It was not my intention to turn this series of posts on a supposed ‘craft of writing memoir’ into a self-help book.
Most importantly, I’m not qualified in that field to speak with any kind of authority and this advice shouldn’t be regarded as any kind of replacement for proper therapy. And yet… it would be irresponsible of me to disregard the fact that writing about trauma is a type of therapy, and also that therapy can be helpful or harmful depending on the judgements and biases of the therapist in question. In this case, we are our own therapists and we are predisposed to look critically at ourselves and our work. The risk in being self-therapists when we continue to suffer from unhealed trauma is that we drive ourselves deeper into despair. The risk in writing memoir about that trauma is that we end up throwing every draft into the bin. Or simply that we don’t even start it. To that end, this post gives some sort of justification and support which has helped me out of the pit of despair, with further resources listed at the end of the page.
Most writers encounter writer’s blocks where the ideas simply do not flow. Curiously though this problem is not one that memoirists have to worry about, after all we already have the source material to write about. We don’t have to think about stories, they are all there embedded in our minds. But one block will occur again and again when writing about trauma, that is that our book is not good enough, because one of the effects of unhealed trauma is that it makes us feel damaged, broken and ‘not good enough’. Much of the time we have been told again and again that we are not good enough. And our stories are, at least until they get out, intrinsically us… which means that we think they are not good enough. Moreover writing as a craft is undervalued by many. Kindle books, blogs and article factories cheapen it in money terms which is often the only measure of success that anyone cares about. Advice out there ranges from taking a break, to reading other stories. None that I’ve found addresses the deeper issue of intrinsic self-worth. But what if it’s really no good? Maybe it isn’t (and the answer to that is, so what? Write more, because practice will make it better).
My earliest work is young and pretentious. Because I was young and pretentious. But as I have gone through the process of trying, failing, trying and failing to love or at least accept myself, I realised somewhere along the way that I should love all versions of myself even if I couldn’t be proud of my behaviours. My hatred for myself was pretty much the internalized criticisms of my parents, society, and my abusers. I was worthy despite my behaviours. In this way a book–your book–might be considered to be a barometer of how you are feeling about yourself. I’m okay with acknowledging that much of my work is amateurish. At least I am now… but it took a while.
Clearly then, the way you feel about your book and your story is a problem of self-esteem and only very loosely tied to whether your first draft is shit or not. Your first draft may well be shit, or rather as I have mentioned in the previous post, not in a publishable state! That’s because writing a book is an iterative process. Many writers, even the most famous know that their first drafts are shit (its true by the way, but paradoxically writing a first draft is still a massive, MASSIVE achievement… it’s all relative!)
It took me fifteen years to publish my first manuscript (the second one I actually published) and it is my hope that I can shorten that time for you because a lot of that time was spent on unnecessary self-doubt. Those fifteen years were spent trying to improve my self-esteem and indirectly get myself into a state where I could publish my book. Had I continued writing despite my self-doubt, I truly believe that my self-esteem would have improved much more quickly. Instead I looked to others to give me tips which were for the most part I’ve decided, a load of rubbish. Why?
Because the majority of what I read was written by doctors or experts, who are almost by definition, driven by achievement themselves. Thus many of the authors fit into one of the following three categories:
- They have great self-esteem and most likely haven’t known what it’s like to have rock bottom self-esteem,
- They are trying to achieve in order to impress someone else and really have little idea of whether they have good self esteem or what works,
- They are busy associating their self-worth with their professional identity or external achievements – the very definition of low self esteem.
My vile side wonders what shape their self-esteem would be in, had they undergone similar and extensive trauma. Often they do not know themselves well enough to know what components have gone into creating their self-esteem, they can only hazard a guess. Let me give you an example of one article I read.
It told me in order to improve my self esteem, I should ‘take care of myself’ – a method which simply doesn’t work for someone who has low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem find it very difficult to take care of themselves because they do not believe that they are worth it. Taking good care of yourself as an indicator of self-esteem is misleading, because it could be either act of someone who already has good self esteem (not someone who is trying to build it)… or worse, is the act of someone desperately trying to live up to society beauty and wellness ideals.
