Growing Into Writing

My book, “Surviving Sue” (coming soon) is about my mother who suffered from alcoholism, depression, anxiety, Munchausen’s by Proxy and more. It’s a lot…I know…and I promise every upcoming post from me won’t be about it. 😉 However, Wynne and I know that many of our blogging friends have powerful, inspirational stories to tell about families. This topic – the wonder about writing about family and sharing personal stories – feels like common ground.

The itch to write a personal memoir can summon painful glimpses of episodes we’d rather forget, or at the very least, submerge so the recollections are less front and center and pain ridden.  What I know for sure? There’s no prescription or ‘how to’ guide to make the fundamental choice – to write or not to write. 

Some authors I know begin by courageously jotting down notes or recording voice memos – initially just for themselves.  Slowly, awareness, like growing concentric circles defining the intended audience grows, expanding to include our children, family members or loved ones who may have suffered silently or harbored curiosity about family history.  We might also recognize our eventual “audience” – a broader group of souls in the distance – drawn in by resonance and familiarity.  Storylines shared.

To make matters more complex, some of the folks roosting in the audience have opinions, experiences of their own.  Should they choose to do so, they have stories to tell – from their own vantage points – which may not match or align with the story that you, the writer, wants…or needs….to tell. 

So who are we writing for when we write about messy family business?  I think that question is a good starting point and goodness knows there are countless sources of advice and I feel like I’ve read it all.  What stuck for me?  The reminder that our stories ARE our stories – yes, of course – but the intent to write should lean toward the factual and the impactful – as I saw it and experienced it – with some deference to the other players on the field. 

The Hippocratic way is how I summarized much of the wisdom I gleaned.  Write your story, yes, but do so without an intent to harm.  The motivation to write should rise above settling disputes or laying blame.  The reader is more interested in the hurdles and the unfolding.  Not the tawdry airing of disputes that do little to further the story.

A few months ago, I shared my appreciation of the work of Dr. James Pennebaker in a post about expressive writing.  Pennebaker described writing – not purely as a therapeutic tool but as a mechanism for wellness — highlighting the power of prose in solving puzzles, bringing secrets into the light, putting the pieces together. 

Two aspects of Pennebaker’s premise held true when I examined the burdens my mother carried, toting a complex web of lies across decades of her life.  Pennebaker wrote (p.10):

  • Keeping secrets is physical work.  When we try to keep a secret, we must actively hold back or inhibit our thoughts, feelings, or behaviors…or in some way exert effort to not think, feel or behave.
  • Secrets can produce short-term biological changes and influence long-term health…over time, the work of keeping secrets serves as a cumulative stressor on the body, increasing the likelihood of illness and other stress-related physical and mental problems.

Helping types often talk about the importance of ‘doing our own work’ and I’ve done that…continue to do that…enough that I could detach to see my mom, Sue, from multiple perspectives — not just the view I had as a little girl who carried pain into adulthood.

More pointedly?  I needed to be mindful of my motivation to write. Kerry Cohen in her book The Truth of Memoir is blunt: “Never write in order to get revenge or to hurt someone,” she says. Instead, write about your characters fully, as whole people:

 “Your parents are also people. They are human beings whose life events informed who they became.”

As we delve into the broad topic of ‘growth’ here at Heart of the Matter this month, I’ll share other resources and wisdom which helped me move forward.  Writing about my mom?  An experience in growth, resiliency and perseverance that stretched my boundaries and helped me better understand the high hurdles in my life.

The quote from Pericles reminds me that while writing “Surviving Sue” took fortitude, my motivation was to instill hope so that it might be…” woven into the lives of others”. That is my hope.

-Vicki 💗

P.S. My post on my personal blog, Victoria Ponders, provides the synopsis of “Surviving Sue”. Take a peek if you have a moment.

Resources & References:

Write it Out – The Heart of the Matter

Cohen, Kerry. The Truth of Memoir. New York: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.

Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing it Down:  How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.  New York:  Guilford Press, 2016.


39 thoughts on “Growing Into Writing

  1. I am sure your book will ring bells in your readers, Vicki. Your essay makes me think of the challenge of writing such a book.

