I hear it all the time. “Do my stories really matter? Does anyone want to read what I have to say?” My answer is a resounding YES. But only if you tell your stories well, only if you write with passion, vulnerability and honesty. And that is something you can learn to do with instruction, practice and encouragement. If you write from your heart, your stories will move people. They will help others to make sense of their own past by reading about yours.
When you start writing your stories in this way, you may be surprised to discover more than you expected. Not only will you access memories you thought you’d forgotten, but also by reaching back into your past and bringing into the light memories you have been ignoring, you can move forward in your life with more clarity, power and awareness. By writing about events of your life, you are able to witness them from the perspective of your older wiser self as you make space to process, reflect on and release them.
This can be a powerful act. As Richard Blanco said to Melanie Brooks, author of Writing Hard Stories, “It’s either writing a memoir or therapy. But even therapy can’t compare to writing a memoir. Writing one memoir is worth ten about ten years of therapy!”
So when you find yourself discouraged by the hard work of writing, keep going. Keep writing from your heart. Keep looking back and writing your way forward.
Catharine H. Murrray
Author, Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018
Join me for Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life.
This 5-week live online course, will begin on Tuesday, January 26, 2020 at 10 AM. Click here for more information and to register. Enrollment is limited, reserve your spot early.
I am sharing with you a link for a radio show I hope you will listen to.
As 2020 draws to a close and we find ourselves in that place between the holidays and the New Year, we may be in a kind of no-man’s land of emotion. This year the pandemic and the emergence of deep social and political divisions brought losses and feelings of grief, anger, confusion and dismay. As we move through these final days of the year, we may find ourselves even more emotionally depleted and disoriented than usual.
Saying Goodbye, currently airing around the country on NPR stations, is a show about how to be with our loved ones as they are dying. And yet I think this show speaks to all of us, addressing that tender place of grief that surfaces from time to time, whether from old losses or new.
As an author of a memoir about grief, I was interviewed by host Anne Hallward about saying goodbye to my son. That 7-minute interview and a reading of one of my poems occur near the end of this hour-long show.
I hope you will take some time for yourself to listen to the whole show and be moved and inspired by the stories in it as they strengthen your sense of connection to our one human family.
Save the Date…
Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life, the 5-week live online course, will begin on Tuesday, January 26, 2020 at 10 AM. Click here for more information and to register. Look for a message from me with more about this next week.
We are living in a time when uncertainty is at the forefront of our emotional landscape. We don’t know what will happen in the next few weeks and months as our country goes to the polls to voice our values and decide our direction. We don’t know how those in power will respond if the choice the voters make does not support them. What most of us thought was a stable foundation of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, is under threat.
One thing, however, has become certain throughout all of this. We can no longer remain silent.
And yet, we may wonder, how can I speak? I am not powerful. I don’t know how to put my voice into the call for justice. What do I know about ending any of this insanity?
Those of us who are able, give financial support to the organizations we think will help. We post on social media the words of those who speak eloquently. We march and raise our small voices into the chants of the multitudes. We vote.
What else can we do? we may ask ourselves. There must be more.
I suggest that we bring the tool of writing to this question. The practice of writing connects the potential power of the unconscious mind with the practical power of the conscious mind. When we ask ourselves what we can do in the midst of all this and write the thoughts that arise, we may be surprised to find a pattern to our responses. If we stay with this practice with persistence, we may tap into forgotten passions that can fuel our actions.
So I encourage you to make time to sit still and listen to yourself. I encourage you to wake up fifteen minutes earlier three days each week for the next month. Before you get out of bed, pick up your pen and notebook or laptop, sit up and ask yourself, What do I need to say in the midst of all of this? What am I afraid of? What am I hopeful about? How can I help?” And then you write honestly whatever comes. You write without stopping for fifteen minutes. This way the inner-critic doesn’t have time to get a foothold. You simply keep writing no matter what comes out. What comes out may be something you’d rather not face. You might rather not know that part of you thinks I’ve worked hard to have the life I do. I don’t have time to help other people figure this out or It’s all hopeless. Why bother? Or This isn’t my problem or I can barely manage my own life. How am I supposed to help manage all this overwhelming stuff?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t like your responses, write them anyway. Writing them out is releasing them. Maybe after you’ve written enough of them, they will recede, and a voice that feels more like the part you would like to cultivate will emerge. But you won’t know this if you don’t give the less likable parts room to speak. Listen to them, engage them, thank them. And keep writing.
Through the simple act of showing up to the blank page and writing what you hear, you will learn, day by day, line by line, to honor your own voice. And as you do, your deepest, most authentic voice will get stronger. You will know yourself better. You will have more confidence in your own power, and you may surprise yourself by speaking up where before you were silent.
This is an exploration. The nature of that means you don’t know where it will take you. But if you keep at it, the exploration will empower you. By taking time to sit with yourself, by listening patiently for what is waiting to be heard, you may learn what your role can be in healing our country’s wounds. You may help save our world. You may find a kind of superpower within that you can summon when the time comes. And that time has certainly come.
