Tag Archives: memoir

Trauma, vulnerability and moving into truth

A few weeks ago, I decided that when people ask me how I’m doing, rather than issuing my standard response of, “I’m fine,” I’ll tell them, “I’m having a full human experience.”

I thought I was being clever, but it turns out that may not have been the best idea. It’s been a bit of an overwhelming experience this past week or so. Perhaps more full than I bargained for.

I’m pretty open about having experienced abuse and trauma in my life. I don’t go on about it, but I don’t hide it. When sexual abuse and assault, emotional abuse, child neglect, PTSD and similarly light-hearted topics come up in conversation IRL or online, I’m open about what I’ve experienced if it seems hearing from a survivor might be helpful. Because it can be helpful to see someone who’s gone through hard stuff and now looks like they’ve pretty much got their shit together. Mostly.

When I talk with my students about meditation or opening up to your intuition and my own failures in those things at times, they tell me it’s reassuring to know that the person they look up to, the person teaching them, isn’t perfect. That the teacher is still learning. It makes progress seem more attainable.

So maybe I should talk more about this journey of healing that I’m on. Maybe I should go on about it, just a little bit more than I do. Maybe even sharing my feelings of frustration and seeming failure would be helpful. I’ve got a great life — loving family, great husband, smart kids, spacious house, growing career finally doing what I want to be doing. So you can have all that and still feel stuck and mixed up and unrecovered from everything that happened along the way here.

I went to the Terroir Writing Festival this weekend (which really should be held at a winery, rather than a community college, so we could appreciate terroir fully) and ended up doing sessions on memoir writing and writing after trauma. Both applicable to the feeling of stuckness that I have in a few areas of my life right now. It turns out they’re related.

I started writing about the years I spent in Barbados (age 10-14) because I got stuck in processing the trauma of my life. I’m a big supporter of mental health treatment and counseling and had been seeing a therapist for a while at that point, just to deal with the stresses of life, divorce and remarriage, and, somehow, attempt to face all the baggage I kept bringing with me. Talking about it only got me so far. And then I didn’t know how to move forward.

I believe that, when you take steps on the path of your highest good, the universe rises up to meet you, putting people, ideas and opportunities in your path and lighting them up so you see them, even if it feels like you’re stumbling around in the gloom.

It occurred to me to start writing. I was working through a book of writing exercises, taking one slow step after another on my treadmill desk in the basement, when a new story started flooding out. I realized it was a book being birthed and I kept at it. It was, overall, a healing experience. It brought up a lot of old stuff — much of which I knew about, some of which I didn’t. It allowed it to all rise up to the surface and say, “Hey, look at me. I’m still here. This still needs to come up and out and be dealt with.”

That’s a good thing. It’s healthy.

It’s also messy. And then it’s there, waiting to be dealt with, unwilling to get packed down beneath the surface again.

So I’ve been unpacking it, looking at it, deciding what I still want to keep and where it lives now, and what doesn’t work for me anymore. Beliefs about myself. Beliefs about life and other people. Beliefs about how and why things happened. It turns out that I learned a whole lot of lessons growing up, but I didn’t necessarily take away the right meaning.

Writing and revising an entire book’s worth of beliefs and ideas was worthwhile work. And then I got stuck.

But I have stamina, mostly fueled by determination (aka stubbornness). I used to think I didn’t have the stamina to finish writing a book. I’ve now written three and published two, so there goes another belief about myself that doesn’t work for me anymore.

My determination led me to keep looking for ways around my stuckness. Ways to process the trauma differently. Talking got me part of the way. Writing got me further. But if I want to take that writing and shape it into a story that resonates, then I need to take it further. I need to take myself further.

