There are so many possible reasons for writing a memoir. You may have had a very interesting life and want to record it. You may want to grapple with some issues that have been hard to pin down. You may even want to use the trials of your life as a message to others, or even a way of sparing them the pain that you went through.
But the one that most calls to me, these days, is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the soul.
As someone who has written about my life since adolescence, on and off, and struggled with a way of writing that kept me as opaque to myself at the end as when I began, I have come to believe that what makes our life story not only meaningful but luminous is our willingness to be both vulnerable and transparent.
Vulnerability: The Secret Ingredient
Vulnerability tends to be what we try not to show in our public life. In business, in inculcating expertise and fame on the Internet, in financial life, and even often at the beginning of relationships, vulnerability is too often seen as a liability. So it has a secret life, shared with therapists, good friends and family, perhaps, and the solitude of our own hearts.
Yet writing from our vulnerability—if done with sincerity and connection to the inner experience in the moment of feeling it—can be much more than a way to relieve our sense of separation by keeping ourselves deep company. It can also be a prayer that resounds throughout space and time. It can be a way to glimpse our soul.
Often, it’s the very things we want to turn away from in our stories that hold a soul-gift for us. When we make the decision to write about these things, experiences, times, impressions with the intention of honoring those soul-gifts, something large, expanded, healing, grace-full comes out of it. We may go in with some embarrassment or shame, but if also go in as a seeker—looking for what is true within that experience, what rings true—we are likely to find ourselves entered into a stream of aliveness that was true once and is true again now, reclaimed in the moment by our willingness to be with it in a compassionate and interested way.
Writing Your Story as a Way to Regain Your Authentic Self
My own experience is that these memories that are typically shelved away have a soul-essence nature to them. We suffer not only because of how we interpreted the experience in the time frame in which it actually took place, but also because we are snubbing our soul. It’s no secret (though we may well be unaware of its effect in our psyche) that young children are remarkably sensitive, and feel everything, everywhere. When life in the family becomes too difficult to stay completely open to, this erecting of what is perceived as an acceptable self (often called “the false self”) takes over. In this conceptualized self, which accepts certain features and rejects others just as was experienced in the family, the reality of aliveness is no longer available to us directly. We have successfully, though often unconsciously, done to ourselves what we felt was done to us. We have “saved” ourselves by closing down. This closed-down self then becomes our presentation in the world, and—more regrettably—to ourselves.
The process of realizing that we are not living a truly authentic life can be painful, even shocking. If we are not the self we have construed ourselves to be, out of the urgent child-need to protect our vulnerability and openness, then who are we? This can begin a profound journey to find one’s real nature, which—though distinct and individual—also has essential features of every other human being’s true nature.
So when we opt to write from a place of vulnerability, we risk being seen without our long-term protections by those who may read what we write. Yet I believe that there is a way to write your life story, your memoir, from within this vulnerability that rejoins you to your soul in the moment of writing, and later on as well. This catching a glimpse of your soul is so thrilling and affirming that once you experience it, you will not want to write about yourself in any other way.
So here is an example. Memoirs are so much about the particulars, aren’t they? How something looked, smelled, felt, sounded. What it was like to actually be there—not in some conceptual, generic way, but really, right there, right now: standing in front of the brick building you lived in as a child, sensing the atmosphere of your family inside, what might be cooking for supper.
In my book, MotherWealth: The Feminine Path to Money, I wrote in part about my relationship with my mother when I was young—how close to her I felt, and then how estranged from her I felt when she grew severely depressed and unable to connect to me. I originally wrote this book 18 years ago. This past year, I revised it and published it.
Initially, I planned to revise only the discursive, explanatory material before and after the story. But as I read through the memoir part more closely, I could feel those places that were closed down and self-protective: the things not said, or said too quickly, too condensedly. Things I didn’t want to open up to others’ eyes, because I was still seeing the situation through the eyes of an uncomforted child.
For instance, in the original edition, this is what I had written to indicate signs of my mother’s turning away from me:
But that paradise was soon shattered, for when I was nine years old my mother had what they routinely called, in those days, “a nervous breakdown” (a term that covered a multitude of experiences, from world-sorrow to catatonia and more). It had probably been building for a long time, for the summer before she had sent my sister and me to camp, a long and lonely summer away from home; but when she came up to visit, she sat under a tree and wept, while my father stood by helplessly, and her friend, the camp’s art director, asked again and again, “But Lily, what’s wrong, what is it?” and my mother just continued weeping.
Yet when I was in the revising process, 18 years later, by that time I had been able to do sufficient “inner work” to recognize how giving short shrift to that experience of realizing I was going to lose my mother to her depression was more hurtful to me than opening it up and giving myself the kind of recognition I would have wanted under the circumstances. So I waded in, and let the scene open up and take me into it.
But that paradise was shattered when I was nine, and saw my beautiful dark-haired mother weeping copiously under a tree.
She was sitting on the grass, her head bent over so I could not see her face. Her sobs had an animal urgency, released in gasps and moans and tears. My father stood behind her, looking helpless and dazed. Her friend Pearl stood next to her, leaning down from a standing position, asking with loud concern, “Lily, what’s the matter?”
