Untangling the Gems of Your Story
Try these lessons to get started on a writing process in earnest.
For as long as I can remember, my mom has kept a journal. She has chronicled the events of her life: processing, sorting, and making sense. More recently, she has become interested in writing a memoir, a reservoir for her children and grandchildren to dip into to nourish ourselves with stories from the past.
According to her, she “sat on the fence for years, struggling with the impulse to write my memoir. Initially, the issue of how to approach it had me stumped. Then there was the question of whether reviewing the past was a good idea or a set up for getting stuck in it. Many of our modern spiritual teachers recommend letting go of the past to ‘be in the now’, yet these very same teachers recount stories from their lives in their teaching process.”
Her writing blocks—time she set aside to write—became writer’s block. “The need to write it continued and I realized that I could bring forgiveness to the table when I came to those places that might bog me down. I made an agreement with myself to follow the flow of the pen, or the fingers on the keyboard and allow the inspiration of the thoughts that came. I firmly stated to myself that this is a rough, rough, rough draft. There does not have to be the finished refined prose that I love. I decided to relax, explore, and find it, and the image came to me of combing my history, like combing long hair, taking out the tangles.”
The turning point for her came when she signed up for a Memories and Memoir class, taught by Kimberly Edwards through the Renaissance Society at California State University at Sacramento. The following lessons have helped her get off the proverbial fence and start her memoir writing process in earnest:
- Commit. Whether you sign up for a class, join a group, or connect with friends who also want to memoir, having the accountability, and willing ears to listen, is extremely motivating.
- Honor what you are writing. An autobiography tells the timeline of your life, whereas a memoir allows you to choose the moments that you want to share, and to consider how those moments have shaped you. Edwards suggests writing freely, without input from the critical mind, knowing that any details or “potentially wounding words,” can be removed. A key here is to summarize periods of your life, and then, as my mom writes, “zoom into a scene that gives a living example of that period.”
- Retrieve the memories. One of the benefits of being in a group is that you get to share your story with others, and have them share theirs with you. My mom describes a story her friend told of seeing an almond tree for the first time, and how it “stimulated a memory in me of cracking macadamia nuts in my backyard and it came back in full color, sounds and smells. I hadn’t thought of it in decades. The next morning, I woke with the feeling of wind and my horse’s mane whipping my face as we galloped down the beach-which we had done often in my youth. As morning dreams softened into visceral memories, I came into the day feeling that this memoir process was like a treasure hunt. That morning I found Lighting, my sweetheart, my favorite of our two retired race horses.”
We all have gems in our past. We can gather them, polish the webs of years that have collected, and share the lessons we can see now, with the benefit of the wisdom we have earned. We might share these gems with our family, or include a wider audience, but they can only be retrieved by us, piece by piece, with a compassionate and steady hand.