Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

It takes a special kind of person to lean in to other people’s stories and help them untangle the knotted threads at their centers. It takes a special kind of person to lean in to her own story and give it voice with the hope that others in similar circumstances might feel less alone. Author and teacher Lisa Cooper Ellison is, without a doubt, that special kind of person.

Lisa and I first connected over our shared goal of exploring the psychological journeys memoir writers inevitably face when they endeavor to commit words to the page to make meaning of their painful experiences. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving end of Lisa’s generosity of spirit and boundless compassion on more than one occasion and have witnessed firsthand her gentle yet persistent guidance as a writing companion and friend. Her work as a writing coach and editor has enabled her to build a meaningful network comprised of writers at all levels who understand the value of creative support. As a former mental health counselor, Lisa knows the kind of work that’s necessary to peel back the layers of trauma and find healing. As a trauma survivor and memoirist, Lisa has the added credibility of having done that work herself. She’s in the process of completing a memoir called, Lucky Me that confronts the lasting grief of her brother’s mental health crisis and death by suicide. She’s published essays on the same themes in The Guardian, Kenyon Review Online and other publications, she’s written multiple pieces on the craft of writing, and she’s compiled her insights about trauma writing into her forthcoming book, How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night.  I recently asked Lisa to tell us more about her writing and her work with other writers, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about this inspiring author.

*Please note that registration for Story Matters: Forgive Your Characters, Empower Yourself has closed. If you’d like your name to be added to the waiting list for the winter 2020 session of this class, please send an email to lisa@lisacooperellison.com.

 

Melanie Brooks: Your current writing project, Lucky Me, explores the intersections of your time in Europe traveling with a heavy metal band and surviving the trauma of your brother’s death by suicide. I know the path to unpacking these experiences has not always been a smooth or linear one. What has propelled you to this place where you are now able to give narrative shape to this story? 

Lisa Cooper Ellison: Writing is a trade with a long apprenticeship. Memoirists need to learn not just how to write but how to mine painful experiences for deeper truths. I’ve always known I would write about this period of my life, but it’s taken a long time to unpack the story. Suicide loss is incredibly complex. For the first three years after my brother’s death, no words felt adequate to express what had happened or how much it hurt. I needed time to feel my feelings, work through my trauma, and free myself of the guilt that had knotted itself into my core. 

Years of writing journal entries, speeches, and essays about my brother’s death helped me develop the insights needed to tackle this weighty project. In the beginning, all I could’ve written was that my brother died, my heart broke, and I joined my husband’s heavy metal tour. While that’s what actually happened, it doesn’t tell you what these events meant to me or why a reader should care. In the prologue for Lucky Me, I write that my brother’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me and the one thing that saved my life. That’s a much richer version of the truth—one I couldn’t access from a place of deep grief.

MB: As a writing coach, you teach classes and workshops on a regular basis, you write a monthly advice column for Moving Forewords called Heart Speak, and you are finishing the manuscript of an ebook that shares your wisdom and insights on self-care when writing about trauma.  How has providing support and empowerment for other writers become such a central calling in your life?  

LCE: I’ve worked in the helping professions for almost twenty years—first as a special education teacher then as a mental health counselor and now as a writing instructor and coach. Serving others helps me see the greater purpose in what I do. When I face rejections or I feel overwhelmed by a project, the dedication of my clients and students inspires me to persevere. When their stories lead to life-changing insights or they claim their voices and embrace their roles as writers, I am reminded that stories matter. Through writing and revising our stories, we simultaneously make people feel less alone and craft better versions of who we are. 

MB: Before diving full-time into freelance writing, teaching, and editing, you worked as a mental health counselor. In what ways has this background informed your work with other writers and how has it influenced your approaches to your own writing, particularly when writing about your own trauma?

LCE: The purpose of counseling is to explore and revise the story of the self. Counselors listen closely, identify pivotal moments, and point out underlying patterns. They encourage clients to mine their experiences for greater truths, think more compassionately about the “characters” in their lives, and revise unhelpful messages about ourselves. 

While writing instructors must amass a body of knowledge around the craft of writing, they also need to understand people and their stories. My training as a counselor has prepared me for working not just with stories, but specifically with memoirists. 

