When people think of courage, mountain peaks and raging rivers usually come to mind. But memoir writing can be one of the most courageous acts anyone ever does.
I began to write my memoir after years of keeping silent about the abuse in my two marriages – except for writing in my journals. Compulsive journal writing netted me a stack of notebooks fourteen high but no peace – no answer to my questions about my past decisions and how I’d come to choose two angry, controlling and eventually violent, men. I still didn’t know, when I read these carefully preserved memories, how a well-educated, intelligent woman ended up in two very unhappy marriages.
In the beginning of writing my own story I couldn’t even say the word abuse or relate it to myself. Nor could I make sense of the fact that I had, indeed, crawled through the emotional battle ground of my life to come out the other side and create a whole new life for myself with a loving husband who is my best friend.
I had survived my marriages by shutting down – by being in denial. Every once in a while I would question my life and cry in frustration and pain, but then I would pack up all the feelings and shove them down out of awareness again. Endurance became my life.
When I started to write, I looked on it as just a writing project, so I bought memoir “how to” books, signed up for writing courses and conferences. I learned to find my story arc, write dialogue and scenes. I was safe. But as soon as I dipped into my journals, the preserved chronicles of my past, the words came out of hibernation and were alive again. They had been there all along, waiting. Once I opened this Pandora’s box of my life, sharp images bombarded me and the need to make sense of it all wouldn’t let go.
Good memoir memoir writing can never be just a literary project. It is part of an emotional process in which I had to summon the willingness, persistence and courage needed to look at all I had stored in my memory. It became a mission I couldn’t turn away from. I needed to write, to remember, to persist. To crawl through the pain once again but this time do it with a difference. When I lived it all the first time I was numb, shut down, unable to cope – and I had no idea what the future would bring. But now, as I wrote, I already knew the ending and I just needed to see how it had all happened – to finally connect the dots of my life.
Initially as I began to write and re-live memories of the past, hot anger would bubble to the surface – anger at myself for the choices I had made, for what I saw as my weakness, and outrage at those I saw as my oppressors, including my parents and my two husbands. Sometimes I was overwhelmed with pain at the mistakes I had made and my lost hopes and dreams for my own life and those of my children. At times I was afraid I would get lost in the past and not be able to find my way back.
Eventually I began to realize that experiences I had as a child had left me vulnerable. I was told to put up with an intolerable situation, so in time my feelings were numbed. Because of this, though I sometimes knew my own mind, I wasn’t strong enough to assert myself with people more aggressive than me. I simply fell in line with what my two husbands said about me and wanted me to do. I was corralled into a position of inaction. I turned the hurt inward in the form of anxiety and depression, to explode at times, but not change anything.
Seeing my own role in my life decisions began to empower me – I wasn’t a complete victim. If I were to become more aware of the protective power of my feelings and if my actions were more in tune with those feelings, I could live a life with more integrity. The feeling of empowerment gave me the courage necessary to finally experience the emotions and reactions I had buried so long ago. I was in awe at what I had been able to accomplish even while I endured so much hurt and pain.
Memoir is a story you already know the ending to when you start to write – or you think you do. In the process of discovering and uncovering what I had pushed into my unconscious I knew more about how I ended up at that particular point. I could now integrate all the “new” information into my identity, my picture of who I am. I could forgive myself and accept what had happened. And in doing so, I changed. I was no longer the person I was when I began the memoir project. I climbed out of the limited, personal view I’d had of my life and achieved a much larger perspective.
There is the kind of courage you exhibit in a moment’s decision to rescue a child from drowning. But there is also courage that persists over time. If your memoir is to be deeply truthful, you must have the determination to look within the dark corners of yourself, to shine a light on those aspects of your life that have been hidden away, denied and disowned. Facing what you fear the most in yourself and reintegrating and accepting those parts requires a different kind of courage than climbing Mt. Everest, but by doing so, you can change yourself and, in doing so, change your potential future.
You can buy her memoir HERE