The Walking Story Book: A Talk With Dr. Linda Joy Myers
The Master Memoirist and Therapist on Weaving the Dark and the Light
Posted January 11, 2014
Linda Joy Myers is an important figure in the world of personal narrative. She is President and Founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers and the author of a half dozen books including The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story, and a memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother: Breaking the Chain of Mother Daughter Abandonment which received the Gold Medal Award from BAIPA, the Bay Area Independent Publishing Association. Linda Joy received her Master’s degree in Creative Writing at Mills College and has been a therapist in Berkeley, California for over thirty years. Her first book Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story is used as a text by therapists, ministers, and writing coaches, and was a finalist in the ForeWord magazine’s 2008 Book of the Year Award. Linda Joy teaches workshops around the country, promoting her lifelong belief that writing is a healing art. We talked about falling in love with stories in great-grandmother’s feather bed and why everyone has a tale to tell.
MM: When did you become interested in writing?
LM: I started to become interested in memoir and stories when I would lie in a feather bed with my great-grandmother in Iowa as a little eight-year-old girl. She would lie beside me and tell me the stories of her life from the 19th century. She talked about things I had never heard of, like being a mid-wife, cooking on a wood cook stove, raising seven children, and all the things that farm women did in those days without toilets, electricity, or modern gadgets. One night I sat up straight in bed and looked at her, realizing she was a walking storybook. I decided I needed to learn the story of her and everyone in my family any way that I could. I became a curious interviewer at an early age! In terms of writing, I began writing poetry as a child, and I even tried to start a novel when I was 11 years old. I was a reader, so my idea for a novel came from just reading, reading, reading.
MM: What was your novel about? Do you remember?
LM: Gosh no. I was one of those people who read under the blankets with a flashlight, so probably some seeds were planted that way. I was a musician at the time and I knew a nice man who was a violinist and a writer. I showed him my little novel and he was very sweet to me about it.
MM: Were you a journal keeper?
LM: In my twenties I began keeping journals, but when I was young, I grew up in a house where there was no privacy. I had a diary but it wasn't safe to write anything true or real in it. I would write down one sentence that gave me a clue to the memory that was connected to the sentence, but I didn't write specifics. Later, in the ‘70s when journaling was becoming mainstream and Anais Nin was very popular, I dove in and wrote and wrote, and through this process I discovered how helpful it was to sort out feelings that way. We all know now how helpful journaling is, but then it was a great discovery, and it was new for ordinary people to be journaling as a part of self-discovery.
MM: But as a child –
LM: I couldn’t write openly then because it would have been criticized, but in school I wrote essays and reports very well. I enjoyed the fact that I could write for the teachers and be praised for it – my passion for writing was built on reading. Reading was my refuge from many emotional storms. I read Moby Dick when I was twelve years old, and dove into huge books of literature like Les Miserables and Dr. Zhivago at a young age. A lot of things were contained internally that later came out through writing memoir, but I was a good essayist at the time. I won fifth prize in a state contest, and I was proud of that. It encouraged me to think of myself as a writer—someday.
MM: Did you feel like you were the witness in your family? A lot of writers start out that way.
LM: Oh, yes. My memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, is about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters, and how I broke the pattern of abandonment. I was witness to my mother sweeping into town on the train. She and my grandmother, her mother who'd left her when she was young, would pick up their conflict where they'd left off the year before. After three hours of tentative circling, the fight would start. This would happen every visit, once a year. Eventually dishes would get thrown, there would be screaming, and my mother would run out of the house wildly. My father also visited, and my grandmother and father would end up fighting too. I would wonder, what is wrong with these people? It was obviously crazy and very disturbing. At a certain age, you can stand back and say, this is ridiculous, I am not going to get caught up in this, but there’s really no way to avoid being affected by it—it’s like a tornado. I was caught up in their conflicts, and those events would eventually become the reason for my own healing path to writing, therapy, and everything else that would happen later.
MM: When did you come to memoir specifically?
LM: After being a therapist for many years I started to write my story as fiction. I was in the creative writing program at Mills College when I read a particularly tough scene with my mother and grandmother fighting, with dialogue, the whole mess there on the page. I looked up to see the class sort of plastered against the wall with horrified looks on their faces. I said, “What’s wrong?” and they said, "You can’t do this to us." They were unhappy at how assaulted they felt by the traumatic events I was depicting. I responded that what I wrote was true, it really happened. They said, "In fiction, it doesn’t matter what really happened."
I told them, “But that is what fascinates me, what really happened. These kinds of stories might help other people to learn about abandonment and help them with their lives.” I was coming from a therapeutic point of view. They answered, “Well then, you’re writing a memoir.” This occurred before memoir was a genre that was important. Real writers didn’t write memoir back then unless you were famous, and then you wrote an autobiography. But then, in the early nineties, I got on the memoir trail. Along the way I read Tobias Wolff and then Mary Karr and Frank McCourt. It was great to be involved with memoir, and very scary.
