Today, we welcome Linda Joy Myers, PhD, author of the newly released: The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story.
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. is the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and the author of the prize-winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother: Breaking the Chain of Mother Daughter Abandonment. Her new book The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story was released in January 2010 through Jossey-Bass publishers.
Linda has been a therapist in Berkeley for the last thirty years, and received her MFA at Mills College.
Through her workshops, online coaching, and speaking engagements, Linda integrates the principles of healing and creativity in presenting the powerful healing process of writing true stories. Her first book Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story was 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’s prize-winning nonfiction and poetry has been published in various literary journals. Her novel excerpt, Secret Music, a novel about the Kindertransport, music, and redemption was a finalist in the San Francisco Writing Conference contest.
Linda is past-president of The California Writers Club, Marin branch, and former Vice-President of the Women’s National Book Association, and has served on the board of Story Circle Network.
Please leave a comment or question for a chance to win a copy of her book: The Power of Memoir. (winner announced tomorrow!)
Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell
MJC: Thank you for visiting today, Linda Joy! Can you tell us about your experience as a writer and how it relates to your background as a therapist?
LJM: For awhile, I trained therapists to use writing with clients, and in those all day workshops, I discovered how quickly “non-writers” produced interesting and meaningful stories. I saw that anyone could find the stories within if they had the time and support. I became quite passionate about spreading the word about writing—that anyone could learn to do it if they wished, and that it was a powerful tool for change and transformation. Therapists, after all, are always in the middle of people’s stories—finding out how they experienced the world, how they became who they are, the same territory that memoirists encounter. But as it turns out, writing is different than telling. We create a relationship with ourselves as we become both the narrator of the story and the character—the “I” voice in the story. This dual consciousness is part of the healing process, as the narrator helps us to develop a perspective on what happened, and the character I gets close to and inside who we were then. When we write in scene, we take a small hypnotic trip to the past and live in our own skin for a while, then come back out to “now.” The process of writing and telling stories, especially if they are shared helps to heal and to change our perceptions of who we were and who we are now.
MJC: Someone’s embarrassing moment can be captured on an iphone, uploaded to youtube with comments posted on Facebook and Twitter before the victim’s face even turns to blush. Our culture is fascinated with “real life.” Do you think today’s technology helps or hinders memoir writers, and why?
LJM: Exposure might help memoirists because the fact that because memoirists reveal secrets an inner life that otherwise would be unknown is not as shocking an idea as it used to be. But on the other hand, if you are out in the open, people can judge more harshly the willingness to reveal personal details in a memoir as mere narcissism, or the need to “air the dirty laundry.”
One way that technology might be helping memoir writers is to see social network posts as tiny memoirs, or slices of life. Some are real stories, and we can all feel more connected when we read them.
Also writers are now encouraged to “blog their book.” This means that a writer can try out the ideas for the book on an audience and get feedback that will help in the publishing process. And agents and editors are out there looking for new exciting content and ideas.
We know that it won’t go away, so we need to figure out how it can help us.
MJC: “Exposing all” in memoirs can be tricky, especially if you plan to visit home for the holidays. What tips can you offer us who feel the need to write the truth, even if the truth is ugly?
LJM: The best advice I can give is to create a safe, sacred space where you can write without worrying about being judged or silenced—even by your inner critic. Be sure to keep your early drafts private—or at least protect them the way you would a tender young plant in spring. This means: don’t tell anyone you are writing a memoir!
It takes emotional effort to write the truth, especially if it is ugly, frightening, or traumatic, but it has been proven to be healing, allowing you to get to another stage of your life. Most of us have emotional issues that plague us, but we intuitively know with whom we can share these issues safely. If you are angry at someone, it’s fine to write an unsent letter, for instance, to clarify your feelings and come to another place with the person. Each person has a certain capacity for bearing witness to the various truths in a family, and it’s important to know where your limits are to protect yourself. The voices that chime in your head about who you will hurt or who will roll over in their grave if you write that piece are not helpful to getting your work done.
After you have finished your first draft, you can think then about what you want to do. By then, you will have gone through layers of emotional healing, and see if you have a story you want or need to share. Perhaps by writing it for yourself, you are complete.
If you decide to publish, that is the time to think about vetting the book with others, changing names or locations, or contacting a literary attorney to help you with any thorny problems you may have with what you revealed about others. Every author has to decide how to handle the living and the dead that are written about in their book. It is often an ethical decision more than legal.
MJC: Can you explain the difference between personal narratives or essays and the memoir? How does a writer narrow the focus and pick a theme?
LJM: The terms personal essay, personal narrative, and memoir are often used interchangeably. Personal essay focuses on a universal theme, but of course in a memoir and personal narrative, the themes become woven throughout as the personal story begins to reveal deeper universal truths. I think it’s more the idea that a memoir is written in ever revealing layers, moving from the inside out whereas a personal essay might begin with a theme and move inward toward the details that support it. There is no one way to approach any kind of writing, but most memoir stories are focused on the very personal, and sometimes they should move toward the universal. This will happen if the person keeps writing and exploring metaphor and layers of meaning. Pure reminiscence is pleasant to read, and many times the reader will identify with the time, place, and memories if they are of that same era, but others will not connect necessarily unless the theme becomes universal and can apply to others.
MJC: What tips can you offer teachers who introduce memoir writing in the classroom?
LJM: Make storytelling and writing fun. Allow free writes to develop voice, role plays to demonstrate dialogue and characters, dressing up in different costumes to show color and description. Researching the day they were born on Google can bring together history, news, and their personal lives in surprising and interesting ways. Allow writing that is non-standard for early drafts, and have them keep reading books about young people that make them want to share their own story. The Freedom Writer movie and book are very inspiring about the work that young people can do and what a difference it can make.
MJC: Tell us what’s next in your writing and promotion projects!
LJM: In my therapy life, I used to work with youth at risk, and learned how important it was for young people to be listened to and taken seriously. My next project is to focus on the YA—the Young Adult audience. Young people are writing and expressing themselves in amazing and refreshing ways, but as with everyone else, writing personal material means having to deal with the same family issues of guilt, shame, and silence as adults. My hope is that a book focused on their particular ways of thinking and self-expression can free them from fear and silence, and help them to move forward in their lives in a powerful way.
Leave a comment or question today, March9, for a chance at winning a copy of Linda Joy’s book!
Want to learn more about Memoir Writing or Linda Joy Myers, PhD? Follow her book blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing