Lessons Learned about Lifestory Writing, Part 2


My previous post gave the background for lessons I’ve learned about lifestory writing since The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing was published ten years ago. This post continues the list.

5) Stories without shadows are flat — It’s not easy to share stories about embarrassing or hurtful memories. But these are precisely the stories that add heart and connect with readers. Shadows add the third dimension to stories.

6) When you change your perspective on life and the past, life changes – several years ago as I began writing about growing up in Los Alamos, I hesitated. How could I write about my chronic feelings of being outside the group, of not fitting in and being different? I did not want my classmates to know they had hurt me, and I didn’t want to make them feel bad or sound like a victim. Using tools I’ve described in previous posts and will include in my new book, I realized most of those feelings were in my head, based on my assumptions and perceptions. I felt like the door to a  prison cell opened and began discovering legions of others felt the same way.

7) Sharing our stories connects us with others – My term for daring to show emotional vulnerability in writing or daily life is “baring your belly” in the sense of exposing  a vulnerable body part. Baring your belly takes trust and guts. It is true that a few readers may sneer at perceived weakness or feel squeamish. Far more will relate and feel empowered to bare their own bellies in story.

8) Neuro-science based guidelines for connecting with readers – A growing body of research relevant to writers is rendered approachable by authors like Lisa Cron. In her book, Wired for Story she translates the technical into easily understood strategies. She provides clear, convincing strategies for grabbing readers by the eyeballs as mirror cells wake up in their brains. Active mirror cells create an effect much like total immersion in a holographic version of the author’s experience. Learning how this works and how to apply it is a work in progress.

9) Writing is good for your health — After The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing was published, I learned of the work of James Pennebaker, whose pioneering research on the healing power of expressive writing has been replicated hundreds of times. These studies uniformly show that writing about traumatic, troubling memories, even for a short period of time, helps resolve those memories and improves physical and mental health in countless ways. My archived blog, Writing for the Health of It, includes dozens of posts on this topic.

10) Lifestory writing can be transformational for writer and readers alike – Wouldn’t it be awful if we had to learn every life lesson first hand? Who wouldn’t prefer to learn lots of the tough stuff by reading about someone else’s experience? Quite possibly the plethora of survivor memoirs today is due in large part to brave pioneers who began the trend of what several have called “writing themselves naked.” If someone else overcame (addiction, abuse, incest, deaths of dear ones, etc.), readers may be inspired to do likewise.

Note that this list does not include additional mastery of topics like writing dialogue or description or piecing stories together along a story arc. I’ve made no mention of creating eBooks, selling books, or other technical skills. Those are craft topics. I’ve stuck to the heart of lifestory writing in this list.

I would not have learned any of these lessons if I hadn’t gotten my fingers moving all those years ago. Writing, especially life writing, is a lifelong journey. If you haven’t begun yet, pick up a pencil or head for your keyboard NOW!


Amber Starfire said...

Sharon, as usual, your post struck a chord with me.

#5 - Shadows are so important. Honesty is SO important in memoir, for ourselves as well as our readers. We have to take responsibility for our responses to life events, positive or negative.

#6 to #8 - Memoir writing is a story of the narrator's journey as she tells the events in her life. If there is no transformation, no change, the story will be flat. It is that very transformation that invites the reader to participate in the journey.

#9 and #10 - Yep — writing our stories is cathartic. Not only for the writer, but for readers as well. Our common (universal) experience bonds us.

Thank you for sharing your memoir-writing lessons.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for adding your expert confirmation here, Amber. Multiple perspectives on a topic add huge value, and I always feel that your Writing Through Life blog complements The Heart and Craft of Life Writing beautifully.