So I tried EMDR. Basically, it’s a type of “psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.” My mental health counselor specializes in it and is one of the reasons I went to see her in the first place. And yet, I’ve avoided it for several years. Processing trauma is hard. EMDR gets it over with quicker than talk therapy, but it felt brutal. There were times during writing when it was hard to do that and maintain competence in anything else (like earning a living and getting dinner on the table). EMDR felt similar. I made it through two sessions, with a break in between, the first taking me through an ex-husband’s suicide attempt, the second through my first sexual assault. I’m made of some strong stuff, but even thinking about that second session makes me tear up.

Deep breath.

In the meantime, I’ve been meandering around on my professional path. What is it that i do exactly? I’m an…author…content marketer…medium…editor…freelance writer…teacher…musician? All of the above? Being all of those things means I have to keep refocusing again and again and again. (Basically, it’s like meditation, where your mind wanders down one track and then another and you keep bringing it back to your breath. But, in my working life, what is my breath?)

Once again, the universe rose up to meet me.

I took a business course with Heart of Business and it brought, not just clarity and support on what I was doing in my professional life, but a whole lot of unexpected healing as well. I also saw a local medium (an unlikely thing for me to do, but this felt right) who told me I had stored trauma in my body that wanted (and needed) to be released.

During that time, my counselor suggested I try TRE (Tension, Stress and Trauma Release Exercises) and taught me how to go through the exercises and how to allow my body to tremor. Once I did, my body started producing tremors and contractions so strong they irritated my lower back. I made my sessions shorter. And I went to see my chiropractor.

Something in the combination of stuck energy and an adjustment made my back muscles go haywire. Maybe they didn’t want to be told to release before they were good and ready. Maybe it was asking just a little too much. Instead of graciously accepting the adjustment, they went into protective mode and tightened up, fortifying the defenses to not release what wasn’t quite ready to go.

My back locked up. I was in so much pain muscle relaxers + narcotic pain meds felt like they barely made a dent.

It’s funny how life stops when our body insists on being paid attention to. I couldn’t drive (pain + pain meds). I couldn’t cook. I could barely get my pants on.

My goals got much smaller. Teach class on Friday. Go to the writing festival on Saturday. I rescheduled appointments, asked lots of favors (cook dinner, take kids to school, drop them home, fill in for me and sing on Sunday). That part was hard. I don’t like to ask for help. I realized that it’s because of all those times when I was younger and felt vulnerable and reached out for help, only to find none, so I had to suck it up and figure it out by myself anyway. I try and protect myself now by just doing it myself in the first place. But I didn’t this time. Not all of it, anyway.

I also realized that the pain — which was truly terrible labor-like pain — and my unprocessed trauma was, and always had been, connected. The back pain I endured for two decades before having spinal fusion surgery may have been technically caused by a car accident when I was a teenager, but was really the trauma trying to get my attention and get out. It wanted to be birthed and allow something new to live and grow and thrive.

I’m a lot better this week. I made it to my conference on Saturday, almost 2 hours away. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. But those sessions gave me some more tools to use as/when I revisit my first book. I learned a new word: autofiction to describe what I want to create from my memoir.

The sessions also gave me permission to approach the work in whatever way I need to, to be able to get close enough to get to the heart of it, without getting overwhelmed. That’s partly what stops me. I want to dig in, but I don’t want to be consumed by it. I want the rest of this life to keep working, for the kids to be fed, taken to where they need to go, to be scrubbed before bedtime and read books to, and for me to keep going with the rest of my writing and teaching life. I’m afraid of falling apart. And yet…it’s not going away, the need to tell this story.
So I’m going to follow my body’s lead. I’m trusting it to let me know how fast or slow to go. I want to do some more trauma release work this spring and into the early summer and then make space for myself to delve deeper into what’s going on in my memoir and craft it into the powerful I know it can be. The story of a girl, willing to travel across the ocean to find home and family on a tropical island, but who instead finds something very different from the promises of paradise in the shiny tourist brochures.

So what happened to that memoir you were writing?

