Memoir writing – diaries and autobiographies – can be a cathartic experience
Do you write a diary? Have you ever thought of writing your autobiography? Author Samantha Lierens realises how important memoir writing is and what a cathartic experience it can be: a ‘writing cure’ Sam calls it! ‘Getting your skeletons out of the closet and dancing with them!’ can help many people cope with the emotional see-saws of life.
In the huge outpouring of grief for Princess Diana, I remember remarking on the incredible number of poems that were left outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. People who never ordinarily would have dreamt of calling themselves ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ had turned to paper to express how they were feeling. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: grief and writing have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s in poetry, song, fiction or autobiography, there does seem a fundamental, primitive urge to ‘get things down’ at those dramatic moments: those times of birth, falling in love and death.
Over the last thirty years, there has been a growing understanding of the power of the ‘talking cure’. Yet there are many times when spoken words don’t seem to be enough. A ‘writing cure’ can be equally important. When my mother died twelve years ago, I literally wrote my way through it. Although not a diarist until then, I began to write daily about the struggle of arrangements and phone calls and trips to charity shops. Although I mostly outlined practical things, there are clear glimpses of the emotional turmoil just beneath. Three years later when I became pregnant unexpectedly I turned to writing again. And when the baby was born, I made notes on everything from my first trip to the shops with him to the first time out without him. This was very different to the writing in ‘Baby’s first year book’, which recounted his triumphant firsts. These pages were full of my self-doubt and fears. Sometimes I look over these notes and I see themes running through them, the themes that have run through my life. I see recurring colours and words. I see what was important to me then and now. It makes me understand myself better even if some parts are still too painful to read. These notes are clearly not for general publication: they are too bruised, too jumbled, too brutal for that. But they are for my reading and re-reading. The extent of my emotion frightens me, but they make me proud that I got through. They are not quite autobiography, but fragments, chapters. They are my life-histories. One day, I hope I will share them with my loved ones.
After my Mum died, I realised how little I knew her. I would like to make sure that I leave something for my family that will help them understand who I was. Some people are interested in family-histories/genealogy; I want to know the interior histories of people: not the dates and places but the feelings and aspirations.
In 2002, I took an MA in life-writing. Since then, teaching the subject, I have met, many, many people, who want to get going on their autobiography. Some had a drawer stuffed with jottings, others had never got them out of their head. Among many was the need to ‘set the record straight’. “Ok”, one said, “I might be a lady-who-lunches now, but I want my children to know that there was a time I couldn’t afford to pay the electric.” The very confident business man wanted to explain that there once was a time when he had feared for his sanity. He wanted to be as honest as he could. Others wanted to make sense of something that had happened to them or something they had been involved in: abandonment, war, emigration, crime.
Unfortunately, writing about yourself is not as easy as you would think! Below are some of the reasons people give up on writing their life-histories with some responses:
I’m nervous what will other people think.
Firstly, what other people think should come much later – and it might never come to that either. For now, just get it down. Don’t self edit. Try to be entirely honest with yourself. This is between you and the page. If you hated your Grandmother, write it down. What’s the worst that can happen? When or if you get to the point of showing people, then you might want to change things a little, yet, I think it is a better idea to trust those around you. Most of us are less judgemental than you might think. If you don’t want your teenage daughter to know that you led quite a wild life before her, then you don’t have to tell her, but don’t be surprised if she can cope with the news and it might bring you closer together.
Get your skeletons out of the cupboard and dance with them. They are what make us human after all. Weaknesses are universal.
Where shall I begin?
You weren’t there at your beginning as such but there are bound to be anecdotes about your birth and, if there aren’t – well, that’s a story in itself I imagine. Of course, your life-history doesn’t have to be chronological. How about an alphabet of your childhood?
A is for Auntie Pauline with a blue rinse.
B is for British Bulldog, the playground game.
Or you could start with a first, any first. A first job, first love, first house. One woman told me about what her first washer-drier meant to her. No more snakes of damp clothes and steam across the kitchen. Tears came to her eyes. How about the first time in the snow and losing your mittens? Your first journey. Or why not a last? How about a piece on a favourite pair of shoes, a favourite childhood food, even your name? Here is mine: I was named after my late Grandfather, Sam, although my parents said they also liked the girl from Bewitched – the witch. I looked nothing like her. There were three Samanthas in my class so I became ‘Little Sam’. I hated sharing a name with Samantha Fox. I wanted to be Laura like Laura Ingeles. Even today, when people ask me which I prefer, Sam or Samantha, I don’t know. Ok, so it’s not David Copperfield but it’s got me started.
Nothing really interesting has ever happened to me.
What? You’ve had no family, no friends, no love, no loss? Your story, written with honesty and insight, would interest most people more than a celebrity autobiography written at the tender age of 19. OK, so you may not have scaled Mount Everest, but I’m sure there have been times when you had goals, fears, when you triumphed over adversity or did the unexpected. Why not write about those?
I don’t have the time – or the confidence – to do it It can be hard to start writing especially if the last time you wrote a story was at school. I would suggest having a good read first and, while reading, make a note to yourself on the books you particularly enjoyed and why. There are plenty of celebrity autobiographies on the market nowadays, some of which are really well written, but among ‘normal people’s stories’ I would suggest: Blake Morrison’s – “And when did you last see your father?”; “Once, in a house on fire,” by Angela Ashworth or “Bad Blood,” Lorna Sage. All three are remarkably honest and interesting accounts of aspects of their ‘ordinary’ lives and may help give you the incentive to do the same.
Whatever you do, if the itch to write your life history is there: don’t leave it unscratched. It may seem like self-indulgent scribbling at the time but creating your life-history will bring you a lot of understanding – and may well be a fantastic legacy for friends and family too….
If you need help finding the words, contact TellTaleBooks. We can interview you and write up your story for you. Then when you are happy with the result, we design it with your photos and print it for you as a beautifully bound personal book (or books) to share with your family and friends.