Telling Our Family Stories
I was talking with a friend the other day about revisiting the past—the often-painful past—when we write memoir. My friend admitted to having night terrors when her work with the story of her mother became too intense. Eventually the conversation swung around to the question of why we do this. Why do we keep going over our stories when often the act of telling them affects us so deeply?
I tried the usual answers. We write about the past in order to document it, to preserve it, to come to terms with it, to move beyond it. “Yes,” my friend said, “but why is all that important to you?”
It came to me, then, that the answers I’d given her all came from the part of me that’s a writer, that part that looks at the art of telling stories from a craft-centered perspective. She was looking for the answers that had to do with the person I am, not the writer I am. In other words, why would the act of retelling the past be important to me even if I eliminated all I know about the craft of memoir and never tried to publish the results? Why am I compelled to keep telling these stories? Why does the act of telling them matter to me in my day-to-day life?
That’s a more difficult question to answer because I have trouble separating out the writer part of me. That identity is so closely tied to all my other identities. But let’s imagine that I stopped publishing, or worse yet, that no one wanted to publish what I wrote. If I knew I’d never publish another word, why would I keep writing memoir?
I tell stories about my family because silence isn’t an option. Here on Mother’s Day, I think about the fact that I’m an only child who has no children. When I’m gone, the stories of my family will stop. Until then, though, I’m compelled to make them known as a way of saying we were here—we were all here—and this is what happened. If I don’t give these stories voice, it’s as if they never happened. It’s as if my mother and father never walked among us. I tell the stories to keep us all alive as long as I can.
As the flower it self, A beautiful flower as well as a beautiful story. Thank you so much for the beautiful flowers and the beautiful stories.
Thank you, Joey!
My first thought in response to your questions is, “You’re a witness.” The artist of memoir is a meticulous connoisseur of memory, even as Mnemosyne remains the most elusive of muses. I see memoir as requiring the highest ethic of application and a clarity of beholding that demands every virtue we can muster. We are holding the souls of other beings — and holding our own — in our hands as we poise the pen over a page.
The greatest of memoirs honour our fellow journeyers in their entire humanity (and humane-ity) … the worst degenerate into mere gossip. A word or two … an appellation … a phrase can be the single thread that contrasts the two. I have been composing (for years, as we writers tend to do!) a memoir which has my mother’s death at its core. I feel constantly breathless at the thought of releasing the story into the world. “Honour above all,” I keep thinking …
Such courage is demanded of us by the stories we aspire to tell …
Thank you for these questions, and for the work that you do. It matters … so much.
All respect to you, dear witness.
Dear Alexa. Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to comment. Your salient points take me further in my own thinking. Than you, thank you. Keep doing the good work.
I am so very inspired by these words, as a witness… “We are holding the souls of other beings — and holding our own — in our hands as we poise the pen over a page.”
Thank you for this accountability!
Sally, thanks so much for being a reader of my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Mother’s Day as well as other, normally “happy” holidays, can evoke unexpected and sometimes unwelcome, painful images from years ago. I have learned to embrace these memory moments and see them as little puzzle pieces that help to see the larger landscape. I am working with one particular moment from Mother’s Day when I was just ten years old, centering around the gift I gave my own mother that day many years ago. There is a sense of satisfaction, relief, and even joy when I spot that one elusive piece of the puzzle that fits perfectly. And that’s one of the reasons I write.
Well-said, Sue! And when that piece falls into place, you help us all see the larger landscape. You just now reminded me of the gifts I used to give my mother that weren’t really right for her, but were for my idea of who my mother should have been.
[…] Just read this short and excellent post by the writer Lee Martin, which is also about storytelling—“Telling Our Family Stories.” Definitely worth a […]
Hi, Lee: Don’t know if you remember me from last summer’s VCFA postgrad conference, but I have been following your FB post since. Just wanted you to know I love this blog post and have been using it in my Writers for Recovery workshops, which help people recovering from addiction to heal. People really appreciated and were inspired by the post.
Of course I remember you, Gary. Thanks so much for following my blog. I’m happy to know that you’ve been able to put this post to use in the important work that you do.