TODAY, I’m pleased to interview, Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D, author of The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story, Don’t Call Me Mother, and Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story.
Watch the three-part video of the interview and/or read the written version below.
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D, is the author of The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story, Don’t Call Me Mother, and Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story. Linda Joy has been a therapist in Berkeley for over thirty years, and combines her background in art, clinical work, and writing in her work. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, and offers memoir workshops in the Bay Area and nationally. She is president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and former president of the California Writers Club, Marin branch, and a member of Women’s National Book Association.
AS What is it that draws you to writing and teaching memoir; how important do you think it is for people to write memoir?
LM My fascination with personal histories and how they shape people and families keeps me always engaged in teaching memoir writing. The process of writing a memoir invites the opportunity to listen to one’s own voice and reach surprising levels of personal growth. I learned so much about myself, my family, and new layers of forgiveness as I wrote my memoir. The memoir can be seen as a journey toward enlightenment, toward deeper self-knowledge. Dr. James Pennebaker, who has presented the writing as healing research says that “stories are a way of knowledge.” This suggests that the memoir can be a teacher, and that writing leads us on a journey of healing, insight, and a better sense of self. I have experienced this and so have my students.
AS Your books say that writing is healing. Can you tell us how writing helps people to heal?
LM The research has shown that writing changes the way that traumatic memories are trapped in certain areas of the brain. The scientists have found that writing helps to heal not only emotionally, as we know from journaling, but physically too, showing health benefit for people with asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Writing improves the immune system, and has positive effects on a variety of conditions.
AS How is memoir writing different than journaling memories?
LM When we journal, words arrive spontaneously on the page, a stream of consciousness flowing from the mind/body. A memoir is a story—which implies a dramatic arc and a plot that is crafted and created by the writer. Fiction writing skills are needed to shape memories into a memoir.
AS Do you keep a journal?
LM I used to keep a journal regularly, but now I journal briefly and when I need to capture dreams and feelings. I love writing by hand, as I never quite know what will appear. It feels as if I’m writing from the body more when I journal than if I write on the computer.
AS Since memory is notoriously inaccurate, and we know that no one remembers things in exactly the same way, how do we know what is really “the truth”?
LM All we can do is to write our truths as honestly as we can. There are many windows of perception on any given circumstance, and quite often there is no objective truth. Every memoirist must hold to her own ethics about presenting her story through her own eyes, but if there are objective proofs of inaccuracy as a result of research or other views, the writer can incorporate them. Since memories can’t be proven, we simply write what we know—and all memories are interpreted through our perception and psychology. Just write freely and don’t worry about proof!
AS How can a memoir writer express his or her personal truth and not upset other members of the family? For example, how do memoirists deal with true stories about abuse in their memoirs?
LM In many families, it is simply not possible to keep everyone happy and not upset them, and writers know what kind of family they’re dealing with. Memoirists need to write their truth in a protected way, with a boundary—a safe, sacred space, as I call it. This is important to protect against the voices of the inner critic and the outer critics. I don’t think that our writing should be shared with family for a long time, but each person has to decide what’s best. Sharing with family prematurely can lead to worries about other people’s feelings prematurely, or even writer’s block. Write the first draft in secret, write everything out. Keep it private, and when you have that draft done, you can decide how much you want to publish and what you need to change.
AS You have said that “A memoir is a beacon of light sent out to illuminate the journey of life for others” – how do we know if the memoir is just for ourselves or if there is value in it for others too?
LM At first, we are writing for ourselves, but in the later drafts we begin to imagine our audience while still remembering to keep our own voice and counsel. Sometimes we write our stories to understand ourselves better; or we think that we want to leave a legacy for the family, and we start writing as a gift to them. Or, we feel that we have learned lessons that might benefit the world outside the family and we write our later drafts keeping in mind what themes, lessons, and points that we want the reader to take away. Again, it’s a process and we need to allow the stages and layers to flow. The writing will reveal itself to us if we don’t strangle it along with way with too many “shoulds.”
AS If people are drawn to writing a memoir, how do you suggest they begin?
LM Start with journaling the important memories, and making lists of the turning point moments. You can have several lists, as they are fluid and ongoing. Use old photographs to stimulate memories, and be sure to experiment with your voice as you write different pieces that convey different feelings.
AS What kinds of techniques does a memoir writer need to develop to write a publishable memoir?
LM Editors, agents, and publishers expect to see a finely written and edited memoir presented as a story—which means there are scenes, dramatic action, a plot, and well honed language and metaphor. The writer will have healed old issues enough so they are not ranting or out of control on the page. No amount of theoretical learning can convey the process of writing the way that writing a memoir from stark beginning to end will teach. It’s journey to write a whole book. Agents and publishers expect you to have completed the book, and have honed it into a manuscript ready for publishers to take as is. This means that you need to take classes in fictional techniques and be willing to write a lot of pieces that may never be published. Learning the craft and being patient are very important parts of eventually becoming published.
AS How important do you think it is to hire an editor? Won’t a good critique group do the job?
LM A critique group may be helpful, but it has to be the right group with enough training in the area that you’re writing about to be useful. A fiction group combined with memoir does not always work, though it can. Personalities can play a big part in a critique group. Groups can be helpful in the early stages as long as you feel supported and encouraged by the members of the group. But if they slow you down or make you feel ashamed of your story, stop presenting your work. Don’t allow negativity in the group, and discourage extreme subjectivity. After all, it is your story, but they can help you discover if you are communicating what you are trying to say, and give you compassionate feedback. Memoirs are so psychological, it helps to have people in the group who understand family dynamics.
There is absolutely no substitute for a professional editor, but again, wisdom needs to be applied here, and hopefully you will find the right editor. Some editors will correct your work in their voice, not yours, which will not help you. And some editors have biases that you may not agree with. Get a potential editor to give you 5 free pages of edit before your hire them, and be sure to talk to their. That said, my work has always been professionally edited by people that I have hired, and I have learned so much in that process. Yes to editors!
AS It’s been a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for for the gift of your time, and have wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year!