I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone. Even someone from a good home with an education.” Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.
B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:
“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.
Often, people turn to memoir as a way to come to terms with a past trauma. Programs such as the Walter Reed Arts Program (www.ArtsAcrosstheMilitary.org) have shown that making art and music is often more effective for healing than medications or surgery, particularly for patients with brain injury or PTSD. Linda Joy Meyers explores this healing aspect of memoir in The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story (http://memoriesandmemoirs.com/2010/08/secrets-and-tips-write-a-powerful-memoir/).
While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.
Finding the story
I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”
No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.
To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.
It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.
To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.
A safe place
Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.
One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.
Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.
Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.
I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.
In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.
Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.
Biography: B. Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information: http://www.bmorrison.com.
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