Concussions only get you so far when it comes to procrastinating. At some point, things just need to get done. (Although, when I can’t remember words or don’t manage to get them in the right order, when my family begins to laugh at me, I point to myself and say, “Hey, brain injury here.” I plan to milk that for as long as I can. I’m told to expect it to take about 3 months for my brain to return to “normal.”)

Yes, that memoir

And, at some point, I need to actually write about what I’ve been saying I’ll write about for a good long while now. Namely: the status of my memoir. That thing I started working on in…um…I don’t want to check. 2014, I think. Sounds about right. (Don’t hold me to it, though. Brain injury.)

I finished my fifth or sixth round of editing it in early Spring last year and started querying agents, looking for representation. In the meantime, I figured I should probably start writing something else.

A new writing direction (and project)

20160310_125742So, last April, at the urging of some writer friends, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo and decided to tackle a children’s chapter book. (You know, because they’re shorter – that makes them easier, right? Ha ha).  I had a glimpse of an idea about a book based on my family life that Berry, our youngest monkey, could illustrate. She liked the idea, so I got on with it, pounding out the words during write-ins where the only sounds were the clacking of keys. (None of these so-called friends helped me procrastinate by chatting about what we’re writing rather than writing. They just got on with it.) I asked the kids for a title and The Awesomely Amazing Adventures of Cherry was born.

Then April ended, and with it our write-ins, and I took a great course in Content Marketing for Journalists where I learned a lot, met a great group of fellow journalists and writers and mostly stopped writing any of my own stuff in the pursuit of paying work.

But, an idea began to percolate. Writing about my life was more fun when it didn’t have to all be true. When it was fiction based on real situations, people and scenarios. Maybe I could do that with my memoir…?

Over the summer, I plucked away at my children’s book some more, and continued to query agents about my memoir, with a handful requesting the full manuscript. Then I landed a decent (if mind-numbingly boring) gig for a “tech giant” writing hotel descriptions. It paid bills. I traveled around the world. Through my computer screen. I didn’t write books. Until I realized I was losing my mind wanting sanity and creative expression more than cash. I started writing again more, determined to finished the children’s book, which had turned into a Middle Grade novel.

I’d decided, during the fall and early winter, as I got back into writing, that I was definitely going to fictionalize my memoir. But first, I wanted to finish the Awesomely Amazing Adventures of Cherry book. This fit in nicely with my usual procrastination method of working on the least less palatable thing (whatever I don’t mind doing least when compared to the other things I want to do even less) and still being productive. (Really, this technique works well for me. It sounds terrible, but I’ve somehow made it functional. I get a lot of stuff done, and eventually something replaces the thing at the bottom of the least palatable list and I get that done, too.) It apparently works pretty well for Berry, my illustrator. Most of her work was done when she was home sick from school. (I had her captive, I took advantage of it.)

After making a commitment to finishing The Awesomely Amazing Adventures of Cherry (don’t let your kids name your books, people) and avoiding working more on my memoir, I wrapped up the first and second drafts and sent it out to beta readers.

Hitting a bump in the road

Then I was in that car accident. Concussions and editing don’t mix. Revisions waited a few weeks. Until recently, when I got them done. That felt good. Except I’ve still got a couple of plot tweaks/additions to do. And then I’ll be done. (Other than convincing a few people to help me proofread and actually doing the work of layout, ISBN-ing, creating my own independent press, etc.)

That’s exciting.

It also means I need to quit procrastinating and fictionalize this memoir of mine. I’ve made some good headway lately: massaging the timeline of actual events to work in a three-act story structure, simplifying characters by combining a few and, as painful as it is, just chopping stuff out. I’ll have some significant re-writing to do, especially toward the end, but I feel good about where I’m heading.

Plus, I have other stories I’m excited to write: The Awesomely Amazing Adventures of… turns out to be the first in two series of books – one told from Cherry’s perspective and the other from her brother, Elliot’s. But I want to create the fictional Banned in Barbados first.

Why fictionalize a memoir?

