Writing a memoir can be a daunting task even for the most seasoned writers. And then there are those who don’t consider themselves writers, but definitely have a story to tell. One way the Oxford Dictionary defines memoir is, “An autobiography or a written account of one’s memory of certain events or people.” Yes, we all have a story to tell. But we often think that ours isn’t special enough or that other people have similar experiences so our story isn’t unique. There are many reasons we might decide to write a memoir and there are just as many reasons we don’t. But when we honor our stories in such a way as to put them down on paper, even if it is just for ourselves, the writing process can begin to take on healing qualities. That process can bring us freedom from the pain of the past, while honoring those whose memories we hold dear.
Finding a Mentor
Dale Griffith stumbled upon the memoir process during a trying time in her life, that brought her in new directions. As an adult student she went back to school at Middlesex Community College. She then received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University where she studied English with a concentration in medieval literature and women’s studies and later returned to pursue her masters. During her second year there, she took a course in Feminist Theology. She had just gotten divorced, was 37 years old, a single parent and was questioning everything in life, when she walked into a class on feminist theology taught by a woman who was about to change her life.
“I really believe this woman was sent to me divinely because she was crazy as a loon. She was kind of a “let it all out there” kind of person. I ended up writing a 100 page paper. At the time I was just beginning to get unbroken. I had only a modicum of self- esteem. I handed her the first ten pages of my paper I’d titled, “The Gospel According to Dale.” It was largely about this terrible marriage that had just about flattened me, and learning to live with who I am, rather than who other people said I should be. She said, “I’m tellin ya’ sister you just have to keep on writing.” So I did. I gave her more and she encouraged me to keep writing. For me, writing and then with her feedback, was incredibly positive. I just let it rip. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then I laughed and cried. Writing and sharing it with this person, this really deep stuff, I believe…was a life changing event for me. It wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t been reading it.”
Find a Writing Group
Such is the basis for Dale’s workshops and courses on memoir as a tool for healing. The feedback Dale received was a call to go deeper into the experiences she wrote about. There are loads of research based information and books on memoir as healing, as well as studies that support and confirm the importance of sharing that work. Studies have shown that a group setting makes a difference in the memoir writing experience. There is something about sharing our emotional experience with another person that perhaps heals us and relieves us of some of the pain. This writing process can be helpful in most twelve step programs, in dealing with cancer or other illness, life traumas and even emotional disorders. She saw this in her teaching position at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn., a women’s prison where she taught in 1994.
Dale worked with women who had gone through things she could hardly conceive and she helped them find their voices through writing. Seven months into this job she put together a contest having the women write about, “what if…” She received about 35 submissions and prizes were awarded. From that a weekly program developed, called Struggles that she facilitated with the prison social worker. She gave prompts that were poetry, quotes or sometimes just a word, and the women wrote about their experiences.
“We began with meditation and ended with a little closing ritual creating a safe space. As trust within the group grew, the women shared atrocious things I wish I didn’t know. It was raw material. I came to love those women. Wally Lamb came on board in 1999 and the two of us hooked up, continuing the writing group. But with Wally, the women would be invited to deepen it, and encouraged to elaborate further, bringing it back the following week. They published I Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Testimonies of our Imprisoned Sisters in 2003, which was a book of these stories filled with many themes that repeated themselves. I think there is incredible value in doing this as a group, rather than as a solo experience of personal narrative.”
Take a Class
And this is what she does today in her memoir classes at Middlesex Community College as an associate professor. If her writing prompt is a whole poem students will take a line or phrase that speaks to them and just keep the pen moving. She talks about how to develop an event in life using tools from fiction. They work and develop the piece in a way that couldn’t happen in the short time she had together with the women’s prison group. She also does writing workshops in various places, including HIV/AIDS groups.
“They write and read it raw. People who have been told they were worthless all their life, write, and what they write is sheer and utter poetry,” says Dale. “It is so moving I’d be beside myself.”
Dale writes with her students and she believes that’s an important part of creating a safe, nurturing environment. She believes it’s not fair for her to sit back at a distance while encouraging them to go deep with their own writing. For those who are not a part of a group, she recommends starting by reading about memoir as healing. There is much written about it, but two of her favorites are Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.
She suggests thinking about one event in time, one moment, either really good or really bad. Focus on one little event and try not to be too broad about it all.
“The first time you met for example, your first kiss. Firsts are really good places to start. When did that person make you so angry you thought about leaving them? A child was born. A child died. You moved to a new place. Turning points make good stories. How do you do it? Anne Lamott says, “one bird at a time. One little piece at a time. One snapshot. Take a picture in your mind. Write out what was going on that day. Start small and be specific. It’s much better to take one little piece. It’s easy to describe a memory.”
We all have them - some good, some not so good. But the process of writing our memories, our stories down, and really diving into what that experience felt like, what it smelled like, looked like, can tap into a deep place within us and offer release, freedom, even peace. To share it with someone further enhances the experience. Writing a memoir can be a powerful path toward healing for the writer in all of us. Start today.
5 steps to beginning your memoir
1. Read some of the many books about memoir as healing
2. Choose one point in time, one turning point in life to focus on
3. Keep editing to a minimum – at least initially – keep the pen moving
4. Find a supportive and safe group or writing partner to share with
5. Start writing