I’d like to welcome author Linda Joy Myers Ph.D, to Annette’s Paper Trail, a quick detour on her blog tour for her latest book, The Power of Memoir: Writing Your Healing Story.
Last week, when I saw an opportunity to interview Linda Joy, an author, therapist, and the founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, I jumped at the chance! My fascination with telling, reading, and listening to personal stories in short essay form, spoken word, and full-length memoir has lead to an addiction (the good kind) for reading memoir writing books. Of the many memoir craft books I’ve read, The Power of Memoir has been the most comprehensive in addressing the therapeutic and healing aspects of memoir writing. A gentle and wise guide, Linda Joy leads the reader-writer through the process of understanding, recording, and learning from painful personal experiences.
The Power of Memoir is a groundbreaking book that presents an innovative step-by-step program using memoir writing on the journey of emotional and physical healing. By drawing on the eight steps outlined in The Power of Memoir, you’ll learn how to choose the significant milestones in your life and weave together your personal story. You’ll discover how writing your truths and shaping your narrative propel you toward a life-changing transformation. The Power of Memoir offers the tools you need to heal the pain of the past and create a better present and a brighter future.
Today, Linda Joy offers wonderful advice about how to start collecting your stories, deal with the internal and external pressure of keeping family secrets, balance the light and dark sides of your stories, and silence the inner critic.
1. As you’ve discovered in your therapy work with clients and in your own life experience, using writing to heal is a very powerful tool. If a writer has a deeply personal and painful story, how should she begin to get it onto the page?
Start by considering the special moments in your life, 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 the significant event and when it occurred. Memoirists can feel overwhelmed by the large number of memories they have, so the turning point and timeline tools that I talk about in the book serve to help organize memories. We need to sift through to find the most important stories as a spine around which to build a longer work.
I also suggest that writers keep track of the “dark” and the “light” stories, so they are not overwhelmed by the more painful memories. And I advocate learning 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.
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 story, we 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 ourselves as we write from our current point of view about who we 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. Writing 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.
To protect yourself from being overwhelmed by pain, 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. These techniques are protective as you prepare your psyche for deeper work.
2. I can see how writing from 3rd person would help detach from the pain of reliving the story, but what if a writer is torn between the desire to tell her story truth and the internal/external pressure to keep family secrets? What do you recommend she do?
It’s important first for the writer to get her story on the page, to write her own truth. Each person has her point of view and her own story that no one else can tell, so she needs to claim it, she needs to 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.
3. I believe that recording both the humor and pathos of your experiences makes for a better memoir. And in The Power of Memoir, you talk about balancing the light side and the dark side. From a therapy perspective, how does this help the writer and the reader?
Research has shown that writing positive stories about ourselves is as healing as writing about bad memories, but I’ve seem big changes when writers dig in the darkness for deeper levels of truth. We all want to avoid unnecessary pain, yet healing comes from balancing our system and not staying trapped in memories and negative feelings about the past. Our fears, anger, jealousy, insecurity, and hurt are real, but they can interfere with living with a sense of peace, forgiveness of self and others, and juicy creative energy.
The people I work with in my workshops have found it helpful to weave back and forth between the dark and the lighter stories to create a balance and recover from the heaviness of writing the painful stories. The path of emotional healing is like cleaning out an old wound: it hurts while we are cleaning it out but we feel better afterward.
Make a list of the dark topics or stories that you suspect are important, but you aren’t yet ready to write. List them by title or theme. Write down the age you were when these difficult times happened. Write down what you did to cope with the event at the time. How do you feel now about the incident? What would you have liked to happen differently? Place these stories on a timeline so you can get a perspective on the clustering of events.
Make a list of the light stories, stories that bring you a feeling of well being, happiness, contentment, and safety. They may include memories about love, spiritual experiences, and miracles. Stand fully in the light of the positive stories and feel them in your body. Hold the images of the positive stories while you consider the dark stories list. This technique helps to integrate the polarities of our psyche.
