The process of writing memoir involves recalling past events in the now, paying special attention to family; we write stories that decipher life experiences, share our truth and point of view. We write to share our understanding of ourselves and synthesize many elements of our world, culture, history and personal circumstance. Some parts of our story are easy to tell, they flow and generate recalled incidents and pleasure for the author, sympathy for the characters and curiosity about the plot for the reader. Other facets are inevitably difficult to present as we delve into trauma, which may invoke discomfort and pain, even tears. The Roman God Janus, known in Greece as Ianos, the deity that faces the past and the future gifts authors with benefits, wisdom, grace and forgiveness: the prize that retrospective work of this nature brings.
It is no surprise that in modern society where social isolation has increased (more time using social media, work from home, Amazon deliveries and the availability of streaming movies and locating information and education on line), creative writing and memoir have taken up more space in bookstore shelves and digitally. That is partly because it is also a basic human need to be known, remain in touch with the self and seek ways of self-expression. So, each one of us takes pen and paper and delivers our innermost musings by journaling, drafting and telling our own stories. Here, we will consider the benefits, pitfalls, as well as suggest ways to manage the challenges of writing memoir.
Chapter after chapter of dealing with conflict, divorce, illness, shame, heroes and villains, we often meander unclear what the story is about. Sometimes, it is a case of identifying the questions that need answers, which is not all that easy to get to. In the pursuit of clarity I found it useful to use a theoretical frame of reference and identify the blind spots that I could sort through writing. We all face hard times in our lives. For me these included the loss of loved ones, loss of my natal home — Greece -, divorce, and a career of serving families and children in child welfare. In my memoir I focused on understanding the reasons that my parents were divorced and the effects it had on me. A young child back then, I was unaware and perhaps blocked recognizing signs and asking questions. Also, everyone around me albeit with protective intentions kept information vague.
I have learned that each of us has a story to tell, unique, and yet universal. For memoir writers, revealing traumatic experiences is part of the task. So how do we face unearthing the past? Each of us carries a history and that often shapes the tool kit we have available. Those are the coping skills we built and elaborate throughout our lives. I find it helpful to turn to psychological constructs using conceptual frameworks.
According to John Bowlby, a British psychologist and psychoanalyst who pioneered the theory of attachment, our experiences in childhood, the attachments we formed play an important role in how we handle revisiting past trauma. One’s life trajectory is influenced by our early years, our past. Attachment is the connecting experience with another person, which in early years is with our primary caretaker. The survival of an infant depends on the relationship between them and that caregiver, most often the mother. Are they accepted and loved, in a caring situation or are they unloved and rejected feeling passive and angry? Are their physical and emotional needs met? To what extent? In subsequent relationships and new challenges, new and varied coping skills develop and get practiced. During our mature years, the early experiences show up in how well an individual responds and adapts to life’s challenges as they arise. Several psychologists have focused and classified coping skills, better known as defense mechanisms, first proposed by Sigmund Freud.
Engaging in writing memoir drives the writer to recall past events and delve into self- examination and discovery in a subjective and intense way. As is so often said, it is telling their story, their truth, from personal, unique point of view. That calls for a heightened focus, a high degree of awareness. A step in heightening self-awareness is the identification of the degrees of transparency-the distance one maintains from the story we are about to present in nonfiction writing. Do writers divulge all they know? As much as they are aware of and can tolerate. Do they screen? Yes. How much? It varies. In writing, as in everyday life we operate based on our sense of self, the world around us and our reaction to it. We move between spheres of self-expression that coexist, and we move between them effortlessly. These are grouped into:
- The private self –where private thoughts, debates, and awareness reside and stay secluded, locked inside our thoughts;
- The disclosing self – where we express some private thoughts with those we consider close, safe and trustworthy;
- The public self – where we attend to the image we want to project to the world by attending to show the “best’ of ourselves.
In writing memoir, often in first person, words, thoughts percolate and spring out of all these selves at different times. In an unconscious way we obtain permission from the “self” to write about true experiences, permission that defines the closeness or distance we set for the lens of the camera. Is it the most intimate thought? The ones we have to set our ear closest to the ground to listen, even admit (private self). Or maybe it is the descriptive distance that is closer to an intimate, heartfelt sharing with others (disclosing self), the voice of the mature narrator. Some parts of writing come from that external picture we like to hold of ourselves to the world. (public self). A child’s voice may be the innocent storyteller stemming from the public self. The narrator has many faces. As writers we use all of those aspects of self in storytelling.
To penetrate to the depths of an honest telling we dig, consider, debate and deal with ways we justified, thought about, repressed the past. Examining our lives means penetrating some of these defenses and as the story evolves, we develop a new point of view, perhaps a clearer view of the past. Therein lies the psychological benefit, the value of writing a memoir for the author.
Defense mechanisms are a normal, natural part of psychological development. When psychologists talk about “defense mechanisms,” they refer to the way in which we behave or think to better protect or “defend” ourselves. Defense mechanisms are one way of looking at how we distance ourselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Moving between the private, the disclosing and the public selves requires a process of introspection. That is when defenses may rear up in opposition to shedding positions we took in the past about events. Writer’s blocks and resistance may well show up to put a temporary stop to the process. As writers we work with and struggle through managing our own defenses as we contemplate our past and look for our own truth and a clear thru line to our storytelling.
Through this journey with its challenges and rewards, we reach the final chapters of our book. Denouement is the final scenes, ruminations and insights of a play, our narrative. It is where the strands of the plot are drawn together, explained or resolved. It is the sweet spot where greater understanding leads to forgiveness of the self and the others that played a role in the traumatic events. This release, catharsis, memoirists have said, is liberating, allowing the individual to settle old accounts and find that a renewed source, a spring of fresh energy returns and enriches their psyche, as they close an old chapter and look to the future. It is the satisfying resolution readers look for, that releases them from the story back to their own lives.