But does that truly answer the “why” of fictionalizing an already written book? This is the thing I find hardest to put into words and probably the reason I’ve put off writing about my writing for so long.

I like the memoir I’ve written. It tells my story of a vulnerable, life-changing time in my life. And, by writing it down, and sharing it with a dozen or so people who were my beta readers for the project, I feel I’ve completed what I set out to do. Little Joanna’s story has been told and heard.

I also had several conversations with folks included in my memoir and I realized that, while I’m not under any obligation to tell the truth the way they’d want me to, or to protect them from the facts of our past, I’m also not out to hurt anyone or tarnish anyone’s memory of anyone else. (They can continue to think whatever they want of me.)

On top of that, I have a larger story to tell. A story that’s best served by having a tiny bit of emotional distance from its author. A story that doesn’t need to be held back by the voice of my younger self yelling, “But it happened that way!” While writing Cherry I learned that deviating from fact, incorporating elements of fiction, was freeing, while still being true to the essence of the story. I realize good memoirists can do this while keeping it a memoir. I may not be a good memoir writer, as it turns out. And that’s OK.

2015 book reads: Young adult memoir

2015 is the year of the young adult memoir. At least for me. Mine is finally finished and being shopped to agents and publishers as we speak. Which means I have to keep writing, and it turns out I have more to say in the YA memoir genre.

Because of the experiences I’ve had (sexual abuse, neglect, fun stuff like that), I tend to be drawn to books that tales similar to mine. I started off the year with A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer, Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back  by Claire and Mia Fontaine and It Happened to Nancy: By an Anonymous Teenager, A True Story from Her Diary by Anonymous (AKA Beatrice Sparks). You can read about what I thought of them here.

Then I moved on to some slightly lighter fare (or at least less sex and drugs) with King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher and The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir by Farah Ahmedi. Those are detailed in this post.

Finishing up the first 5 months of 2015, these books made their way through my reading lists (from want to read, to reading, to read):

the lost boyThe Lost Boy by David Pelzer

This book is the second installment of Dave’s incredible journey from an abusive childhood into adulthood. Some of it seems a bit overdone but, then, I didn’t live this experience. After I finished the book, I read some interviews about the author that made me wonder–not about the veracity of the book–but about his ability to truly move beyond it. Telling these stories–and selling his books–seems to have become his way of life. But perhaps if it shines the spotlight on child abuse and the need for good foster families that’s OK. I’m not in a place to judge.

because i remember terrorBecause I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You by Sue William Silverman

I was afraid of reading this book (which I read hard copy, as I couldn’t borrow a digital version–I don’t like to buy physical books as then I have to find a place to put them. Ebooks/kindle books I can keep a huge library of easily). I worried I wouldn’t be able to make it through it, or that it’d scar me. It didn’t.

What it did was help me realize the truth about some of my own experiences. I had an ah-ha lightbulb moment during the course reading of one passage that shed light on a memory that’s still half-buried. Plus, it helped me realize that writing about the trauma and abuse I experienced is OK–even if other people don’t want you to. It’s part of the healing, for me and for others.

the road from corrainThe Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

I looked forward to reading this book to learn about how she described her culture and country in ways that make it come alive. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. It was dense with description and I’ve never had a head for reading description. I confess, I’m a skimmer until it gets to the action and the dialogue and there wasn’t much of that. So I put it down and returned it to the library.

look me in the eye Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s by John Elder Robinson

Why are we often so crappy to kids who are, for whatever reason, different and outside of the social norms and expectations? I like to think we’re getting better overall.

This is a fascinating book about the author’s experiences growing up with Asperger’s (although he didn’t have a diagnosis at the time). Parts were heartbreaking, others were truly funny. I saw aspects of my own personality in how he described his outlook and nodded along. Other descriptions of his interactions with people, especially how he viewed his own son at times, were possibly unintentionally hysterical. It gave me good insight into his mind and was a great read.

