Linda Joy Myers is the founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and the author of The Power of Memoir, How to Write Your Healing Story and Journey of Memoir. Follow us to keep up with articles from Memories and Memoirs.
In July, I spoke at the Story Circle Women’s Writing Conference—a group of bright, energetic, and eager writers of all genres. What moved me most was the look in some of the women’s eyes as they told me how much they needed to hear permission, again, to write and tell their stories–from me and from other teachers at the conference. Most of us struggle with how to feel internal permission to write what most needs to be written—the deep truths that have shaped and governed our lives. It helps to get encouragement, to hear how important this is, over and over again.
We know that there are things that get in the way—shame, fear of judgment from family and friends, and our own reluctance/fear to put into words painful things that we have experienced. These reasons not to write or explore the depths and layers of our stories fight with the need to be authentic and real, and to be who we really are.
How can we break through these barriers? It’s not easy—just “deciding” may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we can and should write our truths, that it might be beneficial. Freeing. It says yes, and it knows that may other people have done this. That it’s possible. But…the real problem is our emotional self. It’s cautious and protective of us. Sometimes we call the voice that silences us “the inner critic.” But perhaps it’s not only critical—it’s protecting you from being hurt.
How do we work toward breaking open and telling the truth? How can we feel more permission? One technique for protection is to make lists—lists help to contain the emotions that can feel like they are “too much” when we’re exploring truth and secrets.
Another technique is to keep your writing private. Share carefully when you decide to share, and remember that family and friends may have a different perspective from you. If you get negative feedback, it can stop you from writing honestly. Protect your creative self!
List the 5 things that you are most afraid to write about.
Take each one on your list and freewrite for 3 minutes why you are afraid what you think might happen.
List the secrets that you aren’t ready to write about.
List what you imagine people will say if you write your truths.
Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to.
Take classes, and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies grow better with more water.
The more you write, the more you will write! It’s amazing, as if you become your own cheerleader. And community offers help–writing conferences, writing sites online, and bookstore readings. All these connections feed your writing soul. Each new piece leads to another. Enjoy!
I’m excited to announce the pub day for my new memoir, Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence. As I look at the cover of the huge sky and golden earth, I marvel at how ideas and stories are born into the world. It’s amazing to see the scenes and stories that have been locked in my memory show up in a book! And it’s surreal to see in print our family history that goes back more than 100 years. I think all memoirists feel both awe-stricken and a little panicked when their book comes out!
My new memoir was inspired by an obsession to learn more about my family, especially my grandmother and my mother. I wrote about our three-generational pattern of mother-daughter abandonment in my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother through the point of view of a child, but now I wanted to explore the story through a longer lens and from an adult perspective. Decades after they died, I was still getting insights and deepening my compassion for them. Most of my life, I didn’t know the details of what had happened to my mother as a little girl.
My grandmother raised me after my mother left when I was four, and when I was very young, my great-grandmother Blanche told me that my grandmother had left her daughter, my mother, behind when she left to work in Chicago. I first met Blanche when she was eighty and I was eight. Together on a featherbed the first night I met her, Blanche whispered the stories of the times she’d lived, life in the 19th century—her marriage in 1894, the death of her husband two months later, unaware he was going to be a father. Blanche told me about midwives, baking bread in a wood cookstove summer and winter, feeding a family of nine, and the hardscrabble life of farm women. She told me about my mother, called Jo’tine when she was young, and how sad it made her that my mother and grandmother didn’t get along. That night, I stared at Blanche in wonder—she was a walking history book!
After that, I was forever hooked on stories—I’d eavesdrop on the adults’ conversations, ask endless questions about who and why and when, eagerly searching for the layers of truth and lies. I believed that these stories were clues to why people acted the way they did. I thought that if we understood someone’s history, we could put aside our differences. We could tolerate and even love each other better. Of course, that does not always happen, no matter how much we know.
This book is bigger story than just my family. For forty years, I continued the genealogical research I’d started as a child, searching in dusty courthouses and finally on Ancestry.com for clues about my grandmother, who had rebelled against the expectations of her family and society by eloping when she was seventeen, and later leaving her daughter behind to work in Chicago, away from the farm work she hated. I learned about the permissions neither of them had to explore their world freely, to become a whole person. I saw that our family’s past revealed the history of America, a story bigger than we were. The history of the Great Plains is woven into our own history, a land where the blood and bone of family hearken from and where we are released. The song of the plains I listened to as a child comforted me in times of strife, woven through with the sounds of birdcall, and the wind. The swish of the wheat in June, golden fields as far as the eye could see.
I was surprised as I wrote the book that all these themes wanted to become part of the story. My friend and colleague Brooke Warner says, “Listen to what the memoir is telling you it wants to be.” So I did!To read more about Song of the Plains, please find my author page lindajoymyersauthor.com.
