When you’re nine years old, Aunt Jessie presses her powdered face to yours and whispers, “Now don’t you ever tell anyone what you saw. Your mother would just die.”
This is a scary thing to a child—to be entrusted with a secret that has so much power if could kill someone. Aunt Jessie probably didn’t mean to scare you like that, but words have power. Silence in the face of wrong has power. And when we begin to write our memoirs, we can get caught up in the webs of the past. Sometimes these webs are so tangled that we stop writing.
Memoirists struggle with the issue of revealing secrets as they search how to tell their own powerful, and sometimes shameful, truths. Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them. We become co-conspirators to the family dynamics that we don’t agree with and want to break away from. So we get caught in a conflict—to speak or not to speak. To remain closed and complicit, or to open up and take the risk of losing friends and family or shamed once again into submission. These conflicts haunt people all their lives, solidifying the silence. The way out of being trapped in the past is to write our own truths, but first it helps to get clear about the program that lives in our head.
Did you grow up with these rules?
- The truth is always best
- Honesty is the best policy
- Lying is terrible and you’ll be punished
How about these?
- Don’t you dare tell anyone I told you that
- This is a secret you’ll carry to your grave
- If you tell anyone, you’ll go to hell
Are these comments familiar?
- Don’t air the family laundry
- Family business stays behind closed doors
- You have quite an imagination
How confusing! And you want to write a memoir?
Let’s look at some suggestions for how to manage confusion about truth and secrets. First, you need to claim your own truths. Your story is about you—told from your point of view. Your experiences belong to you, and are unique to you, and you have a right to claim them, even if others disagree. Everyone has a unique point of view about events, as each person perceives the world through different eyes. I have known writers, including myself, who got confused about what to write because they were so worried about what others would say and would think about them. Issues of shame and guilt about what they did or who they were, along with potential judgments by others, got in the way of writing. So if you feel shame or guilt, writing can help you to resolve those feelings. I suggest this: write down your memories honestly as you remember them, and share them with no one else while you are in the process of discovery/recovery about the past.
Next, as the voices of your family play tennis in your head—perhaps spouting some of the phrases listed above, write down each one and then answer it back. If the voice says, “That never happened,” write next to it: “This is how I remember it. I claim my own memories.” If it says, “Don’t you dare write those secrets,” say: “I’m writing down what my truth is, I’m doing it for myself right now.”
When we write our truths, we “disobey” the old rules we learned so long ago, and create freedom for who we are now and allow our voice to be heard.
Then and Now
When we write memoir, we become time travelers, stitching back and forth between the narrator author of present time to the child or younger person that we once were.
This back and forth conversation is part of the healing process of writing a memoir, as it helps to integrate past and present. When we sort through memories and come to terms with them, we create new neural pathways. Bringing a new perspective and freedom to our identity and self-expression is freeing and ultimately healing.
Through this process, we create a relationship with ourselves as we both the narrator of the story and the character—the “I” voice in the story. This dual consciousness is part of the healing process, as the narrator helps us to develop a perspective on what happened, and the character “I” gets inside who we were then. When we write in scene, we take a small hypnotic trip to the past and live in our own skin for a while, then come back out to “now.” The process of writing and telling stories, especially if they are shared helps to heal and to change our perceptions of who we were and who we are now.
I tell all my students to be open to writing two versions of the story: first, write for yourself, to clear out your emotional closet, to sort the events that are jumbled up in your mind. Research has shown that this kind of writing is powerful and creates changes in the brain—in other words: it’s healing.
Write your whole first draft in silence, in secret, so that you can finally hear your own voice. Don’t tell anyone you are writing it, and only share it with your supportive writing group or your therapist.
Tips on secrets and truths
- Protect yourself and your writing by creating a safe, sacred space where you can explore your story and write what you experienced without censure.
- Write quickly and freely, sometimes called a “freewrite” to flush out your story without the editor or critic in your head having a chance to interfere
- Don’t delete anything you write. Sometimes the inner critic attacks us after we write, and we are tempted to erase everything.
- Think of a secret as an infected wound that needs to be drained and opened to healing light and air.
- Make lists of your dark and light stories. You don’t have to write them until you are ready.
- Interleaf the “dark” and “light” stories in your life so you don’t get traumatized by dark or painful stories.
- Keep track of your inner critic’s comments on a separate sheet of paper. Putting the critic on the page and responding to it with positive affirmations defangs it and frees you to write more.
- A memoir is written in layers. As we explore one layer of memory and experience, others are revealed.
- Be patient with the process of writing, layering, revealing, and reflecting.
10. Be brave—write your story!
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, is the President and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and the prize-winning author of The Power of Memoir and Don’t Call Me Mother, along with numerous fiction, poetry, and nonfiction awards. www.namw.org.
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