Not young adult memoir, but…

These books aren’t young adult memoir. I’m not sure some are even memoir, but I don’t think of them as strictly non-fiction, either.

let the tornado comeLet the Tornado Come: A Memoir by Rita Zoey Chin

Cheryl Strayed recommended this book and linked to an interview with Rita Zoey Chin on her Facebook page. So I bought it.

I’m not sure it quite fits into the YA category, but it’s definitely memoir. She tells her tale of growing up as a runaway, full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, alongside her current experiences of debilitating panic attacks that threaten to destroy the quiet, solid life she’s built for herself. It’s a well-crafted book full of beautiful language and intense experiences.


that bear ate my pantsThat Bear Ate My Pants! by Tony James Slater

This is an adventure travel non-fiction book more than a memoir, but it was funny and I heard my brother’s voice in my head the entire time I read it. The author reminds me a lot of him with his gypsy ways and love of travel to exotic places. I did that as a kid and am now happy with a settled, mundane life.

smell the blue skySmell the Blue Sky: young, pregnant and widowed by Valerie Willman

I know Valerie, she’s a local author and heads up the local chapter of Willamette Writers. So I was admittedly excited, yet trepidatious (apparently a new word)  to read it. What if I didn’t like it? What would I say to Valerie the next time I saw her (I told her I bought her book and was going to read it next the last time I saw her at an author lunch.)

Fortunately, I can email her and tell her I loved it. I loved getting to know her more and learn about her journey to where she is now. There were so many things that resonated with me throughout the book that I didn’t expect to. And the surprises were great.

on writingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Is this a memoir or a book about writing? Both. There are a few Stephen King books I’ve really gotten into–mostly the The Dark Tower series as a teenager. There are a couple of Stephen King books I’ve read that I wish I hadn’t, as the imagery has stayed with me (I’m impressionable. I should probably only ever read or watch things about puppies, unicorns and rainbows). Even if I don’t want to live inside Stephen King’s brain, I respect his ethic as a writer and ability to produce readable books that sell well.

This book was no exception. I enjoyed it, it was useful, easy to read, and I got something deeper from it than I expected.

small victoriesSmall Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott

Oh, Anne. Sometimes I worry that Anne Lamott will come across as being too preachy (or maybe that’s really a worry I have for myself). But she doesn’t. She’s warm, earthy, loving, flawed. Like most of us. She takes humanity and our shared experiences and turns them into stories, finding the essence of what moves us. Maybe one day I’ll have that talent. And an agent.

Still reading: Young Adult memoirs

In my continuing quest for knowledge on how to write a fantastic memoir, I keep reading other memoirs, particularly ones aimed at an young adult audience. Since my last post about what I’ve been reading, I’ve finished two books: King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher and The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir by Farah Ahmedi.

Both are good, and yet very different from each other in terms of writing style and content.

king of the mild frontierKing of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

I haven’t read any of Chris Crutcher’s other books, but they’re now on my reading list once I get back into fiction again. I’m not sure if this book was suggested as a YA memoir to read because he’s a YA author, but I suspect I wouldn’t have appreciated this book as much as a teenager as I did reading it as a (somehow) fully-fledged adult.

It covers his growing-up years in Cascade, Idaho — a time and place I can barely relate to and am incredibly glad I didn’t grow up in — told through stories that are hilarious and heart-breaking. It’s open, honest and extremely well-written. I can only hope to someday be this funny and poignant.

the other side of the skyThe Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir by Farah Ahmedi

It took me a while to get into this book — partly because I read it in paperback (as opposed to on my kindle) and partly because of the writing style. It’s written as if Farah is telling you the story in person, as it is essentially the transcription of her conversations with Tanim Ansary, who was hired to help her write the book. Once I got further into the book, either the story picked up or I got used to the writing style and I zipped through the last half.

Overall, it’s a moving, eye-opening story about a young Afghani girl who loses most of one leg in a land-mine explosion and eventually emigrates to America with her mother, after losing the rest of her family in war. She is amazingly resilient and refreshingly innocent, even after everything she experiences.

