In October, I taught a two-day workshop at a local public library. Our focus was on writing about moments from our pasts that still haunt us in some way. We wrote about things that hurt us, that shamed us, that left us with guilt and regret. Along the way, we also revisited moments of joy and hilarity. We laughed at our younger selves while at the same time we felt empathy for the children we once were. We wrote with honesty. We didn’t hold back. We wrote to think more deeply about the moments we can’t forget in hopes of increasing our understanding of how they came to be and what they taught us about ourselves and the world around us. We wrote because we had stories to tell, and we wanted to find ways to tell them.
I love teaching memoir workshops for adult learners because, if I do it right, they find a voice for all the things they’ve been unable to say. One woman in my class said, “I haven’t written anything for over fifty years.” I told her, “Welcome home.”
We started small. As some of you know, I have an exercise that I’ve been using for over thirty years, one in which I ask people to remember pairs of shoes they wore when they were children. For this class, I also gave participants an option of recalling favorite toys they had or toys they coveted but never received. One woman recalled a doll she lost on a beach in Florida and how, even now, when she goes back to that place, she keeps an eye out, thinking she just might find it. Everything, I told the participants, is a potential metaphor. Any detail, when held up to our experience, might be a way of exploring and expressing what we can’t bring ourselves to face directly. Another woman, for instance, recalled always wanting a ventriloquist’s dummy but never having it. She said, “It makes me wonder why I wanted one so badly.” Then she went on to say, “Someone was doing something hurtful to me, but I couldn’t tell anyone.” Was it any wonder, then, that she wanted that dummy, a channel for the voice she couldn’t find and the things she couldn’t say?
Another woman wrote about having cerebral palsy and her painstaking attempts to tie the laces of her orthopedic shoes. A ventriloquist’s dummy, a lost baby doll, a pair of orthopedic shoes—such were the conveyances into the memories of hurtful things. If we pay close attention to the details, our sense memory can locate us in the past. Once we’re there, we can use the persona of the writer reflecting on experience to think more deeply about who we were at that time and what it all meant for the people we would become. We might also manage a degree of empathy for, or a least a deeper understanding of, those who hurt us. As Patricia Hampl says, “Memoirists wish to tell their mind. Not their story.” I’d add that the story is the way we invite the memoirist’s sensibility onto the page.
It’s a privilege to live inside the consciousness of a writer as they tell their story. To quote Hampl again: “To write about one’s life is to live it twice, and the second time is both spiritual and historical.” Spiritual because we hold the mystery of a life up to the light. Historical because we place that life in a span of time that transcends the past and carries us into the present and the future.
Try it for yourselves. Choose a small, concrete detail that takes you back in memory to a specific moment from your life that touched you in some way. Maybe it was a hurtful thing you did to someone else, or maybe it was something hurtful that someone did to you. Find those moments you still think about years after the fact because something happened that shook you. Pay attention to the details. Use your position as the adult narrator to interpret your own experience. Say the secret things, the ones that still can keep you up at night, the ones you’ve carried with you for years, the ones you’ve never been able to bring yourselves to share. Claim your experiences. Announce them. Even if no one ever reads what you write, feel the power that bearing witness can bring you.