Of course someone with good self esteem does take care of themselves but that in itself doesn’t help build good self esteem.
The articles I’ve come across are not written by people like me who are ex-alcoholics… or those who have slept their way through/been abused by men down to utter self-disgust… or those who have been unemployable, poor and downtrodden. Some of the advice out there on self-esteem does help though. Note the success of Eckhart Tolle who has himself been poor and homeless which is why he gives great life advice and also knows how to build it when you are at your very lowest (if you haven’t already read his stuff, do go ahead and buy it).
And yet, I don’t want to give the impression that self-esteem is a destination. It is a ongoing process. I am always on the process, sometimes up, sometimes down, and my own personal definition of self-esteem is as follows:
SELF-ESTEEM IS A SENSE OF SELF WORTH WHICH GIVES US COURAGE IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD TO LIVE IN A WAY WHICH MAKES US HAPPY, EVEN IF THIS IS AT ODDS WITH HOW OTHERS JUDGE US.
The problem is that when writing a book, nobody else but us is judging our work! Or are they? As I mentioned, the voices which are telling us that our book and our story is not good enough, have been internalised from the outside world. They have been learned and therefore they can be unlearned. But this is not as simple as those doctors would have you believe! For me the biggest way I unlearned them (and continue to unlearn them) was to continue writing even when I feared my book wasn’t good enough. How does that work then?
The Pillars of Self Esteem (and how writing supports them)
In his book The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, Nathaniel Branden outlines his view of what is needed to support healthy self-esteem. I strongly advise getting yourself a copy, my own is dog-eared on almost every page because there is some insight or gem. The six pillars he suggests are as follows:
- The practice of living consciously
- The practice of self-acceptance
- The practice of self responsibility
- The practice of self-assertiveness
- The practice of living purposefully
- The practice of personal integrity
Each one of these pillars, according to his theory then feed off one other in either a virtuous or vicious cycle. The less you live consciously, the less you’ll be able to accept yourself etc. But I’ve found that all of them can be supported by writing memoir. Let’s examine them in turn (all italics are quotes from this book):
Denial is a mechanism which is necessary for survival. Bringing awareness to your own story can only start when you have a clear mind, a mind which lives without fear so that it can function properly. For most of us living with trauma that’s a really hard task. Yet that all important third eye which is automatically conferred when you write your story out in black and white is the key to self-awareness… and we all know that it is easier to give advice to others than to follow it ourselves. We have emotional distance from others which allows us to see situations from a more objective viewpoint. Whilst reading your own story is not quite the same as seeing others’ stories objectively, its a great deal more objective than if the stories remain swimming and convoluted in our heads.
Fear and pain should be treated as signals not to close our eyes but to open them wider.
..says the book. Well that’s very easy to say, but when you are triggered by your own trauma, you are likely to run screaming in the opposite direction or simply shut down. Getting it out on paper, distancing yourself, allowing yourself to notice repeating patterns in a safer environment (no-one is going to read what you write unless you ask them to) is a really good way to start analysing your life and your past. To stop being afraid of it. Get it out of your head and into the light.
Self-destruction is an act best performed in the dark.
Ah it’s a big one (like that ‘loving yourself’ business) which leads me to a confession. There is a whole part of me who despises the twenty-something girl I have written about in Some Never Awaken. She’s a self-destructive victim (which now I can say as a simple fact without judgement). But that part of me which despises her co-exists now with the love and compassion I feel for her. For a long while I denied my younger self her existence, suppressed her vileness and the stigma of abuse I had learned, I tried to erase her existence. I did it pretty successfully too–I moved country, got married and worked a respectable 9-5 job. But she came back raging and kept destroying everything I tried to build, usually through alcoholic binges and infidelity. That continued until I accepted that she was a legitimate part of me who needed to be loved for all that she was. Until I accepted that I am human with a dark side and have caused myself and others pain through my behaviour.
Self acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself.