MM: What was scary about that for you?
LM: You're revealing all these secrets on the page and even if no one is reading them yet, it’s still exposure—and often you're exposing shameful events. In my case, there was a great amount of shame and guilt because my family was pretty out there, off the grid in many ways with wild shouting and ranting and carrying on. When I was writing my memoir, I’d been a therapist for fifteen years. I’d studied people deeply and worked with a lot of disturbance, so I had a perspective about mental illness. But when your memoir is published, other people know how insane everyone was.
When you grow up in a very dysfunctional family, you hear people say things like, "the craziness is in their blood." You feel tainted, and I know this is true for a lot of people. Now we look at genetic effects and so on, but in those days if you were from a dysfunctional family you felt you were less than other people. You felt like you almost didn’t belong to the human race. That’s very tough to reveal and let the world know, even if it’s just in your writing class at first.
MM: Why do you think that in spite of all the fear and shame, there is this urge to speak? To be heard?
LM: I think that it’s about claiming your own voice. If you have been silenced and shamed, you carry it inside you. But if you break out of it and learn to speak, you begin to build a Self. When you aren't hiding, you begin to heal the shame. I had to learn to not be the girl who didn’t write in the diary. It helped when I began writing a memoir that I’d been in therapy for years, and my therapist held my story and all the parts of me, and drew me out. If you hide the dark, you also are hiding the light. When you write your truths down, they get out of your head. I’m writing some new pieces now and when I get the words down, I feel clean inside. I feel like I’ve done my meditative, focused inner work that day.
MM: It’s like doing due diligence on your emotional life.
LM: Yes, it is. And you’re witnessing yourself, too. I’m a big fan of Alice Miller, the psychologist who wrote about healing abuse and trauma through telling the truth. She says that in order to heal, we need a witness to listen to us, we need an unbiased, compassionate witness. Therapists, priests, doctors, and friends often provide this compassionate witnessing for us. I talk about the need for witnessing in my book Power of Memoir. When we write, we become our own healing witness. As the narrator of the story, we stand back and observe ourselves as the person who was living through the events, but as the character who's living the story in scenes, we go back to where we were in the past, we embody that part of who we are. We create a split consciousness as we integrate the observing self with the wounded self. We dig down into what I call the Real Self or the Essential Self to get to the gold of who we really are—not wounded. Full of light.
MM: And that’s where the healing comes from—the self-witnessing?
LM: Witnessing, writing, stomping around, crying and writing more. It’s a circular process that offers us important insights. We want to close the door and say, I got my insight, thank you very much, and go on about things. I learned from Galway Kinnell, with whom I studied poetry, that when you think you’re done with a poem and start to leave it, you need to sit down and write some more. That exact thing happened to me. I was in his workshop, and he sent us out to write our poems. I wrote my poem, and thought I was done. I got up, picked up my notebook and heard his voice in my head to not rush away yet. I sat back down and wrote some more, which led to a surprising set of stanzas which were the real juice of the poem. We have to do that in our work—keep coming back and going for more. Stretching.
MM: You recommend that same kind of approach to memoir writing?
LM: Yes, with memoir writing, healing, and anything that is tough. We keep at it to get to the other layers we can’t even imagine because we don’t know about them yet. When we write, we enter a discovery process about ourselves. We're discovering who we are creatively, that spark that's a part of our soul and part of who we really are. I don’t just believe in it, I see it in my students, I see it in myself. You can feel it when you’re reading someone’s book. When I read your memoir, I experienced your flashes of insight. All of a sudden I started having little sparks go off in my mind in passages where you reached some essential depth that you'd spent the whole book getting to. I could feel this as the reader. That’s the magic of writing truth, of digging deep.
MM: Someone once said to me that when people read your story, they aren’t reading about you, they’re reading about themselves.
LM: Yes, and there’s some magic link that happens through the arc of those words that you and I, and all of us, spend many, many drafts getting to, and we are not even sure if we are getting there. We work so hard getting it, sometimes we lose perspective. When I was in New York recently I went to the Metropolitan and the Modern and stood in front of the paintings. I could see the many, many layers they painted until the painting reached a state you could call finished. I bring the idea of layers and process to my work, having learned it through being a painter early in my life. You have to keep doing this kind of layered process, which eventually will reveal something new to you.
MM: What do you say to students who are working with difficult material and they’re just scared—paralyzed by the darkness of the experience that they need to describe?
LM: First, I empathize with where they are, and then I talk about a technique I call "weaving the dark and the light." I am careful if people are writing about trauma. If they’re traumatized I tell them to make a list of what happened, but not to write the whole story yet. People shouldn’t write trauma until they’re emotionally ready to be in it, because you do descend into it more deeply through the writing. When you're ready, that exploration and descent can lead to deep healing.
I also talk to writers about Dr. James Pennebaker’s studies about writing as healing, which you can read about on the web. I have a whole chapter about his studies in my book The Power of Memoir. Pennebaker says that people feel badly when they first write something true or traumatic. The researchers measure people's responses after writing, and they found there's a new perspective about the traumatic event within two weeks to a month. Physically, the immune system improved, and stress reactions lessen.
