The stories I share in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother are about a pattern of mothers leaving their daughters—mothers abandoning their children. In my family, the mothers continued to be connected with their children through visits, and sometimes by re-uniting with their mother later in life. But the scars stayed a lifetime. For a long time, I didn’t feel that I could tell anyone that my mother had left me when I was four, and her mother left her when she was about six—no one ever had the story of this event, or were too ashamed to talk about it. I felt it was a shameful story. Perhaps I wasn’t good enough for my parents.
We inherit shame, we drink it in with all the events of our lives, and children know at a very young age there are subjects that are forbidden to be spoken aloud. I, as do many children from families where there has been shame, or bad behavior, or transgressions against a social fabric that others take for granted, was silenced by these expectations. Later in my life, writing my truths in a journal was not something I felt allowed to do though I was grown up and had children of my own.
Through the years, long before I felt I had a right to write about my own life, what made the difference was that I have always loved literature and books of all kinds, poetry, history, memoirs, and novels. I’d go to bookstores and hear the authors talk about their writing blocks, and how they were not free to write until…something would happen that helped to unlock their voice. The came to feel more of an inner permission to write, or they simply couldn’t remain quiet any longer. Whatever it was, and there was always more than one roadblock to their finished book, they worked through it. They became stubborn as they wrestled with inner permission, they felt compelled to keep writing and exploring their story, and finally they completed a book. As I listened to these authors, it dawned on me they too had struggled too with permission to write and express their vision. They wrestled with their inner critic voices—and they kept at it. As I dared try to write more opening. I learned from writing classes that the difference between someone who is published and someone who is not is perseverance. Persistence. Stubbornness. Stick-to-it-iveness. Call it whatever you want, but it’s the quality of moving forward with the writing even in the depths of despair about it. I learned to write anyway, no matter what. It took a long time to peel away the voices that told me to give up, to keep my story to myself. My inner critic said no one would want to hear about crazy mothers, depression, or abuse, but I found new companions on my journey to heal, I found whole communities doing exactly what I was doing. And my story grew to more than the darkness in it—my story had hope, forgiveness, and layers of insight that led to more emotional freedom for me.
We all have secrets, and memoirists are more exposed than most. We don’t want to be attacked by family and friends alike with comments like, “Couldn’t you just keep all that to yourself,” or “no one ever talked about that before.” Or “Look how you made us look—no one will talk to us anymore.”
It’s dangerous to tell truths that no one else has shared before. That’s how secrets become toxic: they grow in the dark. I do want to affirm that there are two stages for dealing with the secrets in our lives. First, write out the whole story as a way to simply see it on the page. Getting the morass of stuff out of our heads and into the light of day on the page is a great way to see more objectively the stories we have been holding too close.
Writing has been proven to be a good way to heal, to find a new perspective. For nearly two decades, the research by Dr. James Pennebaker on the healing power of writing has been on the web and in books, including my Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story. Another excellent book on how writing can heal is Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing. She includes the stories of well-known writers and their paths to having a voice and healing the past. A consummate researcher of the backstories of writers, you’ll feel in good company as you struggle with freeing your own writing voice and claim your story.
Next, as you approach the second draft of your story, you may start thinking about publication. After all, you’ve spent time getting these stories on the page, you have invested a great deal of time and love on your project. Think about how your story can help others; how your courage and conviction to get your story written can offer a leg up to another person who has struggled like you. Also, ask yourself: how can the theme of my story connect with others? We do not live in a bubble. If you have suffered, you can count on the fact that others have suffered too in both similar and different ways than you. How you can you help each other? If your book stays in the drawer, you remain cut off and isolated from the larger community of potential support and camaraderie. Of course, only you can decide if you want your story to become public, so in this second stage of revision, you’ll have a chance to weigh the pros and cons to that decision.
- List the themes of your story—common themes include recovery, abuse, travel, alcoholism, loss, abandonment
- Write the 10 reasons you think your story can help others.
- List 10 ways that you think your story will be hurtful to others, and how they might react.
- Make a list of those people who will support you in writing your book and cheer you on.
- Find times to write that allow you to explore your feelings deeply. Put them on the calendar.
- Look at photographs to help you remember details.
- Keep a list of when you wrote this week, for how long, and how you felt about your writing session.
- Keeping a writing journal allows you to process your feelings about significant and emotional scenes; be sure to note if you feel less shame; how you have more of a voice.
- Make a list of the dark stories; a list of the happier stories Alternate writing the dark and the light—don’t get stuck in the painful stories.
- Celebrate your creativity. Join a support group or a writing group; take classes. Reach out! Here at NAMW, you don’t have to be alone on your journey.