The Transformative Power of Memoir

someone to talk toSome 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.

You can read Samantha’s previous guest post, Accessing Intuition, here. Visit Samantha’s website and read more of her insights on her blog.

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.

12 comments :

Karen Walker said...

Writing my memoir did a similar thing for me - totally transformed my life. I am so glad Samantha found a way through her pain where "reframing" was possible. This is one I will run to purchase.
Karen

Samantha said...

Thanks, Karen. Please let me know what you think after reading my book, and also tell me where I may find yours. I believe that sharing our stories is a powerful way to encourage and support each other through life's trials.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Karen and Samantha, both your memoirs are powerful testimonials of transformation. You stand as beacons on the path.

Sherrey said...

Samantha, in the process of writing my memoir, I am already experiencing some of what you've written here. The insults, lies, manipulations are slipping away. It feels good. Hopefully, my finished product will achieve similar success. I can't wait to read yours.

Sharon, thanks for hosting Samantha again on your blog. You both inspire!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Sherrey,

Even the Letters to Mama in your blog show transformation. They are gutsy, as I assume your memoir will be. Keep us posted.

Linda said...

Oh, Samantha, this is powerful stuff. You've written a gripping post here, and I know your book must be even more powerful. Bless you for writing it. I know many will be encouraged and strengthened from reading it. I'm so happy for you--that your life has been transformed and you are in such a sweet time of life.

Linda

kathleen pooler said...

Samantha, This is a gripping testimony to the power of healing and transformation that can occur when we face our painful memories and then share them through our writing. I have found clarity and forgiveness in writing my own memoir. It's amazing to me that once I start writing, the story that needs to be told somehow unfolds. Thank you for sharing your story. You show how persistence pays off and give us all hope that our lives can be transformed when we write our stories.

Samantha said...

What a great gift it is, to feel heard! You who posted above understood what I wanted to convey, and I am grateful to you for letting me know. As I retire from being a therapist, I wonder where my interests and talents (and lack of talents!) will take me now. Perhaps I'll encourage and support others in the writing of their memoirs. It's hard work, and I doubt I would have done it as thoroughly and as well without the encouragement and support of others. Which, by the way, is the second ingredient in my "Recipe for a Healed Life" – support. I'm thinking I may blog about the Recipe . . . .

Sharon Lippincott said...

I just realized that if I had not felt the need for support myself, I would not have begun teaching as a means of generating that support and personal accountability. I doubt I would have stuck to my writing, and where would I be today? Fascinating to see one thing leads to another in string of causation -- or perhaps serendiptiy.

Samantha said...

I find that very interesting . . . I had not thought of teaching as a means of gathering support, but I understand it now, reading how it served that purpose for you. I have a friend who is teaching memoir while writing her own, and I wondered how someone who hasn't done it can possibly teach it . . . but now I understand - she is learning it as she teaches it, i.e. she is her own student and her own teacher, and has gathered a group to study and learn with her, which provides support for her own process! How brilliant . . . . and so I've just learned a new way to gather support. Watch my blog . . . something I need support with will become my new topic. Thanks, Sharon . . . I learn so much from you!!!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Samantha, I'm segueing directly into my next post here. My classes may be a bit different from most. They are more like writing groups. I give only a few minutes of instruction at the beginning, then students read their stories for the week. As questions arise, I usually deflect them to the group for discussion, then add to what's been said. It's truly a seminar as students are learning from one another and I'm there primarily to facilitate the emergence of "group wisdom." I'm also a resource, and a stronger one as time passes. In earlier times I often put questions on hold to give me time to look things up before the next session. Once in awhile I still do now.

Some schools of thought say you must be a master to teach. Other schools encourage collaborative learning. I'm in the latter school.

Samantha said...

"Collaborative learning" is a new term to me, but definitely not a new concept. As a therapist, I have facilitated groups in which I have had no answers, but was there to help each individual, with the help and support of the others, to access their own inner wisdom. My job was to keep the group on task and protect people from being hurt in the group. In business, my position as liaison between top management and front line personnel was to search out the answers through my knowledge base and ongoing research. So if I may, I'd call you a "writing therapist", and/or I "teacher of life." Just a mix-and-match of the four words . . . teaching, counseling, life, writing. I understand your method, now, and could not respect it more! Both your occupation and mine, using the methods we do, say to the student/client, "You are the expert of your life. I am here to help you access what you already know, and to use your natural gifts." As Sherrey said above, "you inspire," and I'm proud to be in on this great conversation with you!