This work taught me about trauma, leaning into resilience, building safe spaces, and the need for gentleness when working with difficult stories. Catharsis is never enough. To heal, you must make new meaning from your experiences—a process that deconstructs you before it rebuilds you. Deconstruction can be very destabilizing. It requires you to feel the feelings you’ve suppressed and question the stories you’ve always told yourself. To do this safely, a person must know how to regulate their emotions, take breaks, self-soothe, and tap into their resilience. Often these skills need to be explicitly taught.

All the skills needed for trauma therapy are also needed for the memoir drafting process. To write a great scene-driven story, we must relive aspects of what has happened. In the past, I’ve mistakenly believed that writing straight through the most painful parts of my book would lead to relief. This approach left me feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and at times depressed. To finish my book, I had to find a new way of approaching this work. That new way is what I teach my students and clients. It’s also what I write about in my forthcoming book How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night. 

MB: In a recent blog for Brevity called “Falling Forward: Why Every Draft Counts,” you write, “Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one.” When rejection and perceived failure evoke feelings of discouragement, doubt, and despair, how do you convince yourself and other writers to find the value in that leg of the journey?

LCE: Rejection sucks. There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart into a project only to be told no. When it happens repeatedly, it’s easy to lose faith in a project or see rejection as a personal failure. In reality, most rejections have very little to do with us. Sure, there’s a bar writing must meet for acceptance in high-quality publications, and sometimes our writing hasn’t yet met that bar or we haven’t yet told the best or truest version of our stories, but many rejections are related to subjective tastes, best fit, and the fact that there are more talented writers than spaces for them to publish. All of this is outside our control. 

To value the journey, I encourage every writer to complete three activities. On day one, I ask my students and clients to set an intention for their work—one that has nothing to do with publication. I ask them to think about how they would like to grow as a result of telling their stories. What beliefs, behaviors, or thoughts would they like to change? What would they like to reconnect with inside themselves? Once an intention has been set, I encourage writers to display it in their writing spaces. When projects get tough or setbacks occur, I invite them to revisit their intentions. 

The very best intentions are highly personal, actionable, and under our control. When we see work toward the intention as the benchmark for success, publication becomes an added bonus.  Intentions for my projects generally revolve around forgiveness or the release of beliefs that no longer serve me. 

Next, I ask writers to identify the people in their writing family and when the going gets tough to ask for support. I’m so glad you are on my list! 

Finally, we write affirmations for the work—something I can’t live without. I started my essay “Half-Life” in 2015 in anticipation of the twenty-year anniversary of my brother’s death. Over a three-year period, this essay was rejected twenty-five times. After each rejection, I had a brief pity party, said “Beloved essay, I believe in you and the work you can do in the world,” then I revised and resubmitted my work. I had to say this affirmation many times before “Half-Life” found a home at Kenyon Review Online. 

MB: When you envision your memoir in the hands of its future readers, what is your hope for what it might offer them? 

LCE: Here are my three wishes for this book. One: may it help survivors of suicide loss feel less alone and educate the public about what families go through when someone experiences a public mental health crisis. Two: may it reveal the consequences of isolation and trauma and how one small act of kindness can make all the difference. Three: may it inspire people to examine the stories they’ve inherited or the ones they’ve always told themselves about who they really are.  

MB: Thank you so much for taking the time to share these incredibly helpful insights with us, Lisa! I wish you so much success as you finish your book, and I know your future readers, myself included, will be deeply grateful for the gift of your story.

 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #6: When You’re a Writer Who’s Also Being Written About

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #6: When You’re a Writer Who’s Also Being Written About

Dear Lisa,

I am writing a memoir about growing up feeling unloved and unwanted by my mother. My oldest son is a writer too. Originally, his MFA thesis was a fictional piece about a group of churches we encountered. Recently, he changed genres and presented his work as a memoir of “his bad childhood.” Three agents want it. 

I know my husband and I did our very best. As I write my book, I am thinking about my own mother and how she will feel.

My son doesn’t want me to read his book, though he intends to verify things with me as he gets his proposal ready. As a writer, I am excited for him and I wish him every success. But now I find myself in the middle and not sure how to process this. I wonder if he’s exaggerating or being influenced in what he remembers. Then I wonder about my own memory and the recollections I have about my own childhood. As a writer who’s also being written about, how do I process this in a healthy way? 

