by Jerry Waxler
I have long admired Linda Joy Myers as a thought-leader in the memoir movement. In addition to writing an amazing memoir about her own journey, she is the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers which brings resources and support to anyone who wants to develop the story of their life. Now she has added another contribution to the field with her book, “The Power of Memoir: Writing Your Healing Story.” In this interview, I ask Linda Joy to share more thoughts about her journey as a writer and teacher.
Jerry Waxler: When did you first become interested in writing your memoir?
Linda Joy Myers: At first, I wrote my stories as journal entries and poetry. My inner critic was very noisy and nasty, so I kept my writing small and private. For a while, I was confused about whose story I was telling. Because my story is about three generations, actually about five generations of mothers and daughters, I didn’t know where to start. I wrote two novel length versions that had to do with of the imagined story of my great-grandmother, born in 1873, three years before Custer’s Last Stand. And I wanted to explore the early life of my grandmother who was raising me. I knew her as an older woman, when she would tell me the stories of her early life, but her most interesting story she tried to keep from me: her elopement when she was 16! It caused quite a scandal.
My story? Well, it took one of my mentors to invite me to tell my own story, which I hadn’t yet claimed. I was raised with huge admonitions against “airing the dirty laundry” of the family, and my story would definitely do that. It was hard to break all those rules! So it took many years, lots of classes, and lots of “I’m NOT going to write this darn thing.” As I tell people, the memoir kept chasing me until I turned around and agreed to write it. When I did, the old ghosts became silent. I suppose it helped that those who would get upset at me for telling the family tales were dead. Well, most of them. Some of my extended family eventually freaked out that I had written a memoir, even though I left their dastardly deeds out of consideration and respect. Now I might write it all, as I have nothing to lose. So there might be another memoir someday.
JW: When you did you first become interested in teaching others how to write memoirs?
LJM: One day I stumbled upon the research that Dr. James Pennebaker and other psychologists were doing on the healing power of writing stories. Time stopped as I sat there at my desk, enthralled, everything silent, as energy rushed through my body. I began searching for all the research on the topic I could find–this was in 1999-2000. I called Dr. Pennebaker to find out more, and I met him in person. Inspired, I began teaching therapists how they could use writing to help clients, using Xeroxed memoir stories from my favorite memoirs and articles about the writing as healing research. In these workshops I was blown away by the stories that came out of people who were not “writers.” I decided to write my first book “Becoming Whole–Writing Your Healing Story” to share the great news of the research and the amazing stories that came out of my workshops. Teaching people “the good news” was the most fun I’d had in a long time.
JW: You have said in interviews for your own memoir “Don’t Call me Mother” that you made huge sweeping changes, even throwing out a manuscript and starting over. It sounds like you were burning with creative desire to tell that story well. Could you say more about the sheer length and persistence of this effort for you? What kept you going?
LJM: I worked on the memoir for more than a decade, and during most of that time I was still trying to heal. I got stuck a lot, and quit working on it many times, feeling defeated and overwhelmed by how hard it was to write when the issue I was trying to heal was still being lived out. My mother continued her abandonment of me and her grandchildren, and I discovered how little she claimed us all when she was dying. None of her few friends in Chicago had any idea she had a daughter or grandchildren! So the situation of being denied and abandoned was a continuous wound. I envisioned my book as being able to help others with similar situations.
After my mother’s death, I had a new version of my story, finally feeling some resolution, and became serious about finishing the book. After many agents passed on it, I needed to see it published, so I and a couple of friends started our own publishing company, and we each published our work.
As I prepared the final versions and edits of “Don’t Call Me Mother,” I saw the through line of the narrative, and the theme became clear. I edited out all the pieces that didn’t fit the theme, which turned out to be about 56,000 words. Actually, it felt like a relief to cut it down to size, and I felt happy about finally finishing the story. The editing process and getting a completed book was as healing as writing it.
JW: I read an interview with Mary Karr, author of “The Liar’s Club” in which she talks about how vulnerable kids are. Typically, people only talk about this vulnerability in therapist’s offices. When the memoir wave started, people started to write and read about their vulnerable childhood in books. As a teacher of memoir writing, how do you feel about your clients “coming out of the closet” so to speak and writing about these exquisitely private scenes? Does it help? Is it scary?
