Writing memoir means delving into some difficult memories, secrets and stories. But it also gives us the gift of discovering ourselves—along with other gifts. This is just one of the topics Linda Joy Myers discusses below in part two of our interview. Myers is the author of the beautiful new memoir Song of the Plains: A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, and the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers.
In this interview, Myers also reveals the biggest obstacle memoir writers face when telling our stories; the best writing advice she’s ever received; and sooo much more.
Q: As a writing coach and workshop teacher, you’ve worked with many, many writers. What seems to be the most common challenge for writers in telling their stories? How do you suggest they navigate this obstacle?
A: Most memoirists are afraid of criticism for writing their truth, and they worry they’ll hurt someone if they write authentically about their experiences.
I always ask if the writer has shown anyone else their work, and what the feedback was. By doing this I’m trying to assess if there are real people who might be working against their freedom to write. If there are, I suggest they stop sharing their writing so they can create a safe space. A worst-case scenario is having someone abuse them or call them a liar. Just imagining such a moment can be enough to silence the writer, so a safety zone is important.
Writers need to work with silencing their inner critics—the voices that cast doubt on their ability to write or their memory. I have writers “talk back” to the voices of doubt, creating affirmations that counteract the critic.
The “outer critics” are the name I give to the people whom the writer may want to protect or those who might be critical of their version of the story. While it’s natural to want to maintain relationships, at the beginning I advise people to just write. If they are worried about legal issues, they should contact a literary attorney to evaluate those concerns.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing memoir?
A: Some teachers advised to write the scary stuff, and not pull back when we felt something was too embarrassing or shameful or they simply couldn’t write it. The desire to avoid the tough stories is natural, but the deepest truths come from exploring our depths and asking the tough questions. A vivid and interesting memoir demands digging and deep honesty.
The other best advice is to create focused scenes and use sensual details to make the reader feel and experience the moments we depict in scenes. Our brains immediately respond to cues of smell, sound, vivid colors, and texture. Brain scans reveal that our brains light up when we read scenes with vivid details, as if we are living that moment.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from your beautiful book?
A: I’d like them to know that though it may seem daunting to explore the past, there are amazing rewards to digging into our stories and exploring family history. I had worked on healing the wounds of mother-daughter abandonment for most of my life, but when I discovered the hidden stories through my genealogical research, I found I was able to fully imagine the lives of my mother and grandmother, to understand their life choices given the era and culture they came from.
These new insights offered me deep compassion for them. Layers of hurt and misunderstanding fell away like tissue paper. Searching for the stories, the secrets and the places where there has been silence can offer you the gift of discovery that can change your life.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your book, telling our stories or creating in general?
A: That I was very conscious of the themes of my book—the Great Plains, pioneer history, ways that the land and landscape can offer comfort and transformation percolated in a semi-conscious way for decades.
Also, as I tried to find out what happened to my mother as a little girl and put the pieces together about her young life, I found myself able to imagine her story, to see her life through her eyes and not just my own. This same imagining brought to life the history of generations of mothers in a way that made them real, not just stuck in the dusty past in archived facts. Making people real and alive is something we are able to do when writing a memoir, and it offers amazing opportunities to see our lives and the lives of others through new and more compassionate eyes.
I invite writers, or anyone who wants to explore their story, to do it. To start today with their favorite memories. Find photo albums from your past, and the legacy photos if you have then, and let your imagination roam. What makes you curious? What fascinates you about your story?
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.
Check out part one of our interview, where Myers shares wonderful exercises for writing our stories.