Write Your Memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story

Read the first 30 pages of Write Your Memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story.

Memoir Writing as Soul Work

Chapter One

What is Soul Work? What does it look like? Why is it Worth Doing?

So you’ve decided to start a memoir. Good. This book will help you in that process. It won’t be prescriptive – it won’t tell you what you must have and where in the text you must have it. Instead it will take you through a series of exercises and writing activities, all of which are designed to bring memories to light, and to do so in a new way. And it will ask you to listen to yourself in all this, so that you can decide what needs to be in your memoir, and what shape it needs to take. For this will be an individual choice for each writer. There are no cookie-cutters here. One size will not fit all. And so as we go through this book I’ll ask you to take the time to do the exercises; if this process is to work properly you cannot just think about doing them, you’ll actually have to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write. In this way you’ll learn to value the memories you have and allow them speak to you. Only then can they reveal their deep meaning to you – the meaning you’ve been looking for.

For the past thirty years I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with people young and old as they write about their lives, getting them to tell their stories in the ways that feel most authentic to each of them. What has become clear over that time is that writing about one’s life, or better still, writing the story of one’s life, causes change at a deep level. So profound is this process that it seems to be best described as Soul Work, since it moves each writer into a different relationship to him or herself and to the past. If you take on this work it will also alter your relationship to the world around you, which in turn provides an enhanced sense of what matters most in life. It’s a spiritual process, although it might not look like it when one watches a writer, day after day, at the desk.

Writing one’s life story involves a process that most people don’t quite understand. To explain I’ll give you a comparison. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s wonderful movie The Sacrifice, which he made as he was dying of cancer, there is a minor character – a small boy who is seen everyday walking over a barren landscape lugging a bucket of water, which he pours over the base of a very dead-looking tree. People tell him it’s useless, but he keeps popping into the frame, barely strong enough to carry the bucket and does it anyway. The other characters shake their heads and sigh, busy with their confusions and arguments. Almost the last scene in the movie shows the boy still dragging the bucket up the hill, except now the tree has green buds and leaves on it.

As a metaphor for Tarkovsky’s hope that the then Soviet Union would eventually change, it works well and all the more eerily so since the Soviet tyranny did in fact collapse a few years later, after Tarkovsky was dead. As a metaphor for quiet belief in daily devotion to a task it works also. The filmmaker must have felt he was rather like the small boy, trying to coax an uninterested world intent on its absurd arms race to turn back to life and to living. And from our point of view it has deep resonance too – turning up every day to write one’s life story may look to some like a losing proposition, but in the doing of it something changes within the writer. Dead trees sprout leaves, one’s sense of life is enriched – and we move closer to an awareness of what our lives might mean.

Knowing this can be a great help as we set out along this seemingly daunting path. Perhaps you will sell your script and make a fortune. That would be delightful. But the first consideration should not be money or readership. It should be that this is work you need to do for yourself.

In some ways, if you are reading this, you are already at that point of change. Deciding to write your memoir means you are already moving into a different relationship to your life experiences. We all have ‘stories’ that we tell ourselves about our lives. Some of these stories are conscious (such as I’m a white male, or that someone else is an Italian female) and some of them may be less conscious, such as when we may tend to act, at times, like victims, or to accept less than we are due, or when we tell ourselves, ‘I never have any luck in this aspect of my life.’ We know some of our stories; others are waiting to be known. When you decide to write your memoir you are saying two things. The first is that you believe you have a story that’s worth sharing. The second is that in sharing it you believe there is some inner value that you are trying to express that can only be conveyed fully by telling that story. Your ‘take’ on the world has value and its ultimate worth also may need to be clarified to you, yourself, through the process of writing it out. This is a little like the difference between the magnificent memo to the boss that you compose at night, lying awake, that is a masterpiece of tact and intelligence, and the actual memo you send, knowing that it will be read in the real world. The first is abstract, operating in a world that you have temporarily created. The second – well, the second version means you actually have to take responsibility for your words.

Each of us has a life story waiting to make its way into the light of day. And there’s no better time to start than right now.

So let’s think about this for a moment. Life comes at us at different speeds. Sometimes it comes so fast we don’t have time to record anything, and we have no opportunity to get things straight in our minds before the next event hurries along. Sometimes it comes at us so slowly that we think nothing much is happening until, much later, we look back and see that in fact a huge amount was going on. Ask any parent of small children – even one who keeps a diary every day without fail – and you’ll get the same answer. The child who was crawling starts to walk, and the parent’s life is never the same again. Since this is the case, how can we even attempt to record all the events that happen to us in a coherent fashion?

