The memoir is mother to the writer.
I am a social worker and psychologist-turned writer, and the view expressed here is one to which I have come after two decades of both writing memoir and teaching students of the genre. I’ve drawn the thought from my own experiences of attempting to capture the past on the page and from those of the scores of students whom I have been privileged to accompany as they’ve gone about constructing narratives of their lives. I will point to my students’ literary experiences and my own to show you what I mean by “The memoir is mother to the writer.”
Writing a memoir is a long-haul proposition. Often it can take a lifetime, at least in dog years—and proceeding slowly can, in fact, be advantageous. For over the years the memoir is being written, it can be a great teacher. Along with showing a writer how to write—and fostering the maturation of the person writing, right along with the maturation of the past self on the page—the memoir-writing process, if stuck to with dedication and a spirit of openness, will deliver up an unanticipated boon. That boon is a transformation in one’s perspective on the past, one’s family, and oneself. As one hunches over the page, one’s life story is expanded, brightened, and enriched. And that new vision, in turn, can provide unanticipated deliverance from suffering, a new joy, and a freshened sense of the benevolence of the world. Revision can proffer the boon of re-vision.
And not only this. The recapitulation, indeed re-living of the past that occurs while writing a memoir, if closely attended to, can heal the writer. There are some drawbacks to engagement in this process which I will treat shortly, but, in large measure, by retracing the past, pain may be transformed into beauty.
Allow me an example of how this works. One of my students—whom I will call Juliet—began her memoir in a wrought-up, angry, and hurt frame of mind. Her mother had left the family of several children when Juliet was a child, and the writer, understandably and rightly felt abandoned by her mother; and in her writing, she understandably and rightly sought to tell this story of devastation, grief, fury, and a child’s needs unmet. Her mother seemed to her mystifyingly and unforgivably selfish and narcissistic, and her aim was to show, in vivid scenes, how the mother of her past behaved and how this made the little girl feel. She worked hard and accomplished this beautifully. She showed skillfully, through sensory detail, scenes, and passages of reflection, how she experienced her childhood and young adult life. The writing was determined, grim, painstaking, and vivid. Some of her depicted moments were so powerful they seemed to explode on the page. The mounting pile of sheets on her desk was a veritable dossier of hurts and violations, disappointment and parental failure. How could a mother do such a thing–leave her child behind and not look back? The world, in Juliet’s eyes, was a tragic, difficult, and lonely place, in which one had to tough things out, be practical, and get on with it. Love was hard-won and hard-kept, and a grey sadness was everywhere.
This was how the story went, and held, for a long time. Juliet worked on the book for several years, recording every searing moment, every feeling, from her first memory through her experiences in middle school and college, digging down into all that had come to pass, endeavoring to record and fathom the truth. It was often tearful toil.
As part of the process of writing and revising, and seeking to refine her story to capture her younger self’s experiences and point of view, Juliet periodically turned toward her mother’s letters and possessions for clues, examining some items with interest and avoiding others for the fury or hurt they aroused. One day, as she was doing this for the umpteenth time, she dared to open some letters written by her mother when Juliet was a middle schooler, and she braced herself for a five hundredth bout of sorrow and outrage.
But something else happened. As her eyes traveled over the handwritten script pressed into the old sheet, she suddenly began to weep. She had wept many times before while reading her mother’s words—wept from anger and pain at her mother’s seemingly boundless self-centeredness. But this time her tears rode in on a completely different tide of thoughts. Now she was weeping for her mother. She had suddenly seen her mother in a new way. Suddenly, after writing out her own experience month after month, she had broken through a membrane to a new outlook. In her mind there now appeared a young woman, married too young to a difficult man, saddled too young with too many children; a young woman with a poet’s sensitivities and creative inclinations overburdened by life and feeling inadequate to its demands. She perceived a young woman battling depression, trying to do right by her children, trying to be a good wife, trying to deal with her pent-up creativity, and feeling completely overwhelmed. A woman who simply couldn’t handle it all. And Juliet’s heart went out to her mother for the very first time.
She wept all day, and called her husband, and called her best friend, and called her therapist, and cried some more.
But it didn’t stop there. Another insight rode in on the next wave of this spring tide of a day. She realized that, though her mother had only written her a few letters over the years, and though her mother had actually gone so far as to tell some people she had no children, this was not due to an absence of feeling. Her mother hadn’t forgotten her daughter, as Juliet had always thought. Her mother hadn’t cut off contact due to an unimaginable lack of empathy and a vast narcissism. Quite the opposite. Her mother felt so deeply about her lost children, and had such deep regret, that she couldn’t bear to think of them. It wasn’t that she had no heart but that she had a bursting one, and having no other model for how to manage such powerful feelings, she sought to put them away in a closet and lock the door. Her mother didn’t not think of her. Her mother was inadequate to her job as mother but there had been love. Floundering love, misexpressed by a deeply flawed human being, but still and just the same: love.
It was as though the world, which had been a place shrouded in grey, was suddenly bright with shouting color. Juliet felt like twirling. She kissed her husband and called her kids and told them how much she loved them, and she wished she could hug the whole world.
I will offer next some other brief examples of this sort of transformation that can overcome a memoirist via the writing of the life—one from another student, one from a much-beloved memoirist, and a couple of examples plucked from my own literary experience. As for the student, this woman began her memoir being literally unable to capitalize the word “mother”–the term she had used to address and refer to her mother throughout her childhood–because to use upper case would have offered her difficult mother too much respect. By the end of the writing process she used the “Find and Replace” function on her computer to capitalize all those lower case “mother”s. The much-admired writer Jeanette Winterson, who had a life-hating harridan for a mother, experienced a healing revelation about her adoptive mother which enabled her to announce toward the end of her book, “She was a monster but she was my monster.”
With regard to my own experience, I discovered, while writing a memoir in which I was endeavoring to evoke the widely-varying interactions I had with my own complicated mother, that over and over again my perspective on her altered. For example, when I first recorded a girlhood memory of a moment when my mother furiously beat at me when I happened to step across a wire fence in the Dutch duneland, I highlighted my girlhood outrage at this maternal insult. It was only after writing the scene, and revisiting it upon revision that I fully comprehended my mother’s motives that frigid day. The fence I had crossed bordered an area of the Dutch coast that harbored hidden land mines from World War II. Thus, through the writing, my childhood memory was translated from one depicting a furious mother to one of a mother possessed by desperate, protective daughter love.
Another personal illustration: During the assembly of my memoir, as I wrote scene after scene, which initially illustrated to me my mother’s rigid and domineering qualities—scenes of her forbidding me to attend an anti-war rally where violence was threatened; of her insisting I accept a to-me repugnant job as a physical therapy assistant after my freshman year of college; even of her negative response to my second pregnancy—I came to see my mother, through the process of writing and revision, in a new light. Always, whether through clear or slightly askew thinking, and though lacking a vocabulary for calmly expressing emotion, my mother had my best interests in mind. Caution is advised in the face of potentially explosive situations; experience of a less than ideal job may be character-building or financially necessary for the young; and inclusion of a new child in one’s life, while miraculous and one of the greatest joys, can bring accompanying challenges. All legitimate maternal concerns.
Something happened to my student Juliet—and to my other student and to Jeanette Winterson and to me—that happens to many memoirists if they stick to their search for the truth and work hard at their craft, and are open to all it can teach them (uncanny how our minds have a whole unexpected curriculum to impart if they are open and we to them).
Memoir writing can be excellent psychotherapy. Like therapy, it is a working-through toward greater understanding. In the daily striving toward mastery of technique—in the effort to capture character in three deft strokes, to re-create dialogue close to true, to resurrect the smell of that now fragrant,now pungent kitchen—the psyche may be healed, the story enlarged, the pain contained, compassion reached, a larger truth neared, and the soul comforted and nourished. Virginia Woolf wrote of this process in A Sketch of the Past:
And I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what…”
As I have here indicated, it is my experience that the writing of memoir can provide deep therapeutic benefit to many, but there are limits and qualifications to this. If a memoirist is handling particularly troubling material, it is ideal that the writer be accompanied by a psychologically-attuned teacher, coach, or therapist as he or she summons the past. Obviously, such summoning can be re-traumatizing unless paced gently and unless the writer devotes him- or herself to craft as well as content while composing. Expressing upset in a general and habitual way on the page, as one is apt to do in a journal, is not sufficient. It is only by writing richly, with attention to concrete detail, the capture of experience in scenes, and inclusion of reflection back and forth on the meaning of the moments depicted, that the pain of the past is transformed into a creative work that propels the writer psychically forward. Louise de Salvo’s book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, elucidates in detail how writing should be handled so as to be therapeutic and productive. I recommend memoir writing to those naturally inclined toward word-smithing and able to withstand, and work with via written language, the recollection and re-experience of painful memories.
These provisos made, I submit this: At its best and often, the memoir is the dedicated writer’s perfect mirror. The words the memoirist conjures on the page can serve as the purest and most pristine reflection, in fact, yes, the perfect mother—the mother who nurtures and matches us precisely and unfailingly says just the right affirmative thing—the mother we never had, and can no otherwise have. In memoir-writing, in essence and at its best, we re-mother ourselves.
There are reasons to hate, and slipshod and inadequate treatment, and abusive behavior should not be forgotten, but behavior that hurts a child most often springs from harm done to the hurtful one and is a cover for and expression of a sense of being unlovable and unloved. What we discover, if we take up the work a memoir urges upon us, is compassion, generosity, and love—and the world’s capaciousness. The imprisoning castle’s double doors open outward to a beautiful, vast, pastel sky.
Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” Moments of Being. U.K.: Triad/Panther Books, 1978, p. 83.
Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. San Francisco: Harper/Collins Books, 1999.