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...
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...
Lisa, I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain. Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met,...
Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir
Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.
Dear Lisa, I began a memoir project with my dad four years ago. It's been an incredibly healing process to write together about his alcoholism and how it affected our family, as well as how his commitment to sobriety changed everything for the better. There are...
Dear Lisa, They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement. My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got...
“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.