Sincerely,

Never saw this coming…

…..

Dear Never Saw This Coming, 

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they shouldve behaved better.” How easy it is to be cavalier with this statement when we hold the pen. Yet, when others hold the pen, we shudder. 

You cannot control what your son writes. Nor should you. The process of writing a memoir is the process of voicing our subjective truths. We do this to integrate the experiences that don’t make sense to us. In the process of writing and revising, we discover our wholeness. To apply your version of the truth to his story would stifle his growth. I can see from your letter that you already know this. 

But how do you hold onto your own truth as a writer? And how do you find ways to be okay no matter what he writes? Those are the real questions I need to answer. 

Nigerian Novelist Chinua Achebe says, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”  

My first bit of advice: stick close to your own story. Ask yourself how you wish to be treated during the writing process. What space do you crave? What freedoms do you need? What messages would you like to receive from the characters in your book? The more you honor your autonomy, the more you will be able to give this to your son. You will see that a truthful examination of your life changes you for the better. And, while you may not like everything your son writes, you might find that the peace you both feel at the end of this process is worth it.  

The phrases “bad childhood” and “being influenced in what he remembers” stood out to me when I read your letter. These phrases suggest this process scares you. 

In her blog post “Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story,” Laura Cathcart Robbins shares the fears she had about publishing one of her articles. She writes “When I got divorced ten years ago, I made up my mind to stop making decisions based on fear. Usually fear of losing something that I had or fear of not getting something that I wanted. If I remove the fear from this decision, then what is my answer?” While her context differs, this question also applies to you. If you removed the fear from this situation, how would you respond? How would you treat your son? How would you treat yourself? 

To rid yourself of fear, find your center. Write affirmations about your strengths. Remind yourself that you did your best. If you owe your son amends for past wrongs, make them when the time is right. Just be sure that you do so from a place of sincerity and not as a way to manipulate your son’s impression of you. Spend lots of time in the present moment and express gratitude for all that is going well. Work to better understand yourself and your characters. Tell the best damn story you can. 

Think of the hard work you’re doing to both own your story and understand its complexities. It’s likely your son is working just as hard. While it’s not always easy to hear, the truth heals us. Hold space for the possibility that his story is not as bad as you think. In fact, seeing each other’s truths could be the very best thing that happens to your family. 

But don’t give away your power. 

It is perfectly fine to set boundaries with your son as he goes on this journey. Make a list of things that scare you about this process. Talk back to those fears then decide the best course of action. Maybe you’re worried about your reputation or that your son will tarnish your memories of his childhood. Maybe you fear he will reveal that secret you don’t want to relive. While you cannot control what your son writes, you have control of yourself. You can request that he change your name and identifying features. You can choose the level of participation you have in this process. You can decide not to read his book. 

While it’s always helpful to verify key details, if you know this might lead to controlling behaviors, step away. There are two ways to gauge your tolerance for this work. First, ask yourself how much contact you would like to have with your own mother during the drafting process. Second, consider whether others have accused you of being controlling or stepping over the line. Do you see this as a tendency? Accept your nature and pull back as much as you need to in order to feel good about this process and your relationship with your son. 

Keep in mind that while you might have felt alone during childhood, you do not have to navigate this alone. Consider whether a therapist or groups like Al-anon and Codependent Anonymous could offer support. Whatever you do, find ways to keep the focus on yourself and not on what your son is doing. The very best way to do this is to keep writing your book.

Stay true to your story and let him have his. I wish you both the best as you work to finish your books. 

Warmly,

Lisa Ellison 

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story?

Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story?

“I have no doubt in my soul that you will write a story that bares your soul. The story that broke your heart and mended it. Your words have the power to heal and to make readers heard. The story you choose to write will be one that only you can write, that can only be told there. You know what that story is.”

These are the words of one of my beloved writing teachers, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez. We were emailing back and forth regarding an essay I was writing in her class.

This essay exposed my soul.

I had dug deep to tell the story of what it was like to find out that my ex-husband and my friend were having a baby. I tried to connect with how I felt in my body, what sounds I’d heard in the background, and I tried to remember what I was wearing and where I was when I’d first heard the news.