Please join me at my launch events: Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, CA, June 24, 6:30 PM
Today as I got up and remembered that it’s International Women’s Day, I thought about the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with her stories from the 19th century, and the idea that hard work is a valued part of life; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me, who started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, an international traveler; my mother, Josephine, who had been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary and clerk in the early 1920s while her daughter lived back in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle to be women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much our history is the history of America.
In my new book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, to be released in June, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what we lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, missing stories, lost narratives, lies and pregnant silences. I felt each one of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, each dark turn of the stories that you could feel but no one would talk about, the secrets and silences. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes i my body, and always I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.”
What do we do as women with these inheritances? I know that we all seek to find our identity, and since the sixties, women have had more permission to seek and find, rebel and re-define who they are. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what was going on, what had happened that created the silence. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing where I looked for clues to the lives of my family. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when Lulu left Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl, and how it was that they fought and struggled with each other until the last day of Frances’s life. She died without any reconciliation with my mother. What was that about? Could I do any better with my mother, I wondered.
She was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped that she would at last treat me nicely, or claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself, and the sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or about to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days, she could no longer prevent me from loving her. I experienced a freeing of the dark silences as I embraced her with compassion and tears.
The search for my mother and grandmother and their history continued for the next twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I was able to piece together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By writing their stories, I healed my own story, and offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and basically set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. I hope we can continue to bring awareness to new generations that we must all hold ourselves accountable for the rights of women now and in the future.
Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Lulu, about 25
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
When the invitation to join our Enid High School 55th graduating class reunion arrived, at first I tossed it aside. Enid, Oklahoma is a long way from California. It takes a whole day to get there by two planes and a car. Would I really connect with “kids” I knew back in the fifties after all these years? Then, curiosity–who are these people now? Perhaps I could attend and include a book reading. Is there a bookstore that would host me? A few Google clicks later led me to “A New Chapter Bookstore,” a new bookstore owned by two women who are indeed starting their own new chapter in life by creating a place for people who love books. A phone call set up my path to take my books home. Thank you Becky and Coral! Before I left, I was tempted to cancel several times. Talk to people I knew about all my secrets? So scary. Too revealing. For days before I left, I hoped that I might not have to go. Yet, I knew I had to go. There was something there for me to discover. When I landed in Oklahoma City, the sweet wind caressed me, as it always had, and I began to cry. I was home. This land I loved so much embraced me as I drove to Enid in a long languorous dusk filled with silence, and wheat fields, and the two-toned call of a bird.
Before my reading the next day, I ran into some women who were the popular girls back then, girls I had admired, but now we were all grandmothers and none of that mattered as we warmly greeted each other. We had so much in common being from that place, growing up in a time so different from now. Free of my old shyness, I invited them to my reading. To my happy surprise, they came and compassionately listened to my story, and what I revealed for the first time.
Talking about shame and silence, reading from very personally revealing parts of my books to people who knew me as a child seemed to smooth away the edges of shame I had always carried. There was so much to be ashamed about–my parents were divorced, which was “not done” at the time–they considered it shameful, as did society at the time. My grandmother, who had loved her Chicago life, and who dressed like she was still in Chicago, had traveled to England on ships and brought a flair to any conversation, did not fit into that town, nor did she try to. She was an interesting “character” but no one wants their parental figure to be so different with her fake English accent and put-on airs. Later, I had to hide the darkness inside the house–her beatings, screaming, and rages as she descended into what later I would learn was depression and mental illness. I was related to someone who acted like that? No one could know and no one did know these and other shameful things. Of course, what I didn’t know then is that everyone, every household and child has their secrets. Everyone carries their own burdens,
The edges of reality blurred, the then and the now, as I stood in the bookstore in the town where I grew up, the big sky and breezes anchoring me once more to the place where my bones grew and my mind searched for understanding. At the reading, I faced people I knew and met new people. I talked about my books and my truth. The rules of silence from so long ago dissolved as I spoke, the need to hide and lie to myself and others about who I was had fallen away because I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains. Because I wrote what was true, because I visited the past so often in real life, and in my dreams and my writing, I had laid out the stories and they were now resting in my books. These acts of witnessing my young self, coming to understand and forgive my mother and grandmother for the heartache we all shared are part of the gift of memoir writing–a gift first to myself, and later, to others who identify with the story in their own way.
I had to laugh at my own joke–they say that writing a memoir will heal you–which is what I teach every day and for the last two decades. It’s true. I could see that writing had freed me of the energetic old burdens of the past as I drove around the streets of Enid, said hello to the lovely graceful wheat fields, met other classmates, and spoke of my books and my story. I was free as I spread my wings under the big sky, and welcomed a powerful hailstorm and sun that quickly shone afterward, knowing that I had indeed come Home.