    What do we do with the dilemma of the subject having no present voice and therefore no chance to say “NO!” What do we do with the continuing transformations of our understanding? Is the book like a snapshot, our perspective at whatever age we are? Would it be different 10 years later?

    A big responsibility. Continued success with pen and ink!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Dr. Stein. Yes — I think you’ve outlined the conundrums precisely…my desire to be considerate of my mom’s story and aware of my changing perspective on her life, and the impact I’ve felt at different times on my own…leading me to a place of peace. Peace and love, despite it all. 💕

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  2. I’m really looking forward to reading your book once it’s released, Vicki. What I’ve realised, from writing more, and reading posts such as your own and ithers talking about family, is I’m not there yet – and may never be. I have a lot of anger and resentment towards my parents so if/when I write, that’s what emerges. Where I’ve grown, and maybe it’s a step or two in the right direction, is exactly what you said- I dont want to publish that because its not what people want to read – but also realising that’s not the message I want to share. Maybe that’s a positive step, I’m not sure but in not ready to rip off the sticking plaster yet

    I am full of admiration with your courage. 🤗😍😘

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love this insight, Brenda: “…not the message I want to share.” That sounds like excellent self-awareness, and I suspect the consideration of writing – not necessarily the actual DOING – is a thoughtful bit of self-care in and of itself. Thank you so much. 🥰

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  3. I often write about my family, but only in snippets. Delving into an all encompassing view of one person – especially a parent – feels so overwhelming. As I read this I realized I feel responsible to ‘protect’ their legacy by holding back on the stories that may have some negative reflection on people I love. I wonder if you had to cross that hurdle.

    I am so intrigued by your journey and look forward to all I will discover about myself in the process.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love your thought, Maggie. Yes. Some stories weren’t mine to tell…and a healthy bit of holding back helped to guide my progress. It was a dance, for sure. Thank you so much for your interest…and your goodness. Truly! 💕

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  4. In her book, The Glass Castle author Jeanette Walls, wrote as an observer rather than a participant of the horrendously painful childhood trauma that she endured. The same is true of Frank McCourt in his book Angela’s Ashes. I was gobsmacked by their ability to distance themselves from their pain and relate their stories in a truthful, yet nonjudgmental way. What a gift, what an art, what personal growth they AND YOU are demonstrating to others who have suffered, regardless of the depth of the pain experienced in childhood. Thank you for your courage and perseverance to forge ahead on the path of healing. Your heartfelt work is a profound blessing to all. The healing of one touches all.

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    1. Jeanette Walls and Frank McCourt are heroes in my heart — thank you for making the connection, Julia. I agree…they demonstrate how to tell the true stories riddled with pain in an artful, nonjudgmental way. Powerful influences…helping me to find the courage. Thank you for your kindness, Julia. “The healing one touches all”? Beautiful! 💕💕💕

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      1. I know – right? I think we need to find out if we can quote our dear Julia — that’s wisdom, right there…in just a few impactful words. I love it! 🥰

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ll add Emerson’s words “The writer is an explorer. Every step is an advance into a new land.” Hopefully a land where we can be ourselves, and I’m saying “we” because I appreciate that you are taking us on this journey with you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh my…you, Julia…all the blogging friends adding such warm and wonderful comments. It’s keeping my nervousness down! Thank you, dear EW! 🥰

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  5. “Who are you writing for?” That is certainly a great question when it comes to writing of the memoir variety. For me, I’d stay it’s for myself – and part of it is for therapeutic purposes, so I don’t internalize that stress. Part of it is for advocacy about a little known disability. And a lot of it is to ensure I don’t forget all these memories, good and challenging.

    Good luck with the publication of your memoir!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Ab. I absolutely connect with your feelings about writing personal stories as a therapeutic experience. And I love your observation about self-care…avoiding the internalization of stress. You are wise, I’d say…and as you’re moving through all of that, you’re considering ways to be an advocate and ally? Wow…and cheers! I’m sending oodles and gobs of good energy to you. Writing to ensure we don’t forget – the good and the not-so-good? Yes – I feel that! Hugs! 🥰

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  6. Your post title says it all Vicki, especially with a subject as tough as family trauma. We aren’t ready until we’re ready- I’m certain you understand what I mean. I love the words you share throughout this post, but will leave it at that as the tears form from the personal closeness of this story. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, dear one. I’m feeling that, too, from the things you’ve shared in the past week in your beautiful post. I think we have some ‘twin journey’ experiences…and you’re right about the readiness…or not. There’s no formula or timeline.
      Thank you, Deb, for being you. 💕💕💕

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  7. So, so much goodness here about how you came to write an incredibly great book, dear Vicki. Two things that stand out – “The reminder that our stories ARE our stories.” and the carrying of secrets. There is healing to be found in telling our stories – especially as you’ve done without intent to harm anyone else and with great deference to all the players. Amazing!