Yet if we can’t or don’t take the time to record what happens in our lives then it becomes very hard to make sense of chronology, to keep track of events, and ultimately it becomes almost impossible to understand them. Which of us hasn’t found ourselves, at some time or another in our lives, looking back at an event and saying that we really didn’t see that one coming? Or perhaps we find ourselves not knowing how we got to this particular difficulty. How did my life get to this point? If we can’t remember the steps we went through we’ll find it very hard to understand how we got to our present moment.

At various points in our lives we’ll want to do just that; we’ll want to try and reconstruct the past in order to make sense of it. Perhaps you have reached a turning point in your life and you feel the need to reassess what has been going on. Marriage, graduation, divorce, moving house or changing jobs, the birth of a child, retirement, the arrival of grandchildren, bereavements, a near-death experience – any and all of these events, and others, can move us to the place of contemplation and wonder.

This sort of reassessment is not simply idle or nostalgic, although some people just shrug it off as too complicated to think about. If you allow yourself to review what has happened in your life you’ll be engaged in what I call soul work. It deserves to be taken seriously. If we do the necessary reflecting we can make connections, become more thoughtful, and access our understanding. We can grow our souls and transform our hearts. We can expand our wisdom and our compassion. In fact the very act of wanting to understand is never simply based in idle curiosity: it’s always a desire to look beneath the surface of things, to find the deep structures that make up our psyches.

Many people don’t know this, at least to begin with. Most think that they’ve been through a difficult series of circumstances and they feel the need to get it on paper, somehow. Others feel that they’ve had interesting lives and they want to write it all down. These are good places to start from. And for everyone who does make a start there is the opportunity to do some profound soul work. Still other writers feel a driving need to communicate what they have lived through. Elie Wiesel described this best when he wrote, “It is the duty of the survivor to speak of his experience and share it with his friends and contemporaries.” Wiesel was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, so he knew that sharing his experiences was not just a form of self-indulgence. He wanted to warn others so the events he’d lived through would never occur again. The word he uses, ‘duty’ is an important one. To some extent we owe it to others, and to ourselves, to tell our stories.

Almost every writer I’ve worked with has realized in the course of writing that this was work that could enrich the understanding of what life is, and what it could be. Here’s what one of my students wrote, echoing the thoughts of others: “I write because somehow, when I’m doing it, I begin to see the shapes and patterns of my life, and it begins to make sense to me.” (Mara M.)

This recognition of what one is doing at a deep level sometimes takes a while to emerge, so I’ll give you an example that will show what I mean. Many years ago one of the first people I worked with was Kenny Wightman, a convict locked in the most secure wing of the most secure jail in Massachusetts. He told me he wanted to write his life story because he’d already sold the screen rights to his life and he wanted to be able to produce a book that would tell the real story, not just the Hollywood version. I liked him and what he had to say. I checked out the details. He had in fact sold the rights to his life story to Paramount Pictures, so I agreed to work with him. He was serving a long sentence and needed something to fill his time, to keep his spirits alive, and he hoped the money would be useful to pay his lawyers so he could appeal his conviction. Behind that, though, I sensed a real desire within him to try to come to terms with the life that had led him to where he was at that moment.

We met each week in the grey-walled former death chamber (the remains of the electric chair hookup were still visible on the wall) amid the deafening echoes that rumble through bare concrete buildings where guards and inmates routinely yell at each other. Sometimes we had to speak through a steel mesh, but mostly we were allowed to sit at a table. In the course of our time together Kenny began to see that the more we talked, and the more he wrote, the less his story looked like a simple action-adventure movie. The events were startling, of course, with fast car chases, escapes, life on the run – but we could both see he was beginning to be more thoughtful about them. He was reassessing his life, which seemed oddly fitting in the death-chamber. He was making himself anew as he saw who he had been, and why, and why it wasn’t necessary to remain as that other person. “Sometimes,” he’d say, “when I look back it’s as if I’ve lived a whole other lifetime, and all this happened to another person.” In being able to stand outside his personal experience he could see his actions and judge his life from a different perspective. And often he wasn’t particularly pleased by what he saw. He was, in this way, rehabilitating himself by writing his story. Each day he was saving his soul, one paragraph at a time.