But to tell this particular story, I also needed to tell their story – my ex-husbands and his now wife – and this, I knew, was risky. So risky in fact that the editor at The Huffington Post who later published this piece, wrote me a personal note before it went live, asking if I had thought about what was about to happen.

“I just wanted to double-check with you that you’re 100 percent comfortable with this running on such a huge platform and that the other people involved will be OK with it as well? Because once the piece is live, I can’t do anything about it if somebody freaks out and wants the story taken down.”

I’d typed back, “Yes, I’m sure.” before I could think about it, but I stared at the email for a long time without hitting send.

Was I ready for the comments, the” internet trolls” that would dissect my essay and condemn me (and my writing)? Was I prepared for people who would now think less of me because I had exposed this undesirable part of myself? Was I “one hundred percent” ready for the impact that this published essay might have on my relationship with my ex and his wife?

I felt like I was probably ready to expose my soul.  But what about theirs? Did I have the right to tell their story too? 

So, I clicked off the email and picked up my phone. I called one writer-friend after another, and each one of them gave me the same response (with slight semantic variations):

“You can’t tell a powerful story if you’re afraid of hurting people. Your first obligation is, to tell the truth.”

Another friend sited the great Anne Lamott, as quoted from her writer’s bible, “Bird by Bird”:

“You own everything that happened to you,” she says. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Later that day, I put my computer to sleep–still without hitting send on that email. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it. I had written the story that broke my heart and mended it, and now I needed to share it with the world. But in doing so, I was going to have to share something personal about other people. And if I’m honest, the respect, feelings, and opinions of these two people matter greatly to me. It was more than just a matter of “I don’t want any drama,” it was also a matter of “I worked very hard to get to the point where we all like each other and I don’t want to lose our status quo.”

Not publishing this piece would ensure that I kept my “drama-free” status with them.

Releasing it, on the other hand, would more than likely put my standing with the two of them in jeopardy. So how important was it for me to tell this particular story?

The answer came to me as I woke from a very fitful night of sleep.

When I got divorced ten years ago, I made up my mind to stop making decisions based on fear. Usually fear of losing something that I had or fear of not getting something that I wanted.  If I remove the fear from this decision, then what is my answer?

After my morning meditation and my ritual cup of decaf, I woke up my computer to find an email from the HuffPost editor, the cursor blinking beside her words. 

“So, what did you decide?”

I bit my lower lip as my finger hovered above the keyboard, closed my eyes and did the thing that I would want any self-respecting writer to do. I hit “send.”

Laura Cathcart Robbins is a freelance writer, podcast host and storyteller, living in Studio City, California with her son, Justin and her boyfriend, Scott Slaughter. She has been active for many years as speaker and school trustee, attempting to promote equity and inclusion at independent schools, and is credited for creating The Buckley School’s nationally recognized committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Her recent articles in the Huffington Post on the subjects of race, recovery and divorce have garnered her world-wide acclaim. She is a 2018 LA Moth StorySlam winner and host of the popular podcast, The Only One In The Room, which is available on all podcast platforms. Laura also currently sits on the advisory board for the San Diego Writer’s Festival. You can find her on Facebook @lauracathcartrobbins, on Instagram @official_cathcartrobbins and follow her on Twitter @LauraCRobbins.

Meet Our Memoirists: Dana Mich

Meet Our Memoirists: Dana Mich

On the first night of HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in 2017, I sat in a darkened back corner of the lower level “Commons on Vine” space of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Marriott Convention Center and listened to a handful of attendees read short pieces of their work at the conference’s open mic. It was late and, exhausted after a day of travel and my own reading and conversation earlier that evening as part of the Debut Author Panel, I was about to quietly sneak away and head up to my room when a petite young woman with an obvious baby bump stepped up onto the makeshift stage and began introducing the context of the piece she was about to share. There was something in her earnest description of revisiting her Jewish heritage through her grandfather’s experience during the Holocaust in the wake of her father’s death by suicide less than two years earlier that kept me rooted to my seat. Her essay was poignant, and, as she read, I recognized intersections in our stories of losing beloved fathers, and I felt a stirring of kinship.

