I knew that I’d enjoy my conversation with Mark Matousek at the National Association of Memoir Writers monthly teleseminar to discuss writing a spiritual memoir the other day, but I had no idea of the magic that would happen on the call. I’m often the one who helps to guide people to write about the darker moments of life in their memoir, and sometimes I feel that my voice is alone in the wilderness—such a point of view is not all that popular. After all, don’t we all want to just write about the happy times? Don’t we all try to avoid the dark stuff because it is a drag, it’s painful, and we hope it will all go away if we don’t think about it? So it was a surprise to me find in this first “meeting” with Mark, someone with whom I’d never spoken until the teleseminar, to discover that he’s a person who’s journeyed into the dark forests of life, and has come out again with a great deal of wisdom about the journey that can enlighten the rest of us.

Mark grew up without a father in an emotionally stressed family situation, and later was diagnosed with a life threatening illness. When he wrote his first memoir Sex, Death, and Enlightenment, he thought it would be his last. “I had to get everything in that book; I was also learning how to write. My next book was easier, because I knew how to focus and choose.” He sees the journey into the tough places as a way to find redemption. He says, “You can’t get to the truth by half measures. You have to write it all out, all the secrets and the pain, and then you will find your awakening.”

In my work as a coach to help people write a spiritual memoir, we soon discover that the tough stories are waiting to be born onto the page, so they tumble out almost accidently or through hints and metaphors before developing into fully formed stories. Often writers begin a topic that’s seemingly innocent or pleasant only to find out that the deeper topic that has been suppressed or denied rises up and flows out of the end of the pen or types itself into the computer, often to the consternation of the writer. Mark and I agreed that there’s a part of us that wants to heal and to taste all the possibilities of life. If we dampen down parts of ourselves, then that potential can’t flower beyond our sorrows.

I was blown away by a couple of quotes from Mark’s books:

“Whatever it takes to break your heart and wake you up is grace.”

“Darkness carries the seeds of redemption.”

I resonated deeply with these quotes—they reflected my own experiences with the pain of not growing up with my parents. Through my teachers, I’ve been guided to explore my path into the darkness, being promised that if I’m patient, I’ll find the light. Sometimes I was kicking and screaming all the way, but I could see that they were right, and through that process, which included writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I found a new perspective, the light that appeared on the other side of the dark stories and memories. I had to write my way through them. Mark said, “Terror is fuel,” a comment that’s right on. This concept appears as well in my book The Power of Memoir, and in articles about the transformational power of writing. With Mark, it was easy to connect about this spiritual philosophy, as he has lived it in his books, his life, and his teachings.

Mark knows that the healing power of writing guides us toward redemption. He says that first we should write to capture our real emotions in language—“It tames and contains.” Then we create stories, and through story we redeem our experiences. Our discussion reminded me of a quote from Dr. James Pennebaker— “Story is a way of knowledge.” Dr. Pennebaker has done years of research about the power of writing to heal and transform.

Mark said many amazing and true things about writing the journey of learning about our deeper self, and how we can express this journey in a spiritual memoir. I’ll summarize some of them here.

  1. The essential truth in memoir is truer than fact.
  2. Write about a secret you never have told anyone—this opens the door to your deeper self.
  3. You can’t get to the secrets truths by half measures. If you are too cautious, you won’t say enough.
  4. Finding your darkness is just the beginning—our “regular” life context needs to be cracked open in order for us to be reborn.
  5. Don’t tell anyone what you are writing—keep it private.
  6. If your writing scares you, keep going. You’re getting closer to the truth.

The writers that work with me in my memoir workshops talk about this frequently, bemoaning  the truth of these points at times, but celebrating the rewards of the deep inner work too. I’m so grateful to have had such a rich and deep conversation with a man who’s been on the wisdom path for a long time, a man who has been through the dark forest and out the other side—he’s learned from the darkness how to celebrate and honor the light in his life and the light in the world. What a joy it was to share these ideas, and to groove on the same wavelength with him for an hour.

Learn more about Mark Matousek by visting his website.   I also encourage you to learn more about Mark by visiting his Facebook page, where he’s writing a lot lately about his forthcoming book, Ethical Wisdom:  What Makes Us Good.

And you can obtain an audio recording of our conversation at the National Association of Memoir Writers website.

Write one of your powerful and true stories. Ten minutes will get a good story started. Explore your secrets, crack open the door to the unknown within you. You will be rewarded!