I suggest that people write for 20 minutes about a dark or difficult experience, then stop and write something positive, something happy. Or you can write positive intentions or affirmations. It’s ideal if you can write another story for 20 minutes because then you will be weaving yourself out of the dark place through scene and sensual details that stick with you. People tell me this technique is very helpful.
MM: Also, Pennebaker said that it’s not enough just to rant or free-write. He says unless you have some kind of insight, it actually doesn’t necessarily lead to psychological healing.
LM: That's true. He says is that ranting and free-writing can make you feel worse because you start descending into your darkness. He teaches that healing is about putting experiences into story, and story has a shape—a beginning, middle, and an end that we choose. He says to start at the beginning, to say what happened and then bring the story to a close. It’s the containment and structure as well as the expression that is healing.
MM: Do you think that memoir helps us reframe and reshape our experiences as well, and that this has an effect on personal transformation?
LM: Oh yes. We all know how many times we start to write something—we start to write A and end up writing B or D or some other layer of the experience. In the creative process we need to balance wandering off with being very, very focused. I think both methods—wandering into new creative cul de sacs, and finding focus help to transform. We learn so much about ourselves from our own writing and the ways we surprise ourselves. When you write about what happened, it’s a translation of your memory onto the page. That translation itself is edifying. Growth, learning and transformation is about discovery, the journey to find out about yourself. The title of my workbook is The Journey of Memoir because writing a memoir IS a journey.
MM: And also knowing that journey also, like you said, takes you places you don’t expect to go.
LM: Yes, right, very much so.
MM: Now let me ask you about telling the truth in memoir. This is such a thorny issue. Do you recommend that people let it all out in the first draft? Or do you recommend that they protect the people who might be hurt by the story? How do you walk that line?
LM: My students say they’re afraid to write because of what the family will think. I ask them if they are going to show it to them right away. If the answer is no, then I point out that the writing won’t hurt anyone because no one will read it until they decide when and if share it. Most of us have an internal censor that stops us. In my teaching, I talk about the inner critic and the outer critics. The inner critic has the “it’s boring” or “I can’t write,” voice, which can be deeply emotional and upsetting. I had a horrible critical inner critic that I had to tame. But the outer critics also make people stop writing. "What will so and so think? Will they reject me?"
One student in a workshop told me her mother said she'd disinherit her if she wrote the memoir. I told her to write what she needed to write and keep it private. Don’t wave the memoir flag in front of people, especially if the family feels threatened. Write for yourself and see what happens. Write what you need to write and draw upon that lovely Anne Lamott phrase, "write your shitty first draft," and find your truth. That's what this is all about, to find your truth and give yourself permission to discover it.
You need to create what I call a "sacred space" over your writing space, literally--your desk and computer as well as you mind, and don’t let other people in except those who will truly understand what you are doing. I recommend that people not share their writing until they have written a lot. You have to protect it, it's like a little plant. You have to treat your writing very carefully and respect that this truth-telling business is a big deal. You need to protect yourself. You need to nurture your creative spark, feed it and water it, and your skill and strength as a writer will grow.
MM: Do you have a writing routine yourself?
LM: I’m a bit of a spontaneous writer. I do a lot of writing, though. I write for my organization, the National Association of Memoir Writers, and I have a blog where I post once a week or so. In terms of creative writing, I this year I published three new books so I’ve been a bit in recovery mode. I’m writing some new material now that has to do with the ‘60s and ‘70s, coming of age stories. I've been doing research in New York City and inside myself about stories I've never shared before. Now that I’m refreshed and renewed, I’m doing more regular writing and that feels really, really good.
MM: What are you working on now? Autobiographical pieces?
LM: Yes, they are. I’ve been looking for the frame and themes for another memoir. For a while I felt I wouldn't write another memoir—the first one was many years of work. I’m finding that I enjoy focusing for a shorter amount of time with scenes, so I’m going to write some themed essays and short memoir pieces and see how they evolve. The other work I’m doing is an edit, a revision of a novel called Secret Music, a novel about the Kindertransport, the rescue of 10,000 children out of Europe into England, which I finished a few years ago. Now I’m coming back to edit and revise it.
MM: So you’re going to publish some fiction. Excellent.
LM: Yes, I love writing fiction. The book is historical fiction, so I did a lot of research about war and the conditions in Germany and England during that era. I made up my characters, although I have to admit they’re based a somewhat on real people. They did things in the novel that were planned, but then they wanted to do things I didn’t know they were going to do. The creative discovery process that people talk about when writing fiction was really, really beautiful. I’m also writing the book because most people don’t know about the Kindertransport. Time marches on and people don’t know about what happened only sixty years ago. I wanted to create a way to share some very significant things that happened to people that affected the whole world.
MM: We forget too quickly. That’s also why memoir matters so much.