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Reflective Writing and the Memoir
I’ll Tell You Mine If You Tell Me Yours
We all need to have a cathartic experience occasionally. Taken from the Greek word, κάθαρσις, it is the purification and purging of emotions, especially self-pity, and fear. Both of those emotions and attitudes can prevent us from writing about our lives in a therapeutic reflective manner. Memoir writing helps us make sense of specific periods of our lives. For some writers, it describes painful times.
For others, it is a way to shed light on aspects of ourselves that we are ashamed of, in the hopes that healing can occur.
Confession: It Is Not New, Nor Only For The Soul
“The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” ― Augustine of Hippo, a Romanized Berber Philosopher, November 13, 354 - August 28, 430 ACE, who combined philosophy and religion during his life. His most famous work: Confession. That was eye opening to me that the idea has been part of the philosophical understanding for this long.
Socrates' statement that "The unexamined life is not worth living”, demonstrates early understanding of the benefits of examining our nature to change our actions. In this review of action, we may be preventing what another philosopher, Santayana predicted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
When I combine other theoretical concepts into my recovery work with others, I become willing to share my story. Sharing it, in the hopes that my admissions will allow another to write about theirs, fostering the concept of, "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours" and we create joint healing.
Judge Not, Least It Be About Yourself
Consumed with fear of judgment, rejection and reproach, we often hide our shortcomings. We cloak our actions beneath a veneer of nice, important or helpful, presenting images to the outside world that help us manipulate their impressions of us.
We can get sanctimonious and comment on the misdeeds of others, attempting to put them in their place while elevating our own. We can reprimand our children, families, spouses and co-workers in a tone that leaves no doubt as to our displeasure at their actions.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall
Those masks and fronts publicly work, but what do you see in the mirror?
For years in the treatment field, we peeled the onion; in effect forcing people to remove the layers of deceit, assumptions, resentments and manipulation so they could see the less than stellar aspects of themselves.
I now believe it is more important that I disclose my failures, shortcomings and character defects first, so that someone may learn to accept theirs and recover.
Why This Change In Attitude?
Nearly every alcoholic and addict I have ever worked with over the last twenty-five years, felt shame and guilt over their actions. Too often, they felt this about themselves, not just their actions. In some cases, they used alcohol and drugs to cover up these feelings. Therefore, ripping off the layers only makes them more vulnerable at a time when they are the most prone to a relapse.
By acknowledging my actions and reinforcing that I did not die of embarrassment, nor did I have to relapse over the admissions, I found others who had done or said the same type of thing. I find that people are willing to reveal their secrets to my understanding, compassionate ear because I've examined my own secrets.
Why Is Writing About Our Life So Important?
Our memories do not fade so much over time, but can become distorted facts, shaded by other experiences, or stories we tell to elicit responses and reactions from others. We do not necessarily remember what happened, we remember what we present or wish happened sometimes to validate our feelings and thoughts today. Memoir or reflective writing allows us to “...taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin
Reflection: Writing Begins And Ends The Dilemma
“I don't know where to start," one [writing student] will wail. Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O' Connor said that anyone, who has survived childhood, has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if it is well done. Don't worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I was four and beginning to understand the concept of writing. I loved books from a young age. I knew that the black squiggly lines represented words that told me the story, or described the picture. I could not read all of them but knew the word, “cat.” Each person begins learning somewhere.
My mother took me to visit Santa at L.S. Ayers in Indianapolis, Indiana. Before we went to see him, we ate in the tea-room, a highlight of trips downtown. I ordered the chicken; served in a covered milk-glass casserole dish. The bottom of the dish, filled with mashed potatoes and chicken, with fresh peas neatly ringing the edge, was reminiscent of grass and eggs.
For dessert, I got The Snow Princess— a scoop of ice cream formed the princess dress, decorated with whipped cream and sugar flowers, then topped with a china half-doll figurine and a tiny paper parasol. At forty-one, I vividly remembered this meal.
I also remember my Santa list; squiggly lines on a piece of paper and put it in the pocket of my coat. I did not want to forget anything when I visited Santa. After lunch, I got my list for Santa out of my coat and went for our appointed visit.
When it was my turn, I got out my list, by now all sweaty, and wrinkled, but my first attempt at writing something down. Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him all of the things, with the most important being a puppy. Santa asked me if I had been a good girl, and in that self-serving voice of all, regardless of age, I informed him, “I have been very good.”
He told me that since I had been very good, I would get everything on my list.”
I got down and returned to my mother. For weeks, after this visit, my parents asked me what I had told Santa I wanted for Christmas. A straightforward child, I informed them that I had already told Santa what I wanted.
Only when writing and this memory surfaced, did I wonder about a few of the situations from that day.
- Why was I so angry at Santa?
- Why did I distrust the whole Christmas experience?
- Why was I so resentful at my mother?
- Why did I stubbornly refuse to cooperate?
Do you still operate from self-defeating patterns from childhood?
Stubborn Assumptions Set Up Disappointments
On Christmas morning, I ran down the stairs; I could smell bacon cooking and knew that my mother would want us to eat before we opened presents. I remembered feeling angry at that imposition on my desire to open the presents and find my puppy. Furthermore, my sister was in her high chair at the table, and without food, would not be content very long, yet another nuisance to me.
I went into the kitchen and asked to open my presents. My mother gave in and told me I could open one and then we would have breakfast and open the rest after our meal.
I ran to the living room and checked out the presents. In our family, only parents wrapped presents, Santa’s were without trappings, so it was apparent immediately that there was no puppy.
He told me I would get everything I wanted, and I specifically told him a puppy, and there was not one. That jolly, fat, cheerful favorite of children everywhere was a liar.
When I asked my parents about this memory, it was not for their interpretation of my feelings, but their remembrance of the situation. My mother told me that she and my father tried numerous times to get me to tell them what I wanted for Christmas. Desperate, they even had my aunts, uncles, and older cousins try to find out what I wanted.
I apparently told everyone who asked that I had told Santa. It struck me at that moment, that stubbornly held assumptions had probably set in motion many situations in my life where I felt disappointed. If it could happen at four, the likelihood of this pattern continuing in my life seemed like a safe bet. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to explore my life as the child writing, and the adult reflecting. I believe that reflective writing helps us understand ourselves better with the added benefit that it will probably help another person come to terms with their life as well.
Do you write in a journal or have you ever examined your life in writing?
Memoirs Grant Us Hindsight And Foresight
"All that is left to bring you pain are the memories. If you face those, you’ll be free. You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding from yourself; always afraid that your memories will incapacitate you, and they will if you continue to bury them.” ― J.D. Stroube, Caged in Darkness
Many people write on websites and have blogs. If you are one of those, memoir writing or a journal may be yet another way for you to tell a story that inspires, enlightens, and helps another in their quest to get better, and I guarantee that in the process, you will experience healing as well.
© 2013 Marilyn L Davis