And it worked. He is now a free man again, living a decent, honest and deeply compassionate life. The whole process was very moving for me, too. Kenny had been famous, in his way, for two things: stealing fast cars and daring the police to catch him (they almost never did, much to their fury); and second, he was an inspired, relentless, resourceful escaper. As a youth his entire attitude had been ‘can’t catch me’. Now he wanted to catch himself so he wouldn’t have to keep running. And as he wrote he became aware of something else as well – if he could understand how he had gone so far astray he felt he might be able to use his story to prevent others from following a similar path. When he saw that, he saw that the story was not merely about himself, but it was a story that reached out to others. It transcended him.

That’s what writing one’s life story can do. It can do it for all of us, even if our lives do not seem at first sight to have been as dramatic as Kenny’s. Not all of us have to find ourselves locked away in a hellish place, as Kenny was, before we start to reflect on who we are. I’d have to say, though, that for some people it’s only when they find themselves at rock bottom with nowhere left to go that they raise the strength to ask, ‘How did I get here?’

If you’ve been to rock bottom, in despair, you’ll know all about this. And if you haven’t been to that point you’ll still have met with situations that have caused you to think about how you’ve chosen to run your life. In doing that you’ll be taking on the soul work that is so important if any of us hope to grow beyond being passive victims of whatever circumstances we have blundered our ways into. That’s when you will begin to reassess your life story.

The important point is that your life story needs to be expressed in more than just talk at the dinner table if you are to learn from it at the deepest, most productive level. It has to include writing. Michael Herr, whose memoir of his experiences as a reporter during the Vietnam war became his book Dispatches, puts it like this: in the book he records that he was going back to the US and before he left he was sharing a few moments with other reporters who had been through similar near-death adventures, wondering how he could possibly make sense of them. His friend Flynn offered him one piece of advice that Herr called “a kind of blessing”, and said: “Don’t piss it all away at cocktail parties.” Herr took the hint and created the extraordinary work that is in his memoir, where he asks difficult questions about his own fascination with the war, which again and again led him into highly dangerous situations. The deep understanding came as a result of the writing, not the talking.

Talking about our experiences can help us to let them go, but there may be more to be gained from them, which can be diluted and lost if we’re not careful. As a counselor I’ve noticed how people can talk about their lives and, because talk is so rapid and so hard to pin down, the word choices can lead to distortions, to self-justifications, and to little or large lies and evasions. Talk really is cheap – and often even the speaker doesn’t value it very much. When we take the time to write this entire process is slowed down, especially if we re-read our own words, and we can look at what we’ve written and say: Is that really the way it happened? Or is that just what I’d like it to have been? How about if I tried to see it from the other person’s point of view? Only writing can consistently allow us that degree of self-awareness. Anyone who’s ever kept a diary will know the experience of looking back over the pages and being surprised at some of the thoughts recorded there. Did I really think that way? Well, yes. I must have. Here it is in my own words! And then that recognition leads to another assessment and we move a step closer to a more complex, contradictory version of the truth and away from the self-serving evasions we all like to tell ourselves.

The point is that simply writing things down, journaling or venting, is never enough. It is perhaps no more useful than yelling one’s frustrations into the wind and then forgetting them. It works in the short term but in the long term it means the real stuff of experience, upon which wisdom is built, has been lost. If we are to do the all-important soul work we’ll need some better tools than just a journal, no matter how diligently kept. We’ll need some techniques we can trust. That’s what this book is all about. In it you’ll find specifically tailored exercises and prompts that will lead you to where you need to go – even if you don’t quite know where that place is yet. You’ll find techniques for recruiting your Unconscious awareness so that it works for you, rather than against you. As you do so, you’ll change your relationship to your own past self and in the process create a new version of you. The pain that you felt will not go away, but it will change so that it no longer hurts in the same way. It will be transmuted so that you stand outside it and do not feel damaged or unable or afraid; instead, if you allow it to, the place where you have been hurt will become your place of strength. What does this mean? Anyone who has been victimized and faced the horrible feelings of that event with clarity will know, in his or her soul, what courage truly is, and will never want to be victimized again. When such people speak out they become inspirations for others, and help them to rise above their own wounds. In this way the world becomes more compassionate and more courageous, one person at a time. In fact it’s the only way the world has ever become better.

When you transform your soul and grow in wisdom, you transform other souls around you.

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