 

This was my first introduction to author and founder of Moving Forewords, Dana Mich. Two years later, I am grateful to call her a friend. Since that night, I’ve gotten to know Dana and learned so much more about her story and her work, and I’ve been inspired by her sincerity and passion. I’ve shared in conversations with her about the challenges and rewards of bringing painful experiences to the page and shaping them into something meaningful for others, about the ongoing inadequacies we all feel when we embark on this writing journey, about the ups and downs of life and motherhood. I’ve celebrated her writing successes, including the publication of her powerful essay, “The Erosion of Stone,” in Tin House Magazine following the deadly 2017 rally in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. And, I’ve embraced her vision to create a space of support for other memoirists and been privileged to join with a group of talented writers to play a role in helping her bring that vision to life in the shape of Moving Forewords. I recently asked Dana to share more about her plans for this collective and her current writing project, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about our gifted leader.

 

 

 

Melanie Brooks: You are the founder of Moving Forewords and the linchpin that connects the writers in this group. What prompted you to establish this community of memoirists and what is your ongoing vision for the collective?

Dana Mich: When I began writing my memoir, I immediately fell in love with the genre. Using words to shed light on my largely unspoken personal experience, immersing myself in the curative wellspring that is storytelling, witnessing the transformative power language had on my identity, connecting with readers who I lifted up in some way with my voice—these are the experiences that writing true, first-person accounts offers, and I’m lucky to have experienced a bit of them all. But as rewarding as this art form can be, the work that goes into it is even more challenging. We memoirists are in the business of breaking silences, of offering private experiences up to public scrutiny and disowning deep-seated shame. And so added to my infatuation with the genre is my admiration for those who dare to write it. I see memoirists’—particularly women memoirists’—strength and persistence as infectious, and so my vision for the collective has been to build a tight-knit community of authors who share in this same calling, who are there for one another when the going gets tough (trolls, inner-demons, and gatekeepers, oh my) and who are audacious enough to be a light for others by sharing their experiences—both in life and in the writing about that life.

 

MB: Your educational background is in Human Biology and Public Policy and you began your career in the nonprofit sector, so your road to writer-hood has not been what some might label “the traditional path.” When did you first recognize that writing was what you wanted to devote your time and energy to?

DM: Central to the “hero’s journey” is the notion that at the climax of a story, something must die for the protagonist in order for something new to be born. Surviving my dad’s suicide was that experience for me. It’s what first brought me to the page, and what first taught me that art can heal. When I say that I became enamored with memoir writing—I mean it in an etymological sense: Amor. Heart. Love. I needed the fist of muscle in my chest to start beating again. Therein lies my passion for the craft.

And you’re right: My journey to writing certainly isn’t traditional. But I’m beginning to realize that I cleaved less from my educational path than my educational path cleaved from my true purpose. My maternal grandfather (in his spare time) was a poet and memoirist who tape-recorded stories for me and my sister to listen to every day at lunchtime. My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher who took it upon herself to teach me—before my memory even fully formed—how to read in both English and in Hebrew. My mom was a linguistics major whose 30+ year career was built on language—its elements, its symbols, and its utilization by people and countries in conflict. 

As for me: just before my thirteenth birthday, I was—as they say—”called to the Torah.” (That really Big Important Book.) I took a silver yad in my hand and touched it to the black, vowelless lettering on the scrolls, and chanted the portion that had been allotted to me. (If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the symbol of a wand, or the notion that in using it, our words are imbued with a divine power… well, there you have it.) The truth is, I’ve always been immersed in language and story, and I’m fortunate to know now why I’m so spellbound by it. 

 

MB: Last year, you wrote a powerful piece for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog called “The Proverbial Apple: Imposter Syndrome” in which you lay bare and then challenge your insecurities [which are, in fact, all of our insecurities] about your place in the writing world. What would you say to other writers who fear that their nontraditional paths to the writing life might make them less legitimate?

 DM: The greatest lie we’ve ever told ourselves, in this age of hyper-education, of specialization, of obsession with study, is that we need to earn the right to do the thing that lives in our bones. Look to hieroglyphics and cave paintings and the age-old tradition of oral storytelling: language and lore are what make us human. These systems of sculpting narratives were devised long before any university was. We spend our whole lives building ourselves up in the name of erudition when what we’re all really trying to do is get back to the source. 

