When we first decide to write, we feel good about it—we have memories and stories that form who we are. We want to explore ourselves, to capture times long gone and preserve them in story form. To leave a legacy about our lives. But other voices compete with our writing—“what will people think; you should be ashamed; you will embarrass the family. Don’t air dirty laundry; you know only part of the truth, so be quiet. Your mother will roll over in her grave if she found out you wrote that.”
We all know these voices. They make us throw down the pen, sit back and turn on the TV. We don’t want to lose our family. We don’t want to make them angry. Writing a memoir is an act of courage, even defiance against powerful family dynamics. We need to find a way out.
As a family therapist, I have worked with many families, and because of my background, I’m in a position to help my coaching clients understand the source of their resistance to writing their stories, and the source of the critic voice inside.
When we write memoir, we reclaim our own voice, we stake a claim to our version of the story. Every family has multiple story lines. There is the “official” version, controlled by the most powerful people in the family, usually the parents or those who have the most to lose. The “lesser” points of view—most often held by the children or those lesser in power—are often not believed or accepted as true.
Who decides what version of a story to believe? Who is not listened to? Whose point of view is unwanted? The answers to these questions will be decided by family dynamics and power.
In most families there is a “scapegoat,” or a clown, or the most sensitive. People in these roles may hold a unique, and unpopular, view of the family stories, and those with the most power may try to suppress it.
A memoirist must begin by writing her story in a protected bubble so the story can evolve. Take care of your writing environment, and protect you from forces that will derail your efforts.
1. Figure out the power dynamics in your family. If the critic voice stops you, write down what it says. Try to find the original source of those voices in your background.
2. Begin with an image—a photograph is often a good prompt. Write in your own natural voice.
3. If the voices say: “I don’t know how to write; my family will hate me; how do I know I am writing the truth.” don’t stop. Write anyway. Your critic/family protector will try to silence you. If you were silenced when you were growing up, you will need to work through it now.
4. DO NOT hit the delete button when you feel critical after writing. DO protect your writing from curious family or friend invaders. Treat your work like a young plant that needs protection.
5. Find supportive people to write with. Write in cafés, in writing groups where you feel support or at least no attack.
6. Remember: if you’ve been abused, neglected, forgotten, or silenced, you likely learned not to value your own point of view. Writing your own story can change that. Keep “telling it like it is.”
7. Write for five minutes. Another 15 minutes. Stretch your ability to stick with a story. When you feel like stopping, write for five minutes more. We are tempted to stop as we get close to the core emotion of a story.