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    1. Love you, Wynne — and your supportive perspective. Those moments of vulnerability? You’ve understood…you’ve walked the path, the exposure as we write about family. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight…generously, lovingly. xo! 🥰

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  8. I think you’re spot on that we, whether as humans or at least as members of this little community, are drawn to those family stories, and driven to share them. It really is a dance to tell stories in a way that honors any suffering while acknowledging any “bad guy” in the story was doing the best they could. With Surviving Sue, I believe you’ll provide us your side of the story as well as enough history on your mother to, perhaps, understand why she did the things that she did, potential hurting those around her. I think the courage to share your story is going to help many others work up the courage to explore their own. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a beautiful thing to say, Erin. I hope so. One of the things I’ve learned is that courage is a commodity that we can share…especially when our wells have run dry. Nothing I’ve done in writing about mom/Sue would’ve been possible without injections of bravery and resolve from others who shared insight. When we’re low, we often miss the opportunities to rise. Thank goodness for dear ones, all around us – whether “IRL” or in our beautiful, blogging community. Cheers to THAT!
      😎🥰😎

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  9. It is therapeutic to write about our childhoods and family members. But it’s also a balancing act to not hurt them with our truths and viewpoints. The first manuscript I wrote was a mid-grade novel about my childhood with a bipolar mom and alcoholic dad. I put it away and will look at it when the time feels right. My writing mentor Gerry Petievich told me writers start out with stories about their mothers. Once that is done, we can move on to create more stories.

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    1. What interesting insight from your mentor. I think that makes sense…stories about mothers are origin stories, I suppose. I love that you have a manuscript written but knew it wasn’t the right time to move forward. A perfect example, I think, that there’s no ‘one size fits all’. Thank you for sharing that, Elizabeth. 💕💕💕

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      1. Yes, you’re right, mother stories are origin stories. Gerry was a client of my husband’s and he held writer’s conferences in Palm Springs with many famous authors. I think his most popular book was “To Live and Die in LA” which became a cult movie. He offered to critique my stories when I first began writing fiction. We would use snail mail. I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate I was to have him read my stuff! I had a few stories published in children’s magazines and the Los Angeles Times back then.

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      2. Wow…all of that is amazing…and you’re right, I think. We don’t always know how fortunate we are to have generous, giving mentors on deck, willing to share their expertise and time. Gerry sounds like an amazing man. I think I need to catch up and learn more about your writing! 😉 Stories published in children’s magazines and the LA Times?! Impressive…but not surprising! xo, Elizabeth! 🥰

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  10. I learn so much from your posts! Love the Pericles quote and your overarching desire that no matter the pain your goal remains to serve and offer others hope. Says so much about you Vicki! And yes, it really is hard work. You mentioned Frank McCourt, when I read his books, I was always aware of his viewpoint, his families and then whoever else. When I write about my family, the weight of all that really hits me. So excited for you. Great stuff. Congratulations!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Brian! I think there are a lot of us who share that goal – tell our stories, offer a little dose of hopefulness. We’re all dealing with…or dealt with…something along the way in life. I think those are the threads that make for meaningful connections amongst so many of us! 😉😉😉

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  11. Great post – I appreciate the thoughtful insight and am really looking forward to the book! I especially like the Hippocratic angle you mentioned -I’m sure that will come through clearly.

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  12. Very sound advice – “The Hippocratic way is how I summarized much of the wisdom I gleaned. Write your story, yes, but do so without an intent to harm. The motivation to write should rise above settling disputes or laying blame. The reader is more interested in the hurdles and the unfolding. Not the tawdry airing of disputes that do little to further the story.”

    Liked by 1 person

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