Being born is your birthright to storytelling. Don’t let anyone (most importantly, yourself) stand in the way of your own unique pursuit.

 

MB: I know you are hard at work on your own memoir, Uncaged: A Memoir of Sisterhood After Suicide Loss, which explores, among other things, the impact of your father’s death by suicide. What has the process been like for you as you’ve endeavored to give this trauma narrative shape? Have there been particular hurdles that you’ve encountered along the way?

DM: For starters, I’ve written and ditched an entire manuscript. The hurdle, there, was time. I needed some emotional distance from my dad’s death to really see the narrative for what it was and also understand what would resonate most deeply with readers. The first manuscript was for survival. The second, though there will be some overlap (same crisis and climax, different arc and plot and themes) will be a completely different exercise. And it will be for thriving.

As for the writing itself, I suffer terribly from perfectionism—the mind’s false insistence that there is one “right” approach when it comes to writing. That hurdle is more like a dam that holds back the creative waters, that doesn’t allow them to flow where they’re pulled to flow. I’m slowly teaching myself how to dismantle that terrible barricade, though, and to just let the first draft out. (…Did we mention the planned title is “Uncaged”?)

 

MB: A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with Moving Forewords’ own Lara Lillibridge and two other writers about some of the unique challenges that we face when we are writers and parents. You have a beautiful eighteen-month-old daughter, Audrey, who obviously keeps you very busy. How has becoming a parent changed your approach to your writing?

DM: Writing requires you to find beauty in the small, ordinary moments, and there is no truer parallel than with motherhood. A cute anecdote: I’ve never talked to Audrey about dreams—I have no idea how I would begin to explain the concept to her—but the other morning, when I asked if she had nice dreams, she answered with some certitude. So I asked what she dreamed about, and she said, “Choo choo.” She’s obsessed with trains these days, so I have to believe that on some level, she knew what I was referring to and answered earnestly. Was it the quiet wonder in my voice? The fact that she was still rubbing her eyes? I don’t know, but it was a pretty special moment, witnessing her pick up on subconscious cues, embracing something ephemeral, and intimating to me her experience. To write, you have to invite in this exact kind of curiosity. You have to make yourself as impressionable and hungry for life as a toddler. And yet, at the same time, you have got to learn patience. Before, I was in a hurry with my writing. Now I’m not. (Though it’s certainly frustrating when I need the time and can’t find it.) As for writing and motherhood, I’m in both for the long haul. They are my life, and I am committed to letting both unfold organically.

 

MB: In founding Moving Forewords, you have fully embraced the notion that in the midst of the hard work of bringing our stories to the page, writers need a community of support. How have you benefited personally from the support of this group and what can other memoirists gain from this space?      

DM: Earlier, you asked what I would say to other writers who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, and I said that being born is our birthright to storytelling. That’s indeed what I would say—to someone else. Meanwhile, I have no problem assuring myself that I will never succeed as a writer; that I’ll never get a book deal; that my efforts are and will always be futile—I am fully capable of going straight down that self-debasing rabbit hole. (What the hell?!) This is why community is so critical—especially for women writers, who I know are nodding their heads in unison: not just to give to others in the way that we so expertly do, but to hear ourselves offer the kindnesses we also deserve to receive. Over and over and over again until they sink in.

This is exactly what I’m gaining from the group. And the power of it is immense and immeasurable. 

 

MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of yourself with us, Dana! And thank you for opening this space of support where others can learn from your hard-earned insights and those of the other members of this collective and know that they have allies on the writing journey.

 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

Dear Lisa,

My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I began to realise how dysfunctional and destructive this behaviour was. 

After the death of my parents, I took a leap of faith and reconnected with a number of relatives I had never met. This shed light on an otherwise dark past and brought much happiness to my life.

It has also led to a conflict. I believe my experiences are not unique and hope telling my story will help others feel less alone. I want to write the truth, but I don’t want to hurt my fragile extended family. How do I write my memoir without hurting the people I love?

Sincerely,

Fragile Family

 

…..

Dear Fragile Family,

Your letter contains two questions: Should I write this memoir, and should I publish it? 