I just returned from “home,” Enid, Oklahoma, where I read my memoirs and attended my high school reunion–more to come on that. All over town, I encountered places of memory so profound I felt I was surfing layers of time. This photo is of a small lake bordering what was Phillips University back in the 50s, tucked away in silence and peace, a place where I visit in my dreams and memories, a place of encounter that changed my life. After Rusty died, I began to write for the first time. It was a beginning I never could have imagined developing into something that would fill and heal my life. Sixty years later, I return here to speak with him, to remember. On a May afternoon this spring, standing where the winds of memory were rustling the trees, there he was, smiling.
I share him through a poem I wrote long ago to honor a boy who died too young.
August 14, 1961
Rusty was sixteen,
then, and always:
the red dirt road, the hose,
the blue Dodge where we talked
about things that mattered
by the silent lake–iridescent dragonflies,
summer sun, canopy of green leaves, mockingbirds
calling out our future–if only
we could understand.
The day he died, I washed and curled
my great-grandmother’s white hair over my fingers,
reading her skull like a phrenologist,
deep indentations and history.
Ringlets haloed over her pink scalp,
her liquid mind flowing in and out of memory.
I called her Grandma.
Her black granny shoes stamped the buckled linoleum,
creased knuckles curled around the enamel teakettle,
slammed it on the cook-stove,
(hated new-fangled gas). Outdoors by the garden
wood was chopped and stacked into cords
by three sons.
She pumped the engine in that stove,
pounded out pie crust ripe with white lard.
I peeled buckets of tiny green apples with brown holes, bruises,
imperfect apples perfect for compost
and our pie.
Thick virtuoso fingers wedged the rich crust
high around the rim so the apple juice wouldn’t spill.
Even when you’re young
you come to count on the
moon ripening into its fullness,
cycling through years that peel off like skins.
That lost boy, his green eyes forever empty,
sleeps in deadly gases flooding the
fine bones of his face, entering molecule
by molecule his blood and his heart.
He can not count on anything now
but this death by drowning in the wide
plains night, caressed by the silent, hot wind.
Black coffee percolated in the dented aluminum pot,
striking the glass top with its burned beak.
Iowa summer sucked lace curtains in and out,
in and out above our feather beds.
Grandma’s world, 1880 and 1961, time suspended.
Wings of clouds promised afternoon rain.
The letter came while the fire
burned its hottest, Grandma prodding oak and pine,
demanding heat for the zenith of perfection,
apple molecules burst in the summer afternoon.
The letter said he had passed
to an unknown place.
His father begged him to come back, sobbing,
clinging to the coffin that day in the sun,
white roses fluttering like chambers of the heart.
Grandma worked like a midwife, brown eyes burning,
flesh of her arms swinging, her strong hands
mixing the elements–apple and lard, flour, salt, cinnamon,
magic transforming into pie in the dark caldron of the oven,
oxygen and heat and gases an alchemy,
She sliced the crisp crust, apple and cinnamon singing out,
juices scalding, so much life, burning like lightning,
If you are writing a memoir, or even a novel, and wonder how you can break through the inner critic that silences you, this is a perfect moment to move forward and get unstuck.
As a memoir writer, I know how tough it is to confront the forbidden stories and write them down. Once voice says, “Go ahead, it’s the truth,” while another says “You can’t say that, it’s rude.” Or “What will people think if they know these things about me?” Or the real stinger, “They might get mad at me. They might accuse me of lying.”
You have your own list of what your inner critic says.
Typical Inner Critic messages:
I don’t know how to write.
Who cares about my story anyway?
I’m too self-involved.
What difference does it make if I write my
Maybe I’m making it all up.
My family will never speak to me again if I write that.
This is boring
Family and friends are the “Outer Critics.” These are some of their voices:
You’re writing a memoir?
For heaven’s sake, must you air the family laundry?
Don’t you dare write that while we’re alive!
You think you have a right to these stories?
Don’t darken our door if your write about
.It didn’t happen that way!
All you can do is think about the past!
TIP: The best thing to do with your list is to write it down and get it out of your head. Then argue back with it. Answer each doubt that is raised, work on affirmations like, “This is my story. I have a right to tell it.”
TIP: In your first draft you can spill out the whole story. No one knows what you are writing until you share it. Sharing should be done carefully! You want to keep up your story energy all the way through your first draft.
TIP: Write out as many affirmations as you can think of and put them on your wall. They might be phrases like this:
The words that flow are good, just right for that day.
I will protect my writing from naysayers, including myself.
Each paragraph I write gives me strength and forward
Every scene I write helps me to find a new perspective
and joy in my life.
When I learn new skills, I am energized and excited
about my writing.
I look forward to my writing time.
I honor and preserve my time to write
These practices about the critic voices may need to be repeated as you write your book. I used to have a vile, abusive inner critic that kept me silent for months at a time, but I kept returning to these exercises, I kept working on my story bit by bit as I tried to free myself. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping you learn to break through and write your stories.