As an immigrant to the U.S. I related to her experiences moving here: the overwhelment of everything moving so fast, the bright lights, the cars, all of the foreign Americanness (I’m making up words now) as well as the feelings of isolation and outsiderness.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any satisfying updates about her life today. She graduated from North Central College in 2010 (the book was published in 2006 when she was about 19), by which time she’d married and had a child. And in 2014, she spoke to a group of high school students about the book and her experiences, so she’s still alive and well, just without much of a public profile. It looks like I got emotionally involved enough to want to know what happened next, after the book’s conclusion.

Next on my reading list:

  • The Lost Boy by David Pelzer — the 2nd installment of his incredible journey (I clearly get sucked into these author’s lives and want to know more).
  • Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You by Sue William Silverman — because apparently I’ve become obsessed with memoirs about the horrible things parents do to their children and I don’t want to sleep at night
  • The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway — I love reading about other places and cultures and am curious how others describe their countries in ways that make it come alive (so hopefully I can do the same with Barbados)

To learn how to write, read

Sometime last year as I was in the beginning process of writing my memoir (currently being called Irrepressible Spirit but likely to be renamed something like Stormy Paradise or Banned in Barbados because it sounds sexier) someone somewhere said something to the effect of:

While you’re writing a memoir, read memoirs. While you’re editing, read books about how to write a memoir.

Which is what I did. Fortunately, once I’d finished the intimidating first draft, much of what I read in books like Your Life is a Book: How to craft and publish your memoir indicated I’d done at least a half-way decent job. Phew.

So back to reading memoirs I went. (Well memoirs and books about writing non-fiction, publishing, and how to break into the magazine business.)

After recently meeting with an agent who expressed surprise that my book is written from the perspective of my 14-year-old self (the age I am at the end of the memoir) and after being stumped, in that same conversation, by the question: So what other memoirs would you compare this to? I decided to focus on reading YA memoirs, preferably told from the point of view of the teen in them.

Here’s what I’ve read so far, in the last couple of weeks:

A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer
Essentially, Dave survives incredible cruelty at the hands of his mother, who targets him out of his other siblings (all boys) to do horrific things to. Through resilience and stubbornness, he survives. Fortunately, he begins the book by letting the reader know he gets out of his home situation, which makes it bearable to read the rest.

There are a few things left unclear in the book: how old his other brothers are for one. I think Dave was the second youngest but, told largely from his perspective at the time (with adult, I-survived-this wisdom) as well, that makes sense.

Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (P.S.) by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Well, now I know what to do if any of the kids takes to the streets for a life of hard drugs and prostitution. While I kid, given my teenagerhood and the kids’ dad’s and the distance from which apples tend to fall from trees, it may be a good idea to be prepared.

I quickly became emotionally involved with these characters — relating to both the mom (I recognized some past relationship issues in myself) and the daughter (I’ve been a sexually-abused child turned teenager). I had to keep reading until I knew what happened. I found this an easier read with more likable narrators than Debra Gwartney’s Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Having the dual viewpoint of mother and daughter was interesting and refreshing.

Interestingly, the Czechoslovakian school Mia, the daughter, was sent to has some interesting reviews online (search for Morava Academy). Yet how it’s presented in the book seems inline with several New Thought philosophies that encourage personal responsibility and self awareness.

It Happened to Nancy: By an Anonymous Teenager, A True Story from Her Diary by Anonymous (AKA Beatrice Sparks)
 I confess, I didn’t finish reading this book. While I loved the idea it was a memoir told from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old, it’s clearly not. The story is predictable and it doesn’t read as true, especially when you consider the author has an entire line of teenage “true story” books for every after-school special topic: drugs, pregnancy, running away, Satanism, HIV/AIDS, rape. Yeah, OK. Sure.

What’s next on my reading list? King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher.