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.
Facing the Truth as Your Write Your Memoir
I didn’t want to know what that small voice murmuring in my left ear had to tell me. I’d noticed it for several months, the sense there was something dark waiting that I needed to discover about me, something in the past. I tried to prepare myself, meditating to be ready for whatever might come forth. Finally, through several traumatic circumstances in my life, I was forced to face the knowledge that I’d grown up with a grandmother who’d had psychotic episodes. I had known that much of my time with her was dark and frightening, but the realization that I had to put that name to it was terrifying. What did it mean about me? Was I doomed to be crazy too?
I was stricken with both despair and relief. Because I’d faced one of my worst fears, I became less afraid, stronger, and more able to continue healing. The voice in my left ear stopped. I integrated the knowledge that came to me, and eventually realized I was not my grandmother; I was not doomed to her fate. It took many years to trust this, and to develop more strength and fewer fears.
In my coaching, writers tell me they are afraid the past will come rushing out without permission–and soon find out that what they intend to write is not always what emerges. Sometimes our writing takes us past the barred gates unwelcome memories come rushing out. How can we cope with new knowledge? How can we face our truths, no matter how unwanted?
Recently, as I watched a Harry Potter movie, I noticed a technique that helped Harry confront terror. His mentor told him to hold in his mind the best memory of his life while he cast a spell on a terrifying apparition that represented his deepest fears. If the positive image was not strong enough, the spell would not work. He remembered his parents with love, and the power he gained from that image helped him to conquer the demon he feared. Pretty impressive!
I have suggested a similar technique with my students, though we have had to make do without a magic wand or a spell! I talk with them about light and dark stories. “Light” stories bring light and healing, happiness and hope, love and forgiveness. Dark stories are about wounds that are still unhealed, pain, loss, grief, and fear. Jung talks about the repressed shadow in human psyche, the parts of us we don’t want to know about. However, when we face the shadow side of ourselves, we become more integrated and free to be whole.
- Make a list of the dark topics or stories that you know are there, but you aren’t ready to write. List them by title or theme.
- Make a list of the light stories, stories that bring you a feeling of well being, happiness, contentment, and safety. They may include love, spiritual experiences, and miracles.
- When you are ready, choose from the “light” list to write your first story.
- As needed, write one of the dark stories.
- Rebalance by writing another light one, and so forth.
One thing is certain: facing our truths, whether major upheavals in our lives or smaller day to day events, helps us to grow. Each time we face ourselves, who we are and who we have been, we build strength for the present and the future.
Begin with lists. Begin with “no” to move into “yes.”
Begin with your light stories. Tell the stories of your life in a safe way that inspires you to move forward in your writing. Know that what you are doing is brave, it’s a path to healing. That your voice and your truths are powerful!
Image from Wikipedia.
The release of The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story has given me the opportunity to answer questions about memoir writing, from truth to secrets, from families who support the writer to families who threaten to sue if the memoirist tells “the truth.” I’m posting some of the questions every few days to help memoir writers caught in the dilemma between truth, memoir, family, and fiction.
Many writers are torn between the desire to tell the truth and the internal/external pressure to keep family secrets. What do you recommend they do?
It’s important first for the writer to get her story on the page, to write her own truth. Each person has a point of view and his own story that no one else can tell, so he needs to claim it and discover its wisdom by writing about it. This process creates a new perspective that brings forth layers of memories and insights. Exposing these layers is part of the healing process.
And there’s the hot topic in all my workshops: secrets. Secrets are energy magnets. The force it takes to keep secrets hidden is energy that could be used for growth and creativity. So often though, the shame and guilt associated with secrets keep feeding the darkness and the fear. Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them. We become co-conspirators to family dynamics that we don’t agree with and want to break away from. So we get caught in a conflict—to speak or not to speak? Do we remain closed and complicit, or open up and take the risk of losing friends and family, of being ousted from the family, or shamed once again into submission? These are choices that we need to make consciously and with care.
I tell my students to be open to writing two versions of the story: first, write for yourself, to clear out your emotional closet and sort the events that are jumbled up in your mind. Research has shown that writing the unadorned truth is powerful and creates changes in the brain—in other words: it’s healing.
When you put real people in your book, especially if they are identifiable, they should be notified. Even if all the portraits are positive, we’re exposing a real person to the eyes of the world. The convention is to have people read the sections they appear in, if you are on speaking terms. If not, change the names and identifying characteristics, even if that means changing names for the character, the streets, town and anything that exposes them. If published, the legal branch of the publishing company can vet the manuscript as well, but since so many memoirs are self-published, I think it’s important for people to keep these ethics in mind.
Putting the publishing concerns aside for a moment, I think the writer first needs to listen to the voice within, the true author of the story–yourself. Write what you have to say as if no one will read it–you can review it later. You will be different from the writer who began the story. Writing the story will transform you, heal you, and give you a feeling of empowerment.
Be brave–write your story!