Linda Joy Myers
As a memoir coach, I have come to realize that my therapy background, as a family and child therapist for forty-three years, is something I draw on over and over again when I work with writers. Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about human passions, suffering, and courage from people who are carrying traumas from their childhoods and young lives.
I’ve learned from victims of abuse, from families struggling to become whole again, and from people who want to create a better life. I’ve learned about the many ways that people are resilient, and about the desire to heal and find a better balance that allows the wounds of the past to fade in intensity. All these experiences have helped me to hold the stories of the writers I support. To help them find the words to get the story out into the open so they can create a new relationship with it.
When I first started to write my own memoir over twenty years ago, I started it as fiction. My mother was still alive then, still erasing me by denying I was her daughter (the story told in my memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, titled for my struggle with her). Having used writing as a survival tool for many years, I could write in my journal, but writing essays or personal narratives that others would read and know to be true brought so much shame I would feel sick. It was so bad that I would imagine that people reading my work would get sick too! That also made me feel broken and disgusting—and it was a vicious circle. But I kept writing.
I found that each time I wrote and shared my writing, no matter how anxious and shaking and tortured it felt, the feedback I got—from colleagues and fellow writers was measured. They simply read it, or even liked it, and I found that no one got sick or pointed fingers or jeered. It took many of these experiences of sharing and not being rejected for my writing to help me heal my shame.
Dr. James Pennebaker has written several books on how writing helps to heal, offers interviews online. He points out that finding words and writing our story creates a new perspective. We write from now as a witness to the child or young person we once were. We offer that child our adult self now who deeply understands that younger person that we were and sees how we struggled to cope and to heal. We, as the now narrator, can offer compassion to our younger self.
Most writers I work with struggle with breaking silences and healing abuse, and they too find it hard to put words to their experiences. It’s scary, not only to write these stories, but to share them, even with people they trust. The writers I work with have experienced the darker side of human nature and feel marked and different from “regular” people. It’s tough to strive to live a “normal” life when you have been frightened, hurt, or humiliated—wounds that cut deep. As an adult, you can think and hope that the past is the past and try to simply live in the present, but sometimes the past shows up in the present, clearly and in color. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” There’s a widespread epidemic we face as a society around depression and other mental illness, and while this suggests its prevalence, society still harshly judges those who need help, and those who are trying to heal the past.
For those of us struggling to heal from the past, silence was the way we protected ourselves; sometimes our silence protected others as well. We need to seek self-forgiveness for keeping that silence, and understand our behavior was based on the need to survive.
Abused people carry guilt and shame—for what was done to them. This is strange but true. As writers, we can learn about our own power, the power to shape our narrative and create our story on the page. Writing helps to sort through the confusing layers from the past and weave our stories in a way that makes sense and presents our truths. We do not fictionalize the story, we shape it. We choose the words, style, themes, and arc.
It’s understood now more than ever that trauma affects the brain, and how we think and process emotion. At the same time, we know from decades of study about the brain, that we can change our brains—and we can do this by using the simple tool: writing. We can heal the deep reaches of trauma in our minds by writing our stories. By becoming the narrators of our lives.
- You have the power to name what needs to be named. To write your truth. To shape your story as you experienced it. You are the author of your story, truly. You are the expert on your story—what happened, who was there, and who did what to whom.
- Your story is your testimony. You are the authority of your own story. Get started now and write. Start with a significant moment that has defined your life.
- Write a story you have never written before. Let out the secrets and hidden truths.
- Write about how you were silenced and what you have done to break that silence.
- List five reasons you feel your story is unique and how it can help others.
Each story is a steppingstone to freedom from the past. When you put into words what you have not said before, the truths that you have hidden even from yourself, freedom opens up to you.
For me, this happened recently when I brought my latest memoir to my hometown and gave a reading. There I stood, once a prisoner of shame, with my story in my hand. The old fears and worries about sharing what happened in my childhood with a mentally ill mother and grandmother, with being the ugly duckling as a child and rejected, fell away.
In sharing what had happened and voicing it aloud, I was free!