contract and expand

For my morning journaling, I’ve been working my way through Rebecca Walker’s prompt book, ‘What’s Your Story.’ After the first question, I was stumped for a few days because the first question asks you to detail your earliest memory. That part was easy but the following questions bounced off that earliest memory in what seemed to be a fairly narrow line of questioning, as though Walker assumed all our earliest memories would be ugly, or at least hugely impactful and traumatic. I’m not sure my earliest memory was terribly formative; I was just standing on the landing watching my dad mow the lawn. I was about three years old.

After a few days of exploring that memory, and it is such a vivid memory, I feel it did have an impact on me. I was reminded of the loving home I was raised in and to this day, I can’t hear a lawnmower or smell freshly cut grass without thinking of my dad.

I wonder if anyone interested in memoir writing stops to think about the formative memories that are calm and joyful and loving. I worry that we’ve all come to think that only traumatic experiences are worthy of our attention both as writers and readers.

I did a memoir writing course last year and we had small group chat groups where we could upload short pieces of our writing. I put up a piece about playing under a drooping and enigmatic Jacaranda tree with my foster sisters. The other participants all gave me feedback focusing on how ‘ominous and foreboding’ the scene was. To one woman the figure of my mother bringing morning tea was like a monster hanging over the scene. I had to re-read my words a few times before I realised the other workshop participants were projecting. Either that or we’ve come to expect memoir to contain deeply troubling scenes. Readers seem to want memoirists to expose abuse.

My childhood surrounded by foster-siblings and adoptive siblings was interesting, confusing, happy, loud, full of love and laughter. There were sad times, of course, but the public has come to expect the worst of foster families.

In my opinion, that’s just not healthy. Just as meditation can have nasty side effects if it isn’t done right, writing (and publishing) your trauma can lead to more trauma.

I read somewhere once, it may have been Martha Beck who said we shouldn’t publish anything that hasn’t finished healing. Write about it, certainly, but if it still hurts, it’s not ready for the masses.

I’m reading the Kurt Vonnegut & Suzanne McConnell book Pity the Reader. I can highly recommend it for writers of all stripes. Vonnegut’s breakout novel, Slaughterhouse Five saw him finally writing his war story. It was written and published more than two decades after Vonnegut survived the bombing of Dresden, a German city reportedly of no political or military import, a city full of refugees.

McConnell believes Vonnegut had to put this distance between himself and the events to be able to tell the story the way it deserved. And to allow himself to heal in the process.

I’ve been writing about my first husband for 20+ years and it still touches a nerve. Perhaps the bigger the event, the pain, the more distance/time we need.

Quoting another author, Louise de Salvo in her book Writing as a Way of Healing, McConnell writes,

…not all writing leads to healing-freewriting doesn’t, or objective description of trauma, or venting… Writing that describes traumatic or distressing events in detail and how we felt about these events then and feel about them now is the only kind of writing about trauma that clinically has been associated with improved health.

Pity the Reader, Suzanne McConnell and Kurt Vonnegut, page 94-95

So just writing about a trauma isn’t enough. We need to write about how we feel now, how things are so much better now. Writing is powerful but there’s no substitute for excellent therapy. I actually wonder if all the ‘trauma-porn’ out there on bookshop shelves is doing far more harm than good.

John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and philosopher said, in an interview with Krista Tippet on her podcast On Being, “people believe if they tell you their story, that’s who they are.” Do our earliest memories, relationships, schooling, hopes, dreams, and fears, make us who we are?

To some extent yes, but we are so much more.

O’Donohue says “there is a reduction of identity to biography and they are not the same thing. I think biography unfolds identity and makes it visible and puts a mirror of it out there but identity is the more complex thing.

“There’s a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.“

Meister Eckhart

We would do well to remember that, and to dig, to uncover and remind ourselves who we are, who we were before the world got in the way. Our true face, as the Buddhists say.

To find that unwounded place that Meister Eckhart assures us is there.

To find that whole self, we only have to write how we felt then and how much better we feel now to experience the lightening of being on offer. Rehashing old hurts isn’t getting anyone anywhere so I’ll take my freshly mown grass memory and cherish it because I feel it’s a guide post for my own unwounded place. Remembering the joyful child I once was and channeling her every time I hear a lawn mower!

For the last 3-4 years my “writer’s bio” has consisted of my pre-writing life, of how I came to write and to some extent why I write what I do, e.g. Paris, art, and all that stuff. I’ve been asked for my author bio a few times lately, for competitions, for retreats, for publications, and it’s changed a bit over the past few months. I’ve had a couple of achievements to mention and yes, my biography unfolds my identity as a writer. A win or a mention in a competition, no matter how minor, provides a foothold on which to take another step up the mountain that is validation as a writer.

Todays’ question in the Walker book is “What restricts you? What helps you grow?”

I would have answered this very differently a few years ago, but today I was able to see how every experience in life offers both opportunity for expansion and the possibility for contraction. It’s all up to you. Marriage, parenting, family, friends, work commitments, even hobbies and sports, all offer the two paths.

The late, great Dr. Wayne Dyer was fond of saying, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This is the absolute truest thing.