By: Marilyn L. Davis
Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, sums up the feelings of many who attempt to write about their lives in their memoir, hoping to get clarification. “I don’t know where to start,” one will wail. Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.”
Why Is Writing About Our Life So Important?
Our memories do not fade so much over time, but become facts, sometimes distorted or shaded by other experiences, wishes for how it could have been, or stories we tell to elicit responses and reactions from others.
We do not necessarily remember what happened; we remember what we present or wish sometimes happened to validate our feelings and thoughts.
Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.”
Taking the Plunge and Getting It Down on Paper
When I took the plunge and started writing my memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate, I wrote selected memories from various ages to get a feel for any backstories. Some made the manuscript; others did not. But each of them helped me gain insight and amplify thoughts and feelings, which are vital in a memoir.
Risky Business – Confessing in our Memoirs
We periodically need to have a cathartic experience. Taken from the Greek word, κάθαρσις, it is the purification and purging of emotions, especially self-pity and fear, and writing a memoir is that cathartic experience.
Augustine of Hippo was a Romanized Berber Philosopher, who combined philosophy and religion during his life. His most famous work is Confession, where he states, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” ― Augustine of Hippo
That was eye-opening to me that the idea of confessing has been part of the philosophical understanding for this long.
Judge Not, Lest It Is about Yourself
Too often, we’re filled with fear of judgment, rejection, and blame that we try to hide our shortcomings and terrible deeds beneath a nice, important, or helpful veneer.
Those are qualities that we’re comfortable showing the world. In some cases, we get smug, thinking we’ve manipulated people into believing a false impression about us, even when we know it’s not true. Freud stated, “Projection is how most people deny their shadow, unconsciously labeling others so they can avoid confronting themselves.”
We can get sanctimonious and comment on others’ misdeeds, attempting to put them in their place while elevating our own. Then we reprimand our children, families, spouses, and co-workers in a tone that leaves no doubt about our displeasure at their actions.
But aren’t our shadow aspects as much a part of our being as the better qualities? Writing about them will not kill us, but allow us to see the patterns, and no longer be ashamed, especially if we change.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
In the quiet solitude, if you view yourself, what do you honestly see?
For years in the substance abuse treatment field, we “peeled the onion.” Counselors and therapists would, in effect, force people to remove the layers of dishonesty, assumptions, resentments, and manipulation so they could see their true selves, all the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I now believe it is more important that I disclose my failures, shortcomings, and character defects first, so that someone may learn to accept theirs and recover.
Why this Change in Attitude?
Nearly every alcoholic and addict I have ever worked with felt shame and guilt over their actions. Many times, it was about themselves, not solely their behaviors, but an assessment of themselves. In some cases, they used alcohol and drugs to cover up these feelings. Therefore, ripping off the layers only makes them more vulnerable when they are most prone to relapse.
By acknowledging my actions and reinforcing that I did not die of embarrassment, did not have to relapse over the admission, found others who had done or said the same type of thing, and then changed, I see that people are willing to reveal their secrets to my understanding, compassionate ear.
“… That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” ― Stephen King, Different Seasons
For Some, It Is Not the Action, But the Reaction
How do we allow people to acknowledge their secrets, help them make amends or atone for their misdeeds? In 12 Step recovery work, published in 1939, there are two steps that more than adequately support an individual willing to examine their lives, and then there is a step specific to the admission of wrongs.
People write about their lives, internal and external. They fearlessly look for their character defects, negative aspects, shortcomings, and actions that have harmed others and the qualities that most people consider admirable. The reality is that we have both.
Yet, even this is not a new concept.
Examining Patterns in the Memoir
Socrates’ statement that “The unexamined life is not worth living” demonstrates an early understanding of the benefits of examining our nature to change our actions, thus preventing what another philosopher, George Santayana, predicted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
When I combine other theoretical concepts into my recovery work with others, I become willing to share in the hopes that my admissions will allow another to write about theirs and then ultimately share their flaws, find their strengths, and live a productive life.
Images Remembered or Distorted? My Santa List
Understanding words was a new concept, and I loved books, all those black squiggly lines represented the story, or described the picture. I could not read all of them, but knew the word, “cat.” Each person begins learning somewhere.
