The day has come for both the guest blog by Linda Joy Myers and the first day of our giveaway contest. Below is the guest post that addresses the question of how to deal with our fears of offending family members from Dr. Myers, a therapist, writer, and teacher. I invite you to offer your own comment at the end, which will automatically enter you in the giveaway. On Friday, March 26, 2010, at noon I will draw a name from all the commenters on this post and on the interview with Linda Joy posted here tomorrow. You could win your own copy of The Power of Memoir. So comment early and often–like a voter in Chicago.
How to Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D.
Every time I offer a memoir writing workshop, people raise their hands to ask questions and share their worries about writing a memoir. “What about revealing the family secrets?” The young man shook his head. “Maybe I shouldn’t write my story at all.”
A middle-aged woman added, “When I told my family I was writing a memoir, everyone got silent. Now, I feel ostracized because they’re so worried about what I might say. Some of them know it won’t be pretty. Maybe I should just stop. I don’t want everyone to get mad at me.”
One woman shared that her family ordered her not to write her stories until everyone was dead! This caused quite a stir and even more questions.
The fear that leads to silencing ourselves is a powerful force, one that needs to be monitored if you want to write your stories. At every memoir workshop I hear worries about what family and friends will say when they’re published. They feel loyal not only to the living, but to the dead.
I ask, “Have you started writing yet?”
“No.” Or they might say that they’ve made a few notes, or they have box loads of journals they’re afraid to look at.
My response, “If you haven’t written a draft of your memoir yet, there’s nothing to worry about. If you haven’t told anyone you’re writing a memoir, don’t tell them now. Just keep writing and keep your stories private for a while.”
Sighs of relief and smiles relieve the tension around this fraught topic when I remind them that no one will know about their memoir if they don’t confess they’re writing one. Many people, particularly women I’ve noticed, feel a strong obligation to silence themselves in order to protect those who appear in the memoir. They spend years worrying about it while the story they want or need to write simmers and haunts them. They are silenced by the guilt-inducing voices of family, whether real or imagined.
Revealing other people’s lives can even be a problem if you decide to fictionalize, as the main “characters,” if they’re based on real people thinly disguised, are going to be easily recognizable to friends and family.
It is important for memoirists to take into account the fact that we’re offering up other people’s lives in our work. But we are not offering these secret stories to the public for a long, long time. First, we have to write, we have to claim our story. Many writers get ahead of themselves, and imagine all the terrible troubles of being published when they don’t know yet what the story is. Until you write it down and commit it to paper, you don’t have a story. The story that we imagine does not necessarily match up with what ends up on the page.
I advise that you write your first draft in complete privacy, only showing it to your therapist or your writing group. Ask for confidentiality in your writing group. If you live in a small town, take online classes. If you write about family and friends in your local writing group, everyone already knows all the characters, and can’t offer objective feedback. They might give skewed feedback, based on their own biases and loyalties. But having a supportive writing group is very helpful in setting deadlines and making sure you come prepared with a new story. The group witnesses you and your stories, offering compassionate feedback, which is a valuable part of the process.
Another factor is the ever present inner critic. It can channel the old family rules: “Don’t air the dirty laundry. How dare you talk about the abuse of your dead uncle—he can’t defend himself. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
These critiques can be more subtle though, showing this way: “This is boring, no one cares about the details of your life.” Another famous one: “Who do you think you are (to dare write anything.)”
Notice the discouraging inner voices in your mind and write down what they are saying. Are they familiar phrases you grew up hearing? Label them as inner critic static, get the phrases out of your head and in your journal. Close the journal and go back to writing your memoir stories.
Give yourself permission to write in secret, in the “safe sacred space” of creativity. In this space, no one knows what you are writing. Keep this space for yourself to protect yourself and your early creative seeds.
Research about writing shows that writing creates a new perspective and changes the brain. It helps you to review, reflect, and sort out old, toxic memories. Sometimes you can literally feel the chains of the past that once bound you lifting away.
Take care of yourself and your seedling stories, protecting them from the taunts and darts of others, and revealing them only when you’re confident of your story and your truths. If you do this, then showing up for family holidays won’t be a problem. While you’re there, scribble notes as people share the family stories. You’ll get even more information if you gather around the photo album and ask questions about what others remember. Draw upon the family to help you piece together holes in your narrative and answer questions about your great-grandmother. Be curious, but mum about why you are asking so many questions!
Be patient too. I’m always assuring my students that writing a memoir takes courage, perseverance, and the willingness to explore what is not known. Writing a memoir is a long journey into the unknown as you travel the road of memory. Start your story today!