The answer to your first question is a resounding yes. As Joan Didion says, we write to understand ourselves. If this family pattern is still bothering you, it’s worth understanding. The writing process might shed additional light on your family situation and increase your compassion for them. Over time, the story you’ve always told might evolve. There’s only one way to find out: write it down. 

In her Tin House podcast “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” memoirist Ann Hood says we should write like an orphan, especially for the first few drafts. Don’t tell anyone outside your writing group about this project, and definitely don’t show it to anyone else. As you write like an orphan, consider what else you need to tread through this forbidden territory. What messages do you need to counter? What family rules do you need to break? Who can cheer you on and offer support? 

The answer to second question—should I publish—is largely personal. While I can’t answer this for you, I can share some exercises that might help you make the decision that’s right for you. 

Step one: Write your story without an eye toward publishing. Write until the story makes sense to you. Request feedback from critique partners. Write some more. Once you’ve figured out what your story is actually about and how to frame it move on to step two. 

Step Two: Revise Toward Compassion. All memoirs reconcile the unintegrated stories in our lives.  To truly reconcile, forgiveness is required. This doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior or reconnecting with bad actors. It does mean unearthing and examining the layers in your story and creating truer, more complex human characters. If done properly, readers will see that while you may not know the causes of someone’s behavior, you understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. While it might seem like this step is about other characters, forgiveness is an act of self-empowerment. 

Step Three: Evaluate the Pros and Cons of Publishing. Once your manuscript is ready, make a list of potential rewards and losses you might experience. Upon creating this list, some people decide not to publicly share their stories. For others, the mission behind their words is more important. What matters to you? 

Step Four: Circle the Wagons. Essayist Meghan Daum says that if you’re not willing to write something someone might hate; you’re not writing something someone can love. If your work is honest and open-hearted, it will not please everyone. Nor should it. In the event of fallout, surround yourself with loving support. 

But also know that some families hunger for their stories to be told. In Krystal Sital’s memoir Secrets We Kept, Krystal writes about the joy her grandmother expressed when asked about her experiences. Krystal writes, “no one has ever asked her before. This is the release she’s been yearning for.” 

Some books reauthor family narratives. 

In her memoir I Am Yours, Reema Zaman writes about the tumultuous relationship she had with her father and how he dismissed her early writings. As father and daughter come to understand one another, Reema’s father admits to fearing the ferocity of her fire and mourning the loss of the little girl who asked him questions. They choose to forge a new relationship that’s stronger than either could have imagined. 

But let’s be realistic. Not all stories have happy endings. When Lara Lillibridge was working on Girlish, she shared the galleys with her brother and sister but not her mothers, fearing they would pressure her to make changes.  Lillibridge says, “It pretty much decimated my relationship with them, though not necessarily in the way one might expect. I was as upset with my moms over their reaction to the book as they were with me for writing it. We didn’t speak for many months, but now we’re slowly rebuilding our relationship.” 

I am still writing my memoir, yet I’ve already experienced the complexities of publication. In 2015, I published an article in The Guardian about my brother Joe’s suicide. It led to an interview on NPR’s With Good Reason. While I told my father about the article and NPR interview, I foolishly and arrogantly didn’t tell Joe’s twin. Somehow, I believed he wouldn’t find out because we lived in separate towns. The story was syndicated. My brother heard it while driving through our hometown. He was furious, and rightly so. We haven’t spoken since. 

I would not go back and change one word of that article or interview, nor would I seek my brother’s input, but I would tell him about these publications and what I hoped to accomplish. 

Despite this sad turn of events, these publications healed my relationship with my father. I left home at seventeen during a tumultuous time in our family. The events are outlined in my book but suffice it to say a crisis occurred that led me to ask the school for a voluntary foster care placement. Throughout my childhood, my father had done his best to provide for us kids despite job losses, functional homelessness, and severe depression. When I left home, it broke his heart. We didn’t speak for several years, and while we eventually reunited, that period remained an unspoken tension between us. After listening to my NPR story, we talked about that terrible time. At the end of the conversation, he patted my leg and said, “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.” 

As you decide whether or not to publish, I hope you hold as much space for the potential good your book can accomplish as you do for any possible harm. But that’s all down the road. First, write. Write for yourself. Write to heal. Write to eradicate these old family patterns. I’m cheering you on. 

Warmly, 

Lisa Ellison 

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

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