by Jerry Waxler
This is the third article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,
Identity ought to be a stable thing. Once you find it, you should be set for life. But in reality, your ideas about yourself undergo continuous adaptation. We all adapt to the slow changes that unfold over years. And sometimes, our peaceful self-image is threatened by assaults so deep and swift they shake the foundations of sanity. Betrayal, divorce, job loss, combat trauma, crime, abuse, disease, or death of a loved one can rip apart our trust that we know how to live in the world. We hang on using prayer, social supports, or counseling. Even as we shrink away from the parts of our life that hurt, we try to return to our routines. Eventually, the past slides into the past while often leaving behind a sticky residue.
One way to gain power over the bitterness and confusion that have been left behind by trauma is to write about it. Write the entire period, from your initial sense of safety, to the coming storm, then the actual experience. Then comes the most important part. Continue your story through the long journey to recovery.
One problem with events that assaulted you is that you feel trapped, as if the memory has become a prison. The power of the unexpected event feels like a life sentence. By writing the whole experience, you can form a more intimate familiarity with the journey back to safety.
By becoming a storyteller of your own life, you gain control over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, finding the words that help you integrate the turn of events into your understanding of how you fit into the world. And by shaping the experience into a form that can be shared with others, you turn private sorrow into social compassion.
Memoirs that provide examples of facing and recovering from trauma
Alice Sebold, “Lucky.” She explicitly describes the rape that stole her innocence. Then for the rest of her life she attempts to reclaim her ability to once again believe she is a good person in a safe world. For my essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky, click here
Jim McGarrah, “Temporary Sort of Peace.”Altered forever by his devastating experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah turned to writing, and looked for himself amidst the rubble of his own story. For my interview with author Jim McGarrah, click here
David Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness.” This veteran heals his nightmares by visiting the Pacific islands where he fought in World War II. In addition to providing a powerful historical account, he also searches for identity and tries to put his demons to rest. For my essay about combat trauma, click here.
Jill Bolte Taylor, “My Stroke of Insight.” After a stroke destroys the left-half of her brain, she must make do with only the right half. Then she takes an 8 year journey of rehabilitation, becoming whole and learning profound lessons about her brain and self. For my essay about My Stroke of Insight, click here.
Gary Presley “Seven Wheelchairs.” Presley, an athletic teenager is stricken with polio and then spends decades coming to terms with life in a wheelchair. His recovery is not of body but of spirit, and inspires me to think about the nobility of the long road of life. For my essay about Gary Presley’s memoir, click here.
My shakeup and subsequent re-discovery
I entered college with advanced placement scores in math, majored in physics and was sure I would be a doctor. After five years of anti-war protests, marijuana, and nihilistic beliefs, I was living in a garage, not talking to anyone for weeks at a time, striving to escape civilization. I suffered what might have been called a “nervous breakdown” if anyone had focused enough on me to give it a label. I unraveled my sense of self, and became story-less, a man without a workable self-concept, reducing myself to raw nerves and meaninglessness. I was a living laboratory experiment demonstrating that a healthy story is a minimum requirement for life. Looking back, I see that I spent much of my adult life recovering from the disruption. Writing my memoir has helped me gain an overview of this lifetime journey.
Write about unexpected suffering that made you feel like your previous sense of self no longer made sense. To help you see the whole experience, start with an outline from before the event when you felt safe until after, when you reclaimed your poise. Let your writing carry you forward from the quicksand back onto solid ground. If writing a dismal portion pulls you down, balance that feeling by writing scenes of hope and healing.
This method applies to trauma that you can look back on. Writing such a story can help you grow to a place where you can find wisdom about past suffering. If you are currently experiencing trauma or out-of-control feelings, please seek social support from a compassionate caregiver.
Link to other articles in this series
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.