How Memoir Heals Us Individually and Connects Us Collectively.
A set goal
When I set out to write my first book, I never expected it would be a memoir.
I had spent over a decade working as a spiritual practitioner and teacher, and I felt ready to share the lessons I’d learned. I hoped to add to the conversation about what a journey to wholeness can look like.
I wanted to share, for instance, how no single book, teacher, workshop, or seminar gave me all the answers. It was one thing to read or hear wise words; it was quite another to know them from within, I wanted to say. I wanted to prepare readers for the truth that healing inches along, but then all of a sudden, you look back and see how much has changed. I wanted to express how the mantra “Fake it ’til you make it” not only didn’t work but was dangerously dismissive of our authentic emotional state.
And most importantly, I wanted to share that a true spiritual journey meant getting in our bodies, not out of them, as some spiritual practices encourage.
I had gained these insights not from books but through my own lived experiences. Yet, I had no plans to share the experiences themselves. The idea never even occurred to me.
My family’s collective personality is one of stoicism, grit, and rugged individualism. Story-telling did not play much of a role in my upbringing. I was generally alone in my love of books. And talking about intimate things like emotions was never encouraged, even at the dinner table.
But what my family did pride itself on was learning and education, as well as establishing a good reputation.
So, the natural choice for me was to write a self-help book.
It had been years since I’d written anything more than a newsletter article, so I hired a writing coach to get me started.
She read a chapter draft, and then we met over coffee to talk it over.
“There is some nice wisdom here. But how did you gain that?” she asked.
I replied, “Well, here’s what happened…”.
We put the writing aside, and I shared a story. We laughed and commiserated, connecting over a theme. When our session closed, she said, “I think that’s the story you ought to write.”
Sure, I can share a few brief stories, I thought. No harm done. Some self-help books sprinkle a story here or there for context. Dip in, share a story, dip out. I can do that.
The next time I met my writing coach, she said, “You know, I was thinking about that story, and wondered how you came to be in that situation in the first place? What happened before that?”
I started opening up even more to her, sharing things that had only ever been shared in my journals or with skilled professionals. And here’s the thing: she started opening up too.
When I shared stories with her, my guard went down. Because mine was down, hers vanished as well. We connected through our emotions, struggles, and celebrations in a way that we never could’ve over tips and advice.
By the time our session ended, I knew I’d be writing a bit more of my personal story.
Inch by inch and then all at once, just like the process of healing, my book changed genres from self-help to memoir.
I was still nervous about sharing stories publically. I wondered what my family would say, knowing some of these intimacies about me. I feared my status as a spiritual teacher would be questioned.
I mostly worried if a memoir could make the same healing impact in the world as a self-help book could. Because ultimately, that’s what I wanted my book to do — bring some healing into a wounded world.
Our stories and bodies speak the truth
When I first began writing the stories from my life, it felt as if I were reliving them in real-time.
I would work on a story for hours, recalling the feelings, the dialogues, the environment. My body actively participated, recreating the sensations and the emotions from that time.
Sometimes, it seemed my body remembered the stories with far more precision than did my mind. I would feel into my body for the truth, and it showed me every time.
When I finished for the day, it felt like I had lived the experience all over again.
During these early drafts, I often thought, What am I doing? Why would anyone continue to relive traumatic experiences on purpose?
I contemplated quitting. But something curious was happening inside me, and I’ve never been able to leave a curiosity uninvestigated.
An emotional transformation
When our bodies respond to a past event is if it’s happening now, it’s an indication that more healing is needed. Here I thought I was done with many of these stories, but there were threads that I had not explored and emotions that had not been honored.
Other stories started showed up then, too, asking to be written, healed, and ultimately shared.
It was not a time to walk away. It was time to go deeper. My heart was wide open, my emotions were speaking, and my memoir was showing the way to greater healing.
I continued revising and rewriting my stories. Each time, I drew a little closer to my core issues, fears, and unspoken longings. Each round, there would be less reaction from my body. As pain shifted from my body to the page, I could see my stories with fresh perspective, greater nuance, and enhanced clarity.
Until one day, when the stories moved entirely to the page and left my body forever.
These stories no longer belonged to me. They belonged to the collective.
The lessons that I mined at this point and the wisdom that I gleaned were at an entirely different depth than those I had initially planned to write about when I thought I would write self-help.
From the personal to the collective
Next, I shared my memoir with beta readers. As we probably all do, I had thought my stories to be so unique and personal that nobody could understand them. Not being understood was my greatest fear.
But as I received feedback, I learned that it was rarely the actual events of my life that people resonated with. My emotions did the heavy lifting. My emotions were the great truth-tellers of my stories. They were the communicators.
Once a reader and I connected on the level of emotion, it opened up our hearts for an even deeper conversation — a conversation and connection in which loneliness could not co-exist.
.Again and again, people opened up to me with their stories. I don’t think they would have if I hadn’t shared mine.
A salve for a disconnected time
There has likely never been another time in history so marked with loneliness and disconnect. It’s ironic, of course, because we live in the most digitally-connected time in history.
We anxiously await the arrival of spring 2021, hoping that it will also bring back group activities, restaurant outings, and maybe even concerts or fairs. In other words, connection.
But what if there were another way to connect more deeply to one another? And what if this connection created healing, not just for individuals, but for the collective?
The idea of openly sharing personal intimacies, pains, and losses lies in direct contrast to what our culture teaches. From childhood, we learn to keep our private lives private, our pain a secret. By the time we’re adults, we’re so accustomed to hiding or denying our emotions that the very concept of seeing and honoring them as truth-tellers sounds like it would cause a revolution.
Maybe it could. But maybe we need a revolution.
When it comes to growth and healing, it might seem natural to reach for a self-help book. But self-help books speak to our minds, and our minds are often the greatest obstacle to healing.
Memoirs, on the other hand, speak to and soften the heart, and it is a soft heart that is most receptive to healing.
Self-help books will always be popular, and I will continue to browse those shelves at the bookstore. But these days, memoirs draw me in more. I know there’s a story there that will open my heart for healing in a way self-help could never do.
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