LJM: These kinds of books about abuse were being written in the 1980s, but memoirs were not popularized as literature until Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” or Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” among others.
As a teacher and coach, I see people digging deep into truths never before shared with a living soul. We in the groups feel honored that we are allowed to witness this kind of courage–the survival skills of our writing partners and the amazing spirit of determination that many people need just to grow up, to live, and to move forward in their lives.
I am humbled and moved each week by their bravery and willingness to put the truth on the page and share it with us. My students tell me frequently how their lives have changed because of this writing, along with the witnessing and compassion they received in the workshop. One woman tells me that she loves her mother now, but when we started, she could barely stand to be in the same room with her. She wrote both the dark and the light stories about her family, and integrated a whole new relationship with her elderly mother. I love outcomes like this, and she is one of many.
JW: In your therapy work, what seeds do you plant that might help people use the medium of writing to help them organize their thoughts and emotions?
LJM: Most of my therapy clients do very little writing, but when they do, they find it helpful and are often surprised at what shows up in their journal. They focus on significant scenes where they’re stuck, the turning point moments of trauma that even after years of work keep haunting them. They sometimes write during the session, which helps them to focus, or they bring in their journal or dreams. The problem is that most people write very abstractly, but when I can convince them to use scenes, they really do write differently and with more healing power. I talk about the healing power of scene writing in “The Power of Memoir.”
JW: It seems that when someone first starts writing a memoir, they ought to have a background in psychology. By the time they finish their memoir, they need expertise in creative writing and literature. How do you steer through these two aspects of memoir writing?
LJM: When I studied literature it seemed so obvious to me that writing had a psychological component, but in the lit classes this was almost never acknowledged. I’d always thought I wanted to bring the two together somehow, but for a long time couldn’t see how to do it. I kept working on my own writing, and then the studies by Dr. Pennebaker and others were published. After I discovered that exciting research, I had a sense of how to integrate my version of healing and psychology with writing–through writing healing stories.
JW: In coming years, how do you see the memoir writing trend balancing between the two disciplines of introspection and literature?
LJM: It’s hard to predict if memoir writing is a brief trend or if the interest in other people’s stories will continue. Perhaps we are all voyeurs at heart. After all, in previous times, people were not cut off from each other the way we are now, in our boxy houses, in front of TVs or computers all the time. People gathered together and knew each other’s business, for better or worse. They helped each other learn from life and each other about how to live. Extended families and communities had a lot of interaction, input, and guidance. People knew what was going on behind most of the closed doors. I wonder if some of that is missing now. Perhaps memoirs throw open those closed doors and invite us all in to see what is going on, to learn how others are living. Perhaps memoirs are fulfilling some kind of universal social need. We’ll see.
JW: I love the “voice” of your book “The Power of Memoir.” For example, in the lovely sections on how memoirs relate to family and to spirituality, you offer a great deal of focused information in clear, easily accessible language. How did you find this particular voice or style? Did you experiment? Did you workshop your nonfiction voice?
LJM: I am unaware of my “voice.” It just comes out the way it comes out. It is my voice I guess. I used to be confused about what “voice” meant, thinking that I had to do something special to create a “voice.” But we don’t. However, we do need to keep practicing our writing to get comfortable enough with our ideas and themes to earn the voice that really belongs to us. I don’t think writers should worry about their voice. They just need to write, to say what is true for them, and keep learning about grammar, syntax, and writing skills. And, it’s really important to read good literature of all kinds–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Watch good films, and view real art. All of the arts feed our souls and influence our writing.
JW: What are you working on next?
LJM: I’m starting to put together a proposal for a book that will help young adults write a memoir. My agent Verna Dreisbach has created a wonderful organization called “Capitol City Writers” that presents programs for young people to help them learn about all aspects of writing help to give them a head start with their writing career. I used to work with families in crisis and loved working with the youth in those families. Young people already have so many stories they need to tell. You do not have to be old to write a memoir. Even a ten year old has stories. If we can create a book that encourages and helps young writers, that would be terrific. Right now the idea is still in the creative imagination.
For links to all of Linda Joy Myers’ work, click here.
Click here to see my review of “Power of Memoir”
Click here to read more about Capitol City Writers
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.