The Empowering Gift of Memoir
An interview with Rebecca Walker
Rebecca Walker considers teaching memoir “a kind of personal philanthropy. It’s a calling.” She has been following this call for almost fifteen years, and has been writing memoir for much longer. She leads memoir writing workshops to groups around the world, is a bestselling author, and writes daily. She shares the process of reshaping your story so it can empower you.
What is it about teaching memoir that is meaningful to you?
I feel like I’m most in the flow of what I am here to do when I’m helping to support people in telling the stories they’ve been carrying about who they are and what their lives mean. I help them reshape those stories in ways that are empowering, and contribute both to their health and to the health of their community and the world.
I really try to excavate the things that have shaped them. Often those are very painful and they are carrying those wounds as part of their story of who they are. The work of teaching memoir is really about getting in and chiseling the barnacles off of the heart. There are the different elements we focus on and the formal way in which memoirs are constructed that we study, but really the work is internal: psychological, psycho-spiritual, emotional, and relational. It’s goes very deep.
How do you help to reshape a story when it isn’t a helpful one?
The first step is to create a space of safety for people, or for yourself. We must have permission to look at the old wounds, to acknowledge them, to forgive oneself and the people who may have injured us. We must be very careful with our assessment and to be willing to feel all the things we’ve dammed up. It’s important to let it all out. It’s like when kids have those blocks with letters and they spill them all out - and create words from the letters. It’s like that- toss it all out onto the table and not be afraid. Then to slowly understand the sense that we have made of these experiences.
Then, with the support of someone who believes that underneath all that story, all those wounds, is a being that is pure and already liberated and free, and has the will and the power to take those experiences and learn from them. There must be the belief that we can grow from them and become someone who can incorporate the incidences and come up with a different self conception, a different idea of who they are.
It’s inherent in human genius that we are infinitely able to rewrite our stories, and to reflect and re-tool our minds. You have the power to rewire your brain by retelling this story in a way that places you as the heroine, the survivor, the vanquisher. I often say in class, that at the end of a good memoir, you’re giving your reader the gift of showing how you climbed the beanstalk, got the golden eggs and climbed back down. You’ve extracted the wisdom from your experience, and in that way you’re giving a gift to your reader, who may be in the process of great struggle and not understanding how to find the riches in that struggle.
What are some prompts that help people uncover their stories, and perhaps discover new ways of telling them?
- What was the first story that you were told about yourself? It’s important to look back and see what you were told you were. Some were told they were timid children, some told they were superheroes, some told they were dishonest; everyone was told something that they held onto. It’s important to figure out what your first story was.
- What is the first story you told about yourself? At what point did you break away from this idea you were given about yourself and start to design your own identity. That’s usually, I want to be a lawyer, I’m someone who loves cats.
- What was the reaction you got from people to that story? Usually there is some sense of pushback - people don’t want you to be telling your own story.
- How did you respond to that? Did you succumb to their response and hold on to their story of you or did you keep pushing forward to be self-defining?
- If you could be free of other people’s stories that have been projected onto you, what is the story you want to tell about yourself? Who do you want to be? What story would feel most aligned with your deepest aspirations to who you are? What would that look like? This is about really trying to figure out a story that is true and aligned with one’s purpose.
- What will it take for you to die a good death? What is the story that you want to be told about who you were. Or what are the stories you want to have about yourself when you’re dying?
It’s all about reflecting and writing a story for this body in this time, that can carry you through the vicissitudes of life, letting go of the stories that don’t serve you, and believing that you can.
Have you seen a shift in who is drawn to writing memoir in the last couple of years?
I’ve definitely seen a change. I feel that people are more open to the process. There is a sense of necessity and urgency about the work. There is an understanding that it is possible to change one’s story, and that it’s necessary in order to change the larger global story. So there’s a deep motivation to shed the past stories that aren’t working. They recognize that we have to do that collectively and they feel much more connected to this collective shared space. They understand that if they can do it, they will be a part of a movement that’s doing it.
I’ve been talking about the importance of changing the story of whiteness and white privilege for a long time. Lately, there’s a real commitment and openness, specifically from white people who have privilege, to rework what it means to them. A commitment to retell their narrative of white privilege to mean something that’s much more about standing with and for people who don’t have the same kind of privilege, and to shift their relationship with the people who are being impacted by their privilege to make sure that they take responsibility for where they are. I’m seeing willingness to change their story from one that’s aloof and distant to one that’s fully enmeshed, integrated, and open to doing the work of functioning together as a fully integrated community. That is one of the most exciting shifts i’ve seen in the last couple of years.
People want to be better. Through memoir, I get to touch and see the places inside of every single person I’ve worked with that wants to be better, that wants to heal, that wants to be whole, that wants a story that restores their full power and humanity, and all of what that means. It gives me hope.