“The history of a place leaves a permanent imprint, though you may not know it. It whispers its secret stories and offers up mysterious landmarks—a deserted cabin, ruts from westward trails, graves marked and unmarked. For as long as I can remember, I tuned in to these whispers—more like vibrations, or a vision caught in the corner of my eye. From a young age, I knew that my family was repeating history, locked into some kind of pattern that separated us. It interrupted the course of love, leaving distance and pain…”
This is an excerpt from Linda Joy Myers’s beautifully written, stirring new book Song of the Plains: A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence. In addition to being an author, Myers also teaches memoir writing and is the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She believes that our stories are powerful.
As she writes in Song of the Plains, “If we hide or don’t tell our stories, part of who we are goes missing…The truth can be a difficult muse to court. We will not like everything we find. Some information may be shameful and embarrassing, but ultimately the truth frees us from our mistaken assumptions about who we are—and who we are not. We’re always becoming. We can transform our lives from darkness into light.”
I believe this, too. So I was very excited to get the chance to speak with Myers all about connecting to our stories—our deepest, truest stories—and sharing them. Below, Myers shares some suggestions on doing just that. Stay tuned for part two of our interview, where she discusses memoir and the gift of discovery.
Q: You’ve written and speak about the healing power of writing the truth. Why is writing down our personal stories so healing?
A: I think anyone who has kept a journal can attest to how writing helps us to feel more connected to ourselves and to understand the meaning events hold for us. But the exciting news is the discovery that writing helps to improve the immune system, and creates healing for such conditions as asthma, arthritis, and depression, among others.
Dr. James Pennebaker and other researchers have studied the effect of writing about true events, significant moments that deeply affect us, and show how digging deep to tell our truths is beneficial physically as well as emotionally. Pennebaker said writing stories—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end and that include finding meaning—are a key to healing.
You create moments that you relive, walking in the shoes of who you were then, weaving then and now. This kind of weaving shapes a new perspective about yourself and builds bridges to other insights.
Q: While healing, exploring the past can also be incredibly painful. How do you deal with excavating such difficult memories and writing about them? How do you suggest readers deal with this?
A: It’s important to take care of ourselves as we explore the depths of who we are in a memoir. I have used various techniques over the years:
- Make a list of the positive events in your life.
- Write around the moments that are too painful. Start with the positive stories that will be part of your memoir.
- Skipping over the material that might trigger you gives you breathing room and allows you to see it in the larger context of other moments that you’re writing.
- Allow yourself times of not writing. You do not have to write every day, particularly if your story is traumatic. Nurture your writing self in other ways—movies, books, gardening.
- Write about times you felt empowered.
- If you are writing about trauma, write for only 15 minutes, then write something positive, or stop writing for that day and focus on nurturing yourself.
Every story invites us to be vulnerable, to be gentle with who we were in the past. We need to discover compassion for ourselves. Writing, no matter at what level, will strengthen you as you move forward and develop your story-writing skills.
Q: Please share an exercise that readers can try to capture a slice of their own truth.
A: I like to teach that there are layers to writing about our truths: discovering, revealing, and sharing our truths. First, as we write, we discover new aspects about ourselves and our story, and even come to terms with new insights that show up as we write. We need to decide when we’re ready to share our work and deal with the impact our truth may have on other people.
The exercise: Write about a secret, something that no one knows about but you, a secret that would surprise or shock others. Write for 20 minutes without stopping. Then put your writing away for a couple of days, and when you take it out to read it, imagine that someone else wrote it. Find the compassion in your reaction for the writer, and look for how the story connects on a universal level with others.
Linda Joy Myers is the author of three books on memoir writing: The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, Journey of Memoir, and Becoming Whole. She’s a co-author with Brooke Warner of two books: Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and Magic of Memoir. Myers also co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner.
Her memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness was a finalist in the ForeWord Book of the Year Award, a finalist in the IndieExcellence Awards, and won the BAIPA Gold Medal award.
A therapist for thirty-six years, Myers speaks about memoir, healing and the power of writing the truth. She is passionate about spring flowers, her rose garden, grandchildren, and the power of healing to free us from the past. Learn more about Myers at her website http://lindajoymyersauthor.com.