2019 'When Words Collide Festival' Encouragement for Memoirists!
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Encouragement For Writers of Painful Stories and Memoirs
I'm glad share four insights gained in writing my memoir, A History of a Pedophile’s Wife.
My goal is to encourage you! I believe that narrative is at the center of every culture on earth.
Strong story-telling heals the world. Sharing our histories changes societies in ways that oppression never, ever can. Story as shape-shifter.
Mine was a traumatic story. I wanted to tell it well.
To write it, I'd need to break a few rules:
First, there was the injunction to silence. I’d learned it well. I internalized the censure:
“Shhhh…don’t talk about that stuff,” I heard myself say. “It’s depressing and over with now. Why revisit the past? Forgive, forget, and move on! Are you afraid of joy? Nobody needs another sob story.”
I’d stifled and minimized my internalized distress for good reasons:
First, I needed to get educated, earn a living at a career I liked, and begin my healing.
It wasn’t yet time to write my story.
A little story about readiness - Years ago, a co-volunteer in a Quebec women’s shelter expressed her annoyance about the lack of interest in her “Meet Your Inner Child” fireside group offered to newcomers. I shared with her that too much too soon can be dangerous. I also had no interest in meeting my inner waif until I was in a strong enough power position to mother that little orphan.
I shared with my friend, “When I had a good job, could pay my rent and get my teeth fixed, I took the first steps to open the door to my inner ragamuffin.”
Another reason I muted reality is that I was dissociated for a long, long time. I may always be disconnected to a certain degree. It takes an instant to plunge into trauma but far, far longer to resurface.
The second rule I needed to break was: Don’t talk. I had to build self-esteem to do that. My sleepless nights, my dread of criticism, and handling shame were the price I paid to break the silence rule.
One night, after a full day of writing, I awakened shivering with fear. Sweating, I slid out of bed and lay on the cool pine floor of my bedroom. Slowly, I urged myself to stretch out full length. I felt the wood soak up my distress and refresh me. I made my commitment that night. Flattened against timber that had also been chopped down to form something new, I vowed to tell my story from my point of view, no matter who disapproved or axed me.
Over a decade in a free community support group taught me that while our details differed, the themes of exploitation and domination were the same. In face-to-face support groups, through reading (bibliotherapy), and researching the nature of dissociation, I finally understood that the abuse I’d suffered wasn’t my fault. In meeting every gender in these recovery groups, I realized that oppression happens based solely upon the internalized dynamics an abuser has soaked up. Sociopaths of any gender will rob you blind and leave you for dead. It’s not about the gender, but about the patriarchal structure of supremacy and entitlement internalized by the conscienceless abuser.
I began to research the permissions our patriarchal society still gives for abuse. I traced my beginnings. I began to understand. Even though I knew millions might disagree with my analysis of my life, it's my life. I knew I wouldn’t write a people-pleasing story.
Insight #1: Allow Deeper Truth for the Better Memoir – don’t toss the gifts.
Out of the blue, unbidden, unexpected and unwanted memories turned up.
I learned to:
1. acknowledge the unbidden memory.
2. write it out using the 5 W’s and 1 H despite my discomfort.
3. wait for the reward of having honored the uncomfortable memory.
When I responded to the surprise recall that just happened to show up at this precise moment, I began to build my confidence and my authority.
I sensed my mind was saying, “We’ll test Eleanor with this memory. If she can handle it, then she’ll qualify for a deeper layer of recall, maybe even more unsettling.”
After all, my PTSD brain’s main job is to protect me from unacceptable levels of distress.
So, it was reasonable to test me with an unpleasant but bearable new memory.
I was tested for endurance, capacity, and sincerity.
One morning while editing a section of my memoir, an intensely unpleasant memory occurred. My stomach clenched. The shocking recall was about me - as a victimizer.
I’d been unfair to my younger brother. My face flushed red again as I recalled the hurtful moment.
I wrote it out.
I then jotted a one-word theme about my behavior. The word I chose was ‘betrayal.’ Relieved, I went to bed early - only to be startled awake hours later with yet another blazing memory of me, once again hurting the same brother.
So, what was my reward for acknowledging the first memory? The strange reward was that my mind coughed up an even worse flashback!
Finally, though, in responding to each one, I became aware of the tremendous gift - a maturational writing insight: My memoir would be more in-depth than I’d first imagined.
I’d write an account of my life – not only about me as a victim but me as un-photoshopped.
The reward was that my readers could trust they’d read an unvarnished, version of my life.
More than a victim story, I’d write a human one.
Insight # 2 – My job as a memoirist is to inform – not to conform.
Canada upholds and defends personal freedom. Unlike many, many countries, no one stopped me from writing my stories.
In today’s 2019 world, an extremist organization beheaded innocent women and children. Another group dismembered a journalist who dared express his opinions. Young girls suffer genital mutilation by divine order, while fundamentalist Christian women agree to be ‘washed’ with the words of their husbands, and pain in childbirth is a suitable punishment for being female.
In a world where good food is burned while millions starve, so too are thoughts destroyed, their existence denied.
I have a legally upheld right to speak. I want to speak up for those who can’t. When my story is read by those starving for validation and my themes resonate with others still coiled in unspoken grief, then my work has encouraged evolution – no less.
Insight # 3 – Trace the history of the themes that emerge in your writing.
By tracking the roots of my experience, I learned about the many historical permissions a patriarchal society accords to abusers.
While my detective work earned me some scorn, I included my results in my memoir.
Insight #4 The Spider’s Web Approach.
When an out-of-sequence or surprise story occurred, I wrote it, worked on it, and kept it for possible inclusion. While I had a general writing plan, I didn't let it dominate.
As a teacher, I'd always go to class with a lesson plan, but if something original happened, I'd save it for later. In my writing, I never worried about the order – I trusted my imagination to work with me to collect all I needed. The ordering happened later.
A spider spins wide angles in shaping its web, first here and then way over there and then far back again.
Out of the blue, a memory from 1972 occurred followed by another experience in 1959 and another in 1994. My response? I stopped. I listened. I allowed the spider web spin to lead, criss-cross, intersect, and traverse my pre-plotted horizontal line. I didn’t insist on my plan. Thus, my work became enriched. In the end, I had so many more stories to choose from to include in my original sequence. My mind had supported me in ways I’d never expected.
If I could rename my inner psyche, I’d call her Charlotte.
I welcomed this unconfined freedom in my memoir. You can do this too!
Contact me if you'd like more encouragement!
Eleanor Cowan, Memoirist