The reader needs relief too, as most readers will put a book down if there are uninterrupted dark stories. I alternated dark and light chapters in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother so the reader could enjoy moments of lightness and joy while also finding out the story of abandonment and loss that weaves through the book.
If you find that you can’t stop writing a traumatic story, talk about it with a counselor or seek therapy and emotional support. It’s important to take good care of yourself. You have to be the judge of what you are ready to express. Be your own best friend.
4. Many writers are picked apart by their inner critic before they even get started on a memoir project. (Um…like me.) What specific techniques do you suggest to silence that destructive voice?
The inner critic is tenacious. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have an inner critic, and everyone wants to know how to get rid of it. The good and bad news is that the critical voice is a part of each of us, showing that we’re vulnerable human beings with doubts, fears, and worries, not that easy to throw away Often we internalize the voices of the family, whom I call the “outer critics.” When they’re alive in our head at the writing table, they become part of the inner critic harangue. The inner critic strives to enforce old rules silence and loyalty. It stops us from writing our truths, so we might forget that we have the right to write our unique stories—from a point of view that no one else has. Over time, we get too familiar with the negative inner voices, and we believe them. It’s a kind of negative hypnosis or brain washing that we have to conquer by writing anyway.
I had a terrible inner critic, vicious and hateful, but I noticed that at all the literary events I attended, each writer had some version of an inner critic. Yet they were up there, reading from published works! This gave me hope and I kept doing the exercises I suggest here, and showing my work to others, despite the inner critic’s attacks. Over time, my inner critic became quite tame.
It’s important to dialogue with the inner critic. If it says, ‘‘You’re stupid, you can’t write,’’ write, ‘‘Who taught me this? Where did my belief come from?’’ Explore these questions in your journal.
If it says, ‘‘You are so boring and not very good. What makes you think you can write?’’ answer back, ‘‘It’s true that I was bad in [fill in the blank with school skills], but I have written some good things before, and even [fill in the name of a friend, editor, teacher, family member] liked it.’’ See how this works—remembering times and events that counter the negative belief. This is a therapy technique that really works.
If you suffered humiliation when you expressed yourself in school or in front of family, write down those comments. For instance, “You always got the worst grade in spelling, and you always failed your essays.’’
Continue to contradict the critic. ‘‘My memoir isn’t about getting good grades. I’m not fourteen years old either. I’ve spent years writing, and I can hire an editor when I’m ready. Shut up and let me write.’’
Keep a list of the negative phrases in your journal, and work regularly to counter each accusation with positive, assertive statements. Some of the negative phrases will simply melt away after being acknowledged. See if you can label the origin of the phrase or voice. Keep an ongoing list of the critic’s attempts to stop you, and keep creating positive, affirming responses. Then get on with your writing for that day.
“Shut up and let me write!” I love that. The next time my inner critic rears her snarky head, that’s the response she’s going to get! Linda, are there any final words of wisdom or encouragement you’d like to share with aspiring memoirists?
- It’s important to listen to the whispers of desire to write your story and capture the moments of your life that are important to you. From these beginnings, a lot of important stories can emerge, and soon you will have a book.
- Don’t listen to your inner critic or negative family comments about writing your memoir. In fact, don’t tell them you’re thinking of writing one, and they will not get anxious!
- Draw upon family photos to help you picture events, people, clothes, houses, and weather. Writing from photos helps remind you of those times, and puts you back in the scene.
Last year in a workshop one of the presenters said, “A published writer needs talent, training, and perseverance. All published writers have perseverance.”
I would like to add that writing a memoir demands courage, perseverance, training, and emotional fortitude.
Start today, and be brave—write your story!
Readers: Post your questions for Linda Joy in the comments section and share your thoughts. Do you have trouble balancing your light side and dark side? Are you struggling with revealing family secrets? Have you tried writing as therapy? Jump in and let’s talk about it!
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, is author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story. She’s the President and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and a family therapist in Berkeley. A prize-winning author of Don’t Call Me Mother and Becoming Whole, Linda Joy is a speaker, editor, and writing coach, and offers online teleseminars and workshops at www.namw.org.
Visit Linda Joy’s website and stop by to read her blog.