Around us was the same kind of soft green grass that had so exquisitely held my mother and me years before. Just up the road was a lake, the same kind of lake with the same kind of blue-green water in which my beautiful mother had taught me to swim; but she did not see it, and she did not see me.
From the slight distance back where I was standing on the dirt path, in my shorts and polo shirt, I watched with an uncomprehending dread the three figures in the shade of the tree forming a triadic tableau—one figure sitting, one standing apart, one standing and leaning in—that seemed to have stepped out of time and into some sudden mythic dimension not accessible to a child. The sun made a wide circle of light on the ground just beyond where they were, where the shade from the tree held them, flickering each blade of grass, each flower, into golden illumination. There was light all around them just outside the shadowed circle, the expanse of wide grass beyond lit to apple green by the sun, the tops of the trees nearby lit gold-white against the sky’s deep vast blue.
I stared at my beautiful dark-haired mother, poised to run to her side but halted by the wildness of her grief and by such public sorrow. Children and their parents walked by in the near distance, their heads turning at the sight of her unplugged cries.
It was Visiting Day at summer camp.
It had been a long and lonely summer away from home. Camp had been my father’s urgent idea, whisking my younger sister and me out of the house as if it were imperative we be elsewhere. Something about the frightened look in his eye and the set of his jaw stopped me from asking questions. Distracted yet efficient, he packed our towels and bathing suits and sundresses into steamer trunks and drove us to the place where the camp bus would pick us up, at the other end of the city. My mother had stayed back at home.
“But I don’t want to go,” my five-year-old sister had cried, less good than I at suppressing her feelings.
“It’s all right,” my father mumbled. “Pearl will look after you.” Pearl was the camp’s art director, and a family friend.
The bus drove away, my father getting smaller, and my sister and I were all we had.
The camp had a beautiful green meadow, and a canopy of trees, and a lake where I could swim. But I could not shake the feeling that I had been sent away; and though I missed my parents I could not afford to know it. It was as if my parents had shoved so many things, so hastily, in some closet back home that they had had to bolt it shut to keep everything from tumbling out in a great, sudden flood, and I feared that even acknowledging my homesickness might be the thing that undid the bolt. My sister, though, assigned to the bunk next door to mine, knew she was forlorn with grief. Each night she would slip under the stall of the adjoining bathroom between our bunks and sneak into my bed. We huddled there and finally slept. My arms around her were all I knew of love, then, and I did not understand how that severing had come about. In the early morning, she would sneak back under the bathroom stall into her own bed, so she wouldn’t be missed.
When Visiting Day arrived, the camp owners patrolled the dining room, insisting we eat our hard-boiled eggs, telling us we would (along with our parents) have steak for lunch. I knew they were just trying to impress the parents, and I hated hard-boiled eggs. So when the owners weren’t looking, I stuffed them in my pockets, later forgetting and coming up with bits of egg white under my fingernails.
When the parents’ cars started pulling up, my pushed-down heart surprised me by leaping up in my chest. My sister, officially allowed to be with me today, started jumping up and down. “Mommy, daddy, mommy!” she cried.
But when we saw them, they were under a tree, and they were not waving, and they were not smiling. My father was standing, dazed, behind my mother; my mother was sitting on the grass, crying; and their friend Pearl (who had kissed us once when we had arrived, then been too busy to look after us) was bending down and asking my mother, again and again, “But Lily, what’s wrong, what is it?” and my mother just continued to weep.*
I wept a bit while writing that; but there were kindnesses and healing balms in those tears. I was right there, alive with what had never been said. I was the witness, even if also the recipient of that loss; and in giving myself that breadth of presence, something in my soul breathed its way back into me. I felt lighter, cleaner, truer. And although that image is still there in my memory—it was not erased by my writing about it—it no longer has that “keep out!” warning, that dangerous vibration. It is still part of my human biography, but it’s been told, now, and doesn’t require retelling and retelling.
My best take on this phenomenon is that my soul sought me in the telling. And when I was willing to be present to the internal panorama of tenderness, confusion, loss, and compassion, I united with my soul through this. That pure child-place got to grow up to who I am now, through that transparent writing; and who I am now became tenderized, purified by returning to that unintentionally abandoned child and giving her the gift of my presence through writing.
So memoir writing can be a way to glimpse your soul—to seek it, to touch it, to regain it, to reclaim it, to take it with you into the rest of your life, to put some old demons to rest, to bring your most precious and beautiful artistry into the art that really matters: who you are, and how you live your life. In this regard, memoir writers have all the blessings in the universe at their disposal, and all the artistry available to be cultivated and given to themselves, their readers, and the divine, as a form of reverence.
* From MotherWealth: The Feminine Path to Money, revised edition. Copyright © 2012 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved. www.motherwealth.com
Naomi Rose has designed a unique series of flower essence remedies for writers, including “Self-Compassion (Rewriting the Past)” and “Shining Star (Letting Your Light Come All the Way into the World)”. For more information, see www.rosepress.com