When we first decide to write, we feel good about it—we have memories and stories that are a part of who we are. We want to capture times long gone and preserve them in story form, and leave a record and legacy about our lives. But other voices get in the way: “What will people think; you should be ashamed; you’ll embarrass the family. Don’t air our dirty laundry! You know only part of the truth, so be quiet. Your mother would roll over in her grave if she found out you wrote that.”
We all know these voices. They tempt us throw down the pen, sit back and turn on the TV. We want to write out truth, but we don’t want to lose the good will of our family, and most of the time at least, we don’t want to make them angry. Writing a memoir is an act of courage, even defiance against powerful family dynamics. We need to find a way to resolve this dilemma enough to keep our writing project going.
As a family therapist, I’ve worked with many families, and because of that background, I’m in a position to help the writers I work with understand the source of their resistance to writing their truths, and how to manage those critic voices.
When we write memoir, we are reclaiming our story, and we stake a claim to our version of the stories that we lived. Every family has multiple story lines. There’s the “official” version, controlled by the most powerful people in the family, those who have the most to lose. The “lesser” points of view—often held by children or those lesser in power—are often not believed or accepted as true.
Who decides what version of a story to believe? Who is not listened to? Whose point of view is unwanted? The answers to these questions will be decided by family dynamics and power. Many writers I work with tell me that they were not believed, or their version of “what happened” is not accepted, so they have a hard time claiming their own story.
In many families there’s a “scapegoat,” the person that everyone blames for what is wrong. Again, it seems that the writer/witness/narrator in the family is often found in this position too. You may hold a unique or unpopular view of the family stories and those with in power may want to suppress it. Usually this comes from fear.
I am always telling the writers I coach to write their first draft as if no one is going to read it. Write the first draft—and later draft too until all your revisions are complete—story in a protected bubble so you can find your story and your voice.
Some tips from the family therapist:
- Figure out the power dynamics in your family. If your inner critic voice is chatting to you, write down what it says. Also figure out if there is a specific person whose criticism you are most worried about.
- If one of your voices says things like: “I don’t know how to write; my family will hate me; how do I know I am writing the truth” keep writing, keep searching for the stories you need to tell. If you were silenced when you were growing up, writing your memoir will help you find your story, the one that belongs to you, and you are no longer silenced when you write.
- DO NOT hit the delete button when you hear the critic voices after writing. DO protect your writing from curious family or friend invaders until you are comfortable with your work—usually after several drafts are done and you know your story. Treat your work like a vulnerable young plant that needs protection.
- Find writer buddies to help support you through your networks online. You can ask for writer buddies in the NAMW network and during our teleseminar question time and during our group coaching calls. Several people have been matched up that way!
- If you’ve been abused, neglected, forgotten, or silenced, you probably learned not to value your own point of view. Writing your story can change that! Keep “telling it like it is.”