first draft of your manuscript.
I love this quote from Kristin’s book The Science of Self-Compassion:
“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”
These links on the Greater Good Science Foundation site offer some great articles about happiness, compassion, raising children to be healthy and happy, and the power of mindfulness and meditation to create new positive parts of the brain. Our brain is always growing and changing, which supports the research on how writing helps to heal.
Please join us at the National Association of Memoir Writer special membership Teleseminar to find out what Jason has to say about how to create and draw upon compassion as you create your art, and the ways this can benefit your life.
Tips for Finding the Creative Spark Within
As a memoir coach, I’m blessed to meet so many people with a passion for creativity and writing. But to live that passion, we often have to conquer a fierce adversary: the inner critic! It demands perfect grammar and eloquent language. If we were “real” writers and if we were really creative, we think it should be easy to write, that things would just flow.
In my workshops, I ask what people think a “real” writer is:
• A real writer is already published.
• A real writer effortlessly sits down every day to write for hours.
• A real writer is published by a large New York publisher.
• A real writer is someone super-confident who writes 20 pages a day without confronting any obstacles.
You can see how these beliefs will slow you down. Pick up your pen and write, or take out your computer. In the photo above, I was writing at the cafe where Hemingway used to write in Paris–Deux Magots.
The Inner Critic
All writers and creative people struggle with the inner critic. That voice intrudes into the mind, and too often we believe it. Some typical critic voices writers and artists talk about:
• You’re boring.
• Why bother?
• Who cares?
• Who do you think you are (to try to be a writer)?
• How dare you write our story!
• Quit being such a navel gazer.
Writing can feel like being on a battleground, so of course it seems easier to garden, or clean the house. We need to feed our creativity and we need to learn how to cope with these problem messages banging around in our head. We need to unleash our authentic voice and speak our own truths, despite family members telling us to keep secrets.
In my workshops I see amazing breakthroughs. Perhaps the safety and support of the group bypasses the pesky inner critic. Or the intense passion of the writer is ignited by the group process, which invites stories to burst out.
I talk about how to heal the inner critic in my book The Power of Memoir — write down what the critic says, and then answer it back with positive affirmations. It’s important to argue with it, to take a more positive stance. If you do this for all those inner voices, you create a tool that manages them, even if they are not silenced. Just know that all writers and all creative people have these voices and they have to learn not to listen to them or believe them.
Quick, Powerful Writing
Freewriting or writing quickly blows us on by the critic. It’s often a surprise how a really wonderful vignette can be written in just twenty minutes. These snapshots of authentic life astonish us because they are fresh and real. In one of my groups, a woman wrote about her young son, a golden boy of eight—how important he is, having come into her life after she thought couldn’t have children, and about the joy he’s given her after years of grief about possibly never having children. The group held her in respectful, embracing silence while Kleenex was passed silently from hand to hand, the room filled with compassion. She finally looked at us and wiped her eyes.
“Wow. I guess I took up a lot of time. I’m sorry.”
Everyone began telling her how deeply the story had affected them. As she was witnessed by the group, she smiled. “I’ve never told anyone this, I’ve never had the space to do this before.”
This woman felt the healing power of writing, and the power of a group witnessing her with compassion. She wrote: “Attending this workshop gave me the opportunity to reach deep inside and draw a circle of words around my heart. I shared my deepest feelings with a group who received me and held me with compassion and acceptance. I left the workshop feeling fuller and more whole.”
Write from Love, From Your Creative Spirit
If you write, you are a writer. Invite yourself to dip into the flow of words in your head and write them down. You’ll be amazed at the wisdom that resides within you just waiting to be tapped. Brenda Ueland, in her wonderful classic If You Want to Write, says that everyone is talented and original. All of us need to share our ideas with the world; it is part of our right as human beings to express ourselves. Ueland says that criticism destroys creativity, and that so-called helpful criticism is often the worst kind.
I read Ueland’s book over and over to get inspired through the years. It’s full of wisdom and a lively positive spirit about our unique creativity. She says we must write freely, as if to friends who appreciate us and find us interesting. We should write as if they are saying, “Tell me more, tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.” It’s an invitation to be ourselves, be authentic and write our truths.
If you want to write, create space for writing in your life. Set a time and a place to nurture this spark into a roaring blaze. Focus inward and listen to stories that whisper to you—capture your grandmothers’ kitchen, your mother’s face, or your father’s love of golf. The days of your life that give you meaning and joy. The creative spark is alive. Feed the flame! Read Ueland’s book and be inspired!
1. Write about what being a “real” writer means to you.
3. List the critic voices. Get them out of your head. Write your affirmations.
4. Keep listing the stories that you always wanted to tell. Write for 15 minutes a day.
5. Write about the happiest day of your life. Be sure to use sensual details of smell, sounds, feelings in your body, and colorful descriptions.