Writing memoir means you will necessarily be exploring dark stuff, not only in others but in yourself. Pain begets pain–either that you have inflicted on others or that you have inflicted on yourself. The body simply cannot hold that much pain and not let it out in some way or another. It must go somewhere. Writing about it will be hard, re-reading it will be harder. But forgiveness and acceptance cannot happen without looking at your past self (and present self) square in the face.
I cannot forgive myself for an action I will not acknowledge having taken.
For those of us who have experienced trauma (and even others who haven’t), responsibility and fault are much confused concepts.
Fault and responsibility mean opposite things, even though they seem often to be used as synonyms. Fault implies that you are the cause of a situation, that you have control over other peoples’ feelings and behaviour… it is therefore at odds with the concept of responsibility, which is about owning your–and only your–choice of actions in a given situation (where there might not be many choices available–another kettle of fish altogether) and feelings in response to a situation.
The trauma is not our fault. Of course not. But from a certain perspective, I believe that if we are to heal, we must take responsibility for our reactions to the trauma even though they were and are, for the most part, entirely subconscious. Even worse they have been programmed and reinforced again and again until like water that etches itself into rock, the reaction is barely perceptable, unstoppable and automatic. Triggers in particular are almost impossible to control. How then can we take responsibility for them?
Before you can change your programmed reactions–if indeed you ever can–you have to figure out what reactions you have and since they are subconscious, well they’re pretty much unknown and therefore impossible to identify. That is, until you start noticing patterns… ah! Writing is one way to empower yourself, to bring consciousness (see point one) to your reactions at which point, you may better be able to choose to try and retrain yourself to act differently. Like everything else, it’s a process and one that writing supports. Some I’ve achieved. Others not so much.
Taking responsibility for my happiness is empowering. It places my life back in my hands.
Just a further note here. Like many who have experienced trauma, I also experience bouts of depression and anxiety. I refuse to let the fact that I am responsible for my happiness, translate into the belief that it is my fault I am depressed. It is not my fault or yours, and sometimes I am beaten back by it all. But only I can get through it, even if my responsibility also means that I have to ask for help from my support system, change meds or attend therapy. When the going gets tough… I write.
Asserting yourself is not belligerance, it’s not mindless rebelliousness, it’s not treading over other’s boundaries. It’s the simple (yet not at all easy) belief that you have the right to exist. That your story has the right to be told. That your voice has the right to be heard. Writing your memoir is a assertion to yourself and to the world that your voice is valid and that you have the right to exist. Publishing it, eventually, even more so.
Self-assertiveness entails bringing ourselves into the world.To aspire is not yet self-assertion, or just barely; but to bring our aspirations into reality is.
Life for me is not a journey, in that I am not trying to get anywhere (anymore). I have found that when I do try to get somewhere I am never satisfied with where I am. This is a recurring problem. Often I forget, and think that after my next book is published, I will be happier. I will be able to call myself a real author. Or once I earn a living out of writing I will have achieved my goal and I will be happier. When the kids are older and need me less, I will be happier. I fall into the trap of living reactively, waiting for the chance of success (a fickle mistress) waiting for an future possibility (which I will surely recognise even though I never have), and succumbing to life’s (mis)fortune.
Living with purpose means trying not to live at the mercy of chance or future possibilities. Living with purpose is trying to be proactive, even when my options seem scarce. As I write this, I am in one of the worst bouts of anxiety I have ever experienced. Five weeks ago–just one week after I found out I was accidentally pregnant–we moved to Germany where I am to take up a masters (the future of which is now in jeopardy due to the pregnancy), and the landing in our new country has not been soft. I have felt alone and in chaos most of the time. Writing this series, is helping me enormously. It is doing what I can instead of focusing on what I can’t do (especially what I can’t do in German, since I don’t yet speak German). What I can do and do well, is to write therapeutic memoir, and I can encourage and support others to do it too.
To live purposefully is, among other things, to live productively, which is a necessity of making ourselves competent to life. Productivity is the act of supporting our existence by translating our thoughts into reality.