Catharine H. Murray is the author of Now You See the Sky, published by Akashic Books, 2018
To find support for your writing practice, join Catharine’s live online class Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life starting November 12, 2020.
Not long ago I spent two hours in a cozy recording studio with my long-time friend Anne Hallward talking about goodbyes. Anne is the host of Safe Space Radio, a public radio show dedicated to improving public health by giving voice to subjects that can be hard to talk about. The show for which we recorded will be broadcast on NPR stations and is about saying goodbye to people we love who are dying or have already died.
As the host of the show, Anne began by sitting quietly, closing her eyes, and centering herself in silence before a long conversation in which there would be no rush, so no sense of scarcity around her attention or time. I watched as she made a conscious transition into a place of compassion, tenderness, patience and deep listening.
“Tell me about saying goodbye to your son,” she began. At first, as I answered each of her questions with some stiffness and concern about how I would sound, I worried my words would not make sense. Then I started to relax as I realized she was giving me all the time I needed to explain such a complicated, nuanced topic as navigating terminal illness in a child. As I spoke, her expression seemed to offer only quiet, loving interest in my thoughts.
This kind of experience is all too rare in our busy, rushing society, when most people have somewhere to go and some pressing event on their calendar just after their time with you. Anne is one of the busiest people I know. When she arrived at the studio, she apologized for being rushed as she had just returned from a morning of recording in Boston. And I knew after our time together she would be rushing home to spend rare time with her family. But because of her generosity as a listener, the way she beamed all her loving attention toward me with every question she asked, as we sat together in the warm quiet of the studio, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared while I talked about saying goodbye to my son.
Anne’s attention allowed me to return to a time that had a deep impact on who I am as a person, to a topic that is tender and rich with emotion. It is a time I have mostly been able to leave behind in my current life, a time I don’t choose to return to often because I no longer need to. But being invited back there by someone who offered so much interest and kind curiosity allowed me to revisit one of the things that gives my life so much meaning. I was able to return to moments of tenderness, love and heart-rending pain.
I spoke of the time I cried with my six-year-old son, when I was so overcome with sadness over the growing clarity that he was dying that I could no longer hold back my tears, and he held my head in his skinny arms as the tears rolled down my cheeks. As I cried that day, the thoughts shouted in my head: Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’ll never make it if you die. But I didn’t want him to lose hope, so instead I had to change the words before they left my mouth: “I just love you so much. I hate to see you suffer. I want you to get well.”
As I told Anne this story, I felt tears rising to my eyes and the quavering in my voice betray my loss of composure. Anne’s eyes too were shining with tears. I hadn’t wanted to cry, but in that moment when I looked past the microphones across the table at Anne, when I worried about recording such sadness, it was good to know I was heard. It was good to know my heart still remembered how much I lost back then.
We continued after a quiet pause. And I moved back into examining the topic at hand with more detachment. After the interview, as I drove home, what stayed with me was not the views and ideas we’d discussed about death and departures. What stayed with me was the softness of my heart, opened by the simple but precious act of asking and listening. This softness, this sense of opening and depth does not come to us without making a place for it, without invitation and welcome. Anne’s invitation was her gift to me. My acceptance of the invitation was my gift to myself.
Most of us don’t often have the opportunity to be invited to speak in this way. Most people in our lives don’t have the time or attention to give us this kind of opening. This is why I think writing to heal can be so important.
When we write for healing, we, like a good listener, first center ourselves in silence, summoning attention and a deep sense of compassion. When we begin to write, we may feel awkward, stiff, but we keep going, our kinder wiser self patiently waiting while we bumble our way into our stories. When we make time to pick up the pen and ask ourselves about those topics that are tender or raw or generally hidden under the busy-ness of our daily lives, and we then listen with patience and kindness to whatever comes out onto the page, we are giving ourselves a gift. We are letting ourselves touch into places that matter to us. It might feel like there’s no room in the larger, outside world to talk about these topics, so if we don’t ask ourselves about them, if we don’t invite our own musings, they may never come into the light.
No matter what I write when I sit down to ponder on the page, whether it’s an attempt at a poem or paragraphs of complaining, I always feel at least a little bit unburdened by the process. I feel I know myself just a tiny bit better. And sometimes I’m lucky. I can find my way into something sweeter, deeper, more vulnerable in the writing that leaves me especially aware of what really matters to me, that lets me touch into this soft heart. When I make space to write, I am telling some part of myself that otherwise would be neglected, left in the dark, You are important. I care about what you are going through. I am listening. You are not alone.
I don’t know exactly why or how this works, but I am glad it does because doing it over and over has helped me see that my life matters, that the stories I carry are worthy of telling. To know that I am heard, even if only by an audience of one, helps me heal. And by inviting me to speak, Anne, and others like her, remind us how important it is to tell our stories.