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.
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.
Video of Diane Sawyer and Jaycee Dugard
Millions watched as Jaycee Lee Dugard told her story to Diane Sawyer on national television. Diane, and perhaps most of the audience, seemed amazed and impressed at her composure, honesty and wisdom.
It seems clear that the eleven year old who had to endure isolation, imprisonment, and rape found some strong coping mechanisms that enabled her to survive—for eighteen years. To have children and raise them in captivity. She mentions a spider, kittens, and a journal that connected her to the small but important things she could find that gave her hope. When she gave birth at age 14, she finally had someone with her. “I wasn’t alone,” she said.
While we can watch the video version of Jaycee’s story, the real behind-the-scenes story is in her memoir A Stolen Life. Through her account, she wanted to support other victims and to give hope to others who have suffered abuse. Too often in the news we see children victimized by adults who use them for their own selfish needs.
Drawing upon my years of working with people who are healing trauma, in my book The Power of Memoir I discuss the importance for a victim of abuse and trauma to write down what really happened as a testimony to the injustices suffered. I quote Alice Miller’s work on how important it is to be witnessed with compassion and understanding for the injuries suffered. When we are witnessed, we are no longer alone. Writing offers us witnessing—as we tell the story of how we suffered and coped. As a writer-narrator, we are witnessing ourselves and healing the past.
The studies on writing as healing by psychologists and brain experts all underscore the need to write your stories, to search for and tell the truth. How healing it is to hear your own authentic voice! And when you’re ready, you can share your story so others can learn from your experiences.
One of the things that happened to Jaycee is that the Garridos took away her name—something most of us take for granted. It’s fitting that she begins the book with claiming her name once again, writing the book herself and naming all the things that were done to her, all the wrongs that were committed in nearly two decades of her life. Yet Jaycee is not bitter. Her face is full of light, and her goal is to live fully from now on. She is full of love—and is an amazing inspiration for everyone who’s trying to heal their past. Forgiveness, when we’re ready for it, opens up the pathways to the heart. People who’ve been abused need to find their way to themselves, to reclaim the parts that were lost in the past, and in so doing, they reclaim their lives.
I’m moved by her words, the video, and the calm authenticity she demonstrates. No doubt there is much more healing to do as she continues to discover freedom and the joys of living, but Jaycee shows us how it’s possible to live a new life in freedom and light. Through her story, we may find slivers of our own, and learn new pathways to our own healing.
I was recently interviewed by Laurie Sanders, host of Today’s World blog talk radio program and veteran radio DJ with KOIT in San Francisco. We discussed the topic of how writing helps to heal and about the special things that memoir writers need to know.
Enjoy the interview and let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below. I truly appreciate your feedback!