I remembered an incident when I was four. My mother took me to visit Santa at L.S. Ayers in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had made squiggly lines on a piece of paper and put it in my coat’s pocket. I did not want to forget anything when I visited Santa.
Before we went to see him, we ate in the tea room, the highlight of several trips downtown. I ordered the chicken, served in a covered milk-glass casserole dish. The bottom of the bowl, filled with mashed potatoes and chicken, with fresh peas, neatly ringing the edge, reminiscent of grass and eggs.
For dessert, I got The Snow Princess— an ice cream scoop decorated with whipped cream and sugar flowers, then topped with a china half-doll figurine and a tiny paper parasol.
Meeting the Jolly Fat Man
At forty-one, I vividly remembered this meal. After lunch, I got my list for Santa out of my coat and went for our appointed visit. When it was my turn, I showed Santa my list, damp from sweat and wrinkled, but my first attempt at writing something down.
Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him all of the things, with the most important being a puppy. Santa asked me if I had been a good girl; I replied, “I have been very good.” Of course, I emphasized this in that sanctimonious tone we sometimes use, regardless of age.
He told me that since I had been very good, I would get everything on my list.
I got down and returned to my mother. For weeks after this visit, my parents asked me what I had told Santa I wanted for Christmas. A straightforward child, I informed them that I had already told Santa what I wanted.
Remembering the Disappointment
On Christmas morning, I ran down the stairs; I could smell bacon cooking and knew that my mother would want us to eat before we opened presents. I remembered feeling angry at that imposition on my desire to open the gifts and find my puppy.
My sister was in her high chair at the table, and without food, she would not be content very long, yet another nuisance as far as I was concerned. I went into the kitchen and asked to open my presents. My mother gave in and told me I could open one, and then we would have breakfast and open the rest after our meal.
I ran to the living room and checked out the presents. In our family, only parents wrapped gifts, Santa’s were without paper and bows. He told me I would get everything I wanted, and I specifically told him a puppy, and there was no puppy. I got mad at Santa.
That jolly, fat, cheerful favorite of children everywhere was evil, cruel, and a liar.
Memoirs Grant Us Hindsight and Foresight
“I think people would be happier if they admitted things more often. In a sense, we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment – we are all defined by something we can’t change.” ― Simon Van Booy, The Illusion of Separateness
When I asked my parents about this memory, it was not for their interpretation of my feelings, but their remembrance of the situation. Both of my parents were surprised that I could remember that event. My mother told me that she and my father tried numerous times to get me to tell them what I wanted for Christmas and that they even had my aunts, uncles, and older cousins try to find out what I wanted.
I apparently told everyone who asked that I gave Santa my list and talked about what I wanted for Christmas. Even as a child, I didn’t see the point in explaining what seemed so obvious to me.
It struck me at that moment, thirty-seven years later, that I had probably set in motion many situations in my life where I felt disappointed, hurt, and resentful due to my assumptions, lack of awareness, and stubbornness.
If it could happen at four, the likelihood of this pattern continuing in my life seemed like a safe bet.
When We Reflect in our Memoirs
I knew that I wanted to explore my life as the child remembering, and the adult reflecting to help me live a better life, stop using drugs to cover up the stuff, and perhaps one day be able to tell a story that would allow another to talk about theirs. when these memories surfaced, I wondered:
- Why was I so angry at Santa?
- Why had I stubbornly refused to cooperate?
- How was it possible that a little girl held such resentments?
- What were the patterns of behavior that I could see in this situation?
Write it; After All, You are a Writer
While writing, I knew that my recollections might help another see that sharing the shadow self, processing our childhood, surviving our addictions, and writing about the rewards of recovery had merit. Click To Tweet
“All that is left to bring you pain are the memories. If you face those, you’ll be free. You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding from yourself, always afraid that your memories will incapacitate you, and they will if you continue to bury them.” ― J.D. Stroube, Caged in Darkness
Many people write on websites and have blogs. If you are one of those, memoir writing or a journal may be another way for you to reflect, then tell a story that inspires, enlightens, and helps another in their quest to get better or find their voice.
Whether you’re writing a memoir, post, or merely personal reflections, if you decide you’d like to see your efforts promoted by others, consider submitting to Two Drops of Ink.
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