Some people write memoir to celebrate, some to inform, some for self-exploration, some to heal. In her second guest post on this blog, Samantha M. White explains that the results can go beyond your initial intention.
Writing my memoir transformed my life. Not only my day-to-day present, and my future, but even the past about which I had written!
Transformation was not my goal. I wrote it because I had a story pent up inside me, pressing to be told – to share what had happened to me, and how I had found my way out of pain. I wanted to assure readers of the universality of suffering, and the reality of healing and finding new joy. I felt driven, and afraid that if I died before publishing the book, an important message wouldn’t be heard.
I had read that one-third of trauma survivors never recover, and another third make it back to approximately where they were before the trauma occurred. Following the violent death of my daughter in the wake of two other major life losses, I knew I didn’t want to end up in either of those two groups. I couldn’t bear to waste the pain. I needed to honor her life.
So I set my intention to land in the remaining third – those who grow from trauma, become stronger, deeper, wiser, and more effective at bringing about positive social change. How I accomplished that is the subject of my memoir, Someone to Talk To: Finding Peace, Purpose, and Joy After Tragedy and Loss. The book gestated in me for years before I actually began the writing, and took fifteen grueling months of daily writing to complete. The results of all that effort were multiple: I enjoyed the great satisfaction of having completed something that felt important to me; I reached and helped people in need whom I didn’t even know; I was acknowledged for my achievement, and received a prestigious award (a 2012 Nautilus Book award); I even got a flash of something feeling like fame when a short clip of a TV interview of me ended up on YouTube; and a new identity: I introduced myself to my new neighbor (“Hi, I’m Samantha White,”) and she gasped, “The author?”
But the big prize at the end was that my painful past had morphed into something else – a happy past!
None of the facts had changed – my first marriage was still over, ended tragically, I had been betrayed, and my daughter was gone from me forever. But many of the other hurtful incidents, the lies and insults, the feelings of shame, and even my anger – had fallen away, lost their importance in the larger picture. The woefully long story of my personal suffering had been whittled down to what mattered, and the rest, I realized – well, the rest didn’t matter. Instead of continuing to passively allow my crippling memories to assault me, I could begin to choose what to remember and what to forget.
I choose to focus now on what I’m grateful for, and what fulfills me. I have resumed doing something I enjoyed before my daughter’s death – public speaking – and am making new friends, learning new things. I have a new husband and a life rich with music, laughter, and love. My book seems to be flying on wings of its own to people who want to learn how to triumph over trauma, and in that way honors the memory of my daughter.
It wasn’t catharsis, as people assume. Catharsis went on for many years before, when I wept and spoke of my sorrow, over and over again. This was not merely a final emptying of the deep well of my sadness. It was a penetrating examination of what was causing my pain, resulting in a metamorphosis, what some Buddhists call “turning the pain into medicine.”
The pain itself, which drove me to write the book, became the cure for not just my losses, but for my life, now renewed. My past no longer hurts me. Writing about it turned it around and helped me see it as something else . . . as the platform for my growth and (here’s that word again) transformation.
In my line of work (psychotherapy), it’s what we call “reframing.” Remove an old, murky, indistinct painting from its battered frame, dust it off and rotate it, examine it to find what’s hidden there, choose a truer frame, and hang it in a better light. Voila! – from a tired, old scene emerges a fresh, new view.
That’s what writing memoir can do, did do, for me.
Write now: Do some freewriting about how writing has transformed your life – or how you hope it will if it hasn’t already. In the latter case, dream big. Make a list of topics to explore in writing that you’d like to understand better or see “detoxified.” Keep that list and write your way through it, but take your time and don’t rush. Leave a comment about your thoughts or plans.