If anyone tells you that writing your memoir is a waste of time, I can assure you without a shadow of a doubt that it is not. You can get lost in it, of course. It can become addictive but hey, writing is better than drugs and a lot of other things. Writing memoir has been and continues to be the single most transformative experience of my life (okay, having kids is also up there tied for first place). I read my stuff sometimes and think, what a load of crap. What I do then is colour to it in red which means, ‘I’ll come back to this later’ and keep going. And I encourage you to keep going too even when, especially when, you wholeheartedly believe that your memoir is not good enough. By continuing to write you are standing up for yourself against your demons.
Writing is the source, it is my source, maybe it’s yours too.
Sample Story: Trying to be myself
For years I was a compulsive liar. Protecting myself from critical judgement, embarrassment and the rejection I suffered so often during my childhood. Avoiding punishment, delaying the inevitable conflict and creating a story that made myself more acceptable in my parents’ eyes–and my own. At least that’s how it started. But once you become accustomed to lying you start to realise its power. Your power. It may not be conscious, but it is intentional. I started framing my achievements in a light that downplayed any failure and eventually creating stories about drama in order to get the attention I so desperately needed to survive. I mistook it for love. But of course it wasn’t.
People lie for very few reasons. It starts with low self-esteem, which leads to desire for admiration and popularity; eventually turning towards control and manipulation. And lies become a cage (or if you’re feeling fanciful, yes, the matrix).
But it means that not only is any attention you get, a result of manipulation and therefore invalid, it isn’t even for you, the real you, whoever that is. Having to be a liar during your youth as a matter of survival, prevents the development of your Self. Instead it forges an identity which a mishmash of expectations (others’) and aspirations (your own). A false self, which lives inside a creation of pure fiction.
In a liar’s life, there comes a turning point. My own was the events that occurred when I discovered my biological father. A pitiful, despicable man, a sexual predator who manipulated the world and the women around him with lying and deception. He was, what I was in danger of becoming. But how to change the path? I was already 21. Formed without substance. Alive but dead. The product of excruciatingly low self-esteem and a passive communication culture where no one says what they really mean.
Over the course of years, now almost two decades and as long as it took to create the liar, I have separated myself from the people with whom I couldn’t be myself. Those who remain with whom I cannot be myself are beyond my intimate circle and I am rarely in contact with them. Some of those are old friends who reject my approach of radical honesty. Some are even family. It’s been hard and painful work for me and for others. The person they knew has changed. Abandoned them, and not always with compassion, to say the least. Like a baby being exposed to searing sunshine, it has burnt badly, before it has healed. It has also been the most important work of my life. For my sake. And for the sake of my children.
I tell the truth consciously, purposely; I avoid deception at (almost) any cost; I constantly re-examine my motives exposing them ruthlessly to the public eye. I am highly aware of my integrity when interacting with people who lie, by omission or otherwise. I know that if I am not explicitly honest, there is a possibility that I am being dishonest (usually for the same reasons I used to lie). If I enable a lie, it will take away a piece of me. Sometimes I think I am driven by sensationalism – a hangover of my desire for attention. That’s a part of it (and that’s the truth). But my experimentation with life, my experience, is my own way of determining what makes me happy outside of what society tells me makes me happy, and what makes me, me.
The key to who I am, lies in the intersection of my willingness to experience life and my ability to truthfully express myself about my experience.
In order to forge my identity and shine my light, I must experience life. Unceasingly. Uncompromisingly. It is my responsibility, and as yet I see no other way. Like a wax rubbing, you can only see what is underneath the crispy paper of lies, who you are, by the friction you cause rubbing yourself into life. Once experienced it must be expressed, to enable analysis, vulnerability and introspection. Because the truth of I am, unless expressed somewhere, to someone, remains hidden even to me. And without it, I risk living a lie, just by omission.
Further References to support self-esteem work
- The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem – Nathaniel Branden
- Winning Through Enlightenment – Ron Smothermon
- The Drama of being a Child – Alice Miller
This is the third post in the ‘Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma’ series.