Memoir as Transformation
There is something about memoir writing that opens a person up to insight, understanding and clarity. It opens us to realize our full potential to have a positive impact on the world.
Big stuff definitely, and you’ll never really know how big until you jump right in and do it — take the courageous leap and begin writing your story of transformation.
There have been a lot of things that I’ve jumped right in and done. Not all of these have been pleasant. A difficult childhood led to years of alcoholism, with each rock bottom crumbling and giving way to a new one. Meditation, photography, and finally poetry eventually pulled me out of the abyss.
The Past Would Not Be Quiet
Yet after writing poetry for almost fifteen years, the story of my past started creeping up on me, kept haunting me, demanding to be told in prose. Somehow it felt too big and messy for poetry.
Right around this time a fellow writer on Facebook posted an article from the Sun magazine by someone named Cheryl Strayed. This was before Wild came out. I was floored by the raw emotionality, the power and vulnerability of the piece. It was as if she were giving me permission to tell the truth about my own experience.
The poet June Jordan once said,
Poetry is a medium for telling the truth.
I felt right then and there that any kind of writing, even fiction, was a medium for telling the truth, and there was Cheryl Strayed laying it all out on the line in a beautifully truthful way.
I always loved reading memoirs (especially the poetic ones like Mary Karr’s Lit, Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, among many others), and then Wild came out and I felt inspired to incorporate the memoir genre into my writing practice.
Re-vision Your Life Story
Writing my own memoir, Beamish Boy, allowed me to literally re-vision my life story in a clear narrative way so that I could see it for what it was.
It gave me insight into my own humanity and helped me understand myself in the larger context of a human life. It was that final chapter that provided true healing and allowed me to close the door on the skeletons of my past.
Becoming a memoir writer changed everything I thought I knew about myself.
Most importantly, it changed my perceived limitations about what I could write and what I couldn't. Not only what was acceptable versus not acceptable, but really what I was capable of as a writer beyond poetry.
The process made me a more versatile writer. I had to learn the art of storytelling; story structure, plot, character arc, theme, symbol, and all the rest that is required to create a dynamic dramatic experience for your readers.
It gave me a sense that I could tell my story in the context of our collective story. By telling my story I was letting go of my story.
Become Part of a Bigger Community
And I realized that my story — the writing and telling of it — wasn’t even about me. It was about us. For telling a great story asks the reader to reflect on themselves, on their experiences, on how they might transcend their perceived limitations.
I used to think I was my story; that I was all those self-limiting and self-doubting, deprecating, and deadening thoughts in my head. Only by getting those ideas out of my head (and body), and onto the page, was I able to free myself of their grip on my heart.
My experience with memoir writing came full circle when I was granted the opportunity, in March 2015, to teach alongside one of America’s truly magnificent, clear-minded, intelligent and generous-of-spirit writers and teachers, Cheryl Strayed. And in Maui, Hawaii at that!
It was such a pleasure to be in the presence of a creative writer who was so genuine, so authentic, so in touch with the reality of truth with a capital T. Which, by the way, comes from being fully committed to your life and your craft as a writer — surrendering to the process again and again.
It always amazes me how one little turn leads to another, until you find yourself on a great journey of opportunities lining up one after the next. This path has led, among other places, to my hosting a day-long workshop for writers with Elizabeth Gilbert, the best selling memoir author of Eat, Pray, Love.
Writing memoir has become even more than a way for me to tell (and let go of) my story; it’s created connections in my life that are expanding my career as a teacher and writer. It’s amazing for me to experience such a dramatic transition from flailing lost unpublished suicidal alcoholic, to published author teaching writing workshops with some of America’s most cherished best-selling writers.
How to Begin Telling Your Story
It’s never too late to tell your story. Just getting it down on paper (or on the computer screen!) is therapy enough, but with all the online publishing tools available, there are now more opportunities than ever to share your story with the world. You should start with one (or more) of these:
Keep a journal. Just a notebook where you write your thoughts, answer questions, start to play with the words.
Write a memoir. Actually turn your experience into a story -- a short one if you want to start there.
Turn your personal stories into fictional short stories. There is no 'rule of memoir writing' that you have to tell your story word for word. It's sometimes less painful to imagine a fictional setting and relate a story in the third person.
Publish an e-book. Start small, and start with something that you can share easily and quickly -- a pdf ebook, or a kindle book.
Start a blog. The easiest way of all to share your work is to start a blog. A daily, or periodic, way to put your work into the world.
Get active on social media. Social media can create genuine connections with thoughtful people like us, and sharing parts of your story in the safe zone of a group or a smaller community can bring feedback that gives you the confidence to take another step.
Join a writer's group. There is no better way to be writing than in the community of other writers; to know that your struggles are also shared struggles, your joy is shared joy.
Attend writing workshops and conferences. And, if you don't yet feel ready to join a writer's group, then attend a conference where you can mix and mingle with other writers.
Connect with other writers. Wherever you do it, make connections. More people are writing than you might think. Become one of them, you are a writer and you deserve to share your story.
Do you have a story to tell?
We all do, the only question is whether you want to share it. I'm guessing you do, so take that first courageous step and write down a few of your most vivid memories in as much detail as you can muster. Just for yourself in your private journal.
And, as you start to feel a little more bold, keep me posted, I’d love to hear it.
This post was written by Albert Flynn DeSilver. Albert is an internationally published poet, writer, speaker, and workshop leader. He lectures internationally, and teaches workshops on the connections between awareness, creativity and writing.
Are you writing memoir? Do you want to start? What’s the smallest step you can take?