Memoir: Breaking Through to the Next Level

Breaktrhough3Over the last few days I’ve read two memoirs back-to-back, Margaret Overton’s Good in a Crisis and Jonna Ivin’s Will Love For Crumbs. Both stories revolve around disastrous relationships with men. I was struck by the fact that although these two women had very different backgrounds and their stories are quite different, each had to piece together the puzzle of her mother’s life to break free and follow a different path. I was reminded of computer games where you must find all the hidden tools to advance to the next level. 

As I thought about this similarity, I realized how universal this theme is. I did study Freud once, along with a tower of other psychology books, and dimly recall some psychobabble about “differentiation.” Obviously there is nothing new under the sun here, other than airing this process in public. That public sharing angle is the aspect that most fascinates me.

Thinking beyond the stories themselves, I realized that as I read each one, it stimulated me to think more deeply about my own life and relationships. I realized once again that although I’ve certainly faced my share of puzzling and tense times,  for the most part I’ve led a charmed life, spared most of the traumas they disclose. In spite of the odds against it, I’ve remained happily married for nearly fifty years, and my mother’s shortcomings are hardly worth mentioning. Still, although comparing my life challenges to theirs may be like placing the Blue Ridge mountains next to the Himalayas, reading how these women “broke through to the next level” and became more peaceful and comfortable in their skin settled me more securely in my own. 

As I pondered the powerful effect these books had on me, a light went on. Each woman explained at the end of her book that she initially began journaling or writing random notes in an attempt to make sense of her experience. Transforming those notes into a coherent narrative was a profoundly healing experience. That healing process rippled out to me as a reader, and presumably to a multitude. Perhaps, just maybe, those of us who are “called” to write and share our stories are gifted with the opportunity to help others find hidden clues and find their own next levels of peace and freedom. As we heal ourselves, the effect spreads through our words into the world at large. 

I’m reminded of thoughts I’ve heard, perhaps from Christina Baldwin, and probably also from others, about “restorying” the world. I’ve written a pile of blog posts scattered around the web about my own experience with revis(ion)ing my memories and discovering far more light in them than I ever imagined. I know the process works, and some memory visualization tools I’ve found are magic cursors pointing to hidden tools and maps.

Not everyone wants or needs to write and fewer still want to share their work. For many or most, it’s enough to read or privately journal. To whatever extent you are called to write for peace and healing, whether it be a letter of reconciliation and forgiveness, a single short story, or several volumes of memoir, write with boldly honest passion and flood the world with light. I’m beginning to find tangible evidence that as we heal the past, we also heal the future. Let’s get on with that!
As an aside, there is still time to register for my 3-week NAMW short course, Soaring High and Digging Deep: Tools for Refining Your Memoir. It begins this week. Find more details and sign up for the class and this month’s related free Roundtable here

Write now: start a collection of random notes about a person or situation that puzzles you. Add to this collection over time as further thoughts occur to you. When you run out of new thoughts, read through what you’ve written and transform that to narrative. As you work on that story, your understanding is almost guaranteed to shift.


SuziCate said...

It is interesting how each of us as writers and healers choose to piece an event in writing. I know I can take one episode of my life and write it possibly five different ways depending on my focus point. Sometimes that focus point depends on where we are in our lives and sometimes it is merely the subject we choose to speak of. I'm not sure if you get what I'm saying, but I have a certain piece I've written several times...meaning they are entwined and my focus shifts in each writing and I find hidden aspects. Needless to say, the original piece are much different from the final piece, not that anything other than the focus changes.

Sharon Lippincott said...


I definitely get what you are saying, and ... after parsing data from probably tens of thousands of study subjects various ways, James Pennebaker has found a strong positive correlation between the number of alternate perspectives a subject takes while writing about distressing memories and positive health benefits.

You should be very healthy!

Beyond that, it's often just plain FUN to write something umpty ways.

Teena in Toronto said...

They sound like interesting books. Thanks!

Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, another thoughtful post, with many points to consider. One line, in particular, caught my eye: " I read each one, it stimulated me to think more deeply about my own life and relationships."

It seems to me that provoking readers' to think about their lives and relationships is a sign (if not the sign) of successful memoir.

And if, in puzzling out the meanings of our own life experiences in writing, we can touch others' hearts and minds and help them look at their lives in new ways, we have accomplished more than our own healing. We have begun facilitating healing in others.

I can't think of anything more satisfying than that.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Teena, they are super books, each well worth reading.

Sharon Lippincott said...


YES! I get goosebumps when I think how one single book can inspire positive change and healing in an unlimited number of readers, and indirectly in people they relate to. Even if a work inspires only a single other person, that's priceless. Glad you got that! It's glowing neon for me.

Elizabeth-Anne said...

Thanks for sharing! I also just read Good in a Crisis last week, and now, after seeing your post, may need to go back and get the other one! I had been startled by how little Overton analyzed her cycle until the end, which was a powerful way to let the reader develop his or her own take on them, and commented how seeing it in this form had given her new awareness--awareness I think to more than just her relationships with men but also, as revealed in her talks with Paul, about her search for satisfaction in life. I loved the way it wasn't tied up so that it did, as you said above, spill a process of healing onto the reader as if we had been invited to participate in the process.

You comment above regarding Pennebaker is also interesting. I read his seminal paper for the first time last night and was struck by how deeply he actually analyzed the whole process, how he did not stick to one brand of writing alone and how he conceded that it doesn't work the same way for all people. I wish everyone who came after him was as profound (although I guess that would make him rather average, huh?)

Anyway, thanks again for great insights! Your blog always inspires me to go on.

Jerry Waxler said...

I read the blurb for "Will Love for Crumbs" and promptly ordered the book. I am fascinated by this strange phenomenon of falling in love with the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your and then discovering that his insides are riddled with mental contortions. Another great example of this journey is Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Thanks for this article.

Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Jerry. I'll check it out.