I’ve had a lot of breakthroughs in my life, but it wasn’t until I started to share my story that I understood that my experiences didn’t just have to belong to me– I could use my narrative to help others. By talking about what happened to me and later by writing about it, I was able to express myself not just creatively, but in a more meaningful way where what I said resonated with those who could relate. Some said that what they’d read and heard inspired them to change something about their lives, others said the stories were a confirmation that there was nothing wrong with them. And yet others said they found hope. Over the years I got hundreds of messages–from other relinquishees, as well as from people who struggled with addiction, and then just from readers who appreciated a good story (especially in regard to my memoir Parallel Universes). It was thrilling to be able to know that what I was doing–remotely by writing–had an impact on people I’ve never met, that I had a reach that was far beyond what I would say in professional or support group settings. As I continued to expand my writing, I continued to hear from those who were interested in my services and those who just wanted to say thank you, and there were many others who wanted to know how I got into this whole business of sharing publicly–people who thought they, too, had something to say and who wanted to say it for reasons similar as I did.
The process of writing a memoir–or writing about your personal experiences–is meditative and it is therapeutic. It requires you to be able to unplug from the world and to be able to attend to some of your most tender, emotional spaces. When people who do this kind of writing talk about writing from the heart, they are not wrong. Wearing your heart on that proverbial sleeve is what makes a story authentic and relatable; it’s how stories find readers. Writing out what happened to us doesn’t always have to lead to publishing–I find that being able to organize and put together a narrative helps with personal healing; it’s another thing to put into your recovery toolbox. Don’t stress whether the flow is right or if your sentences are perfectly structured. My first rule is to just write and let the writing take over, let yourself get lost in it. Again, this applies to both journal writing and blog posting–sometimes when I write the idea is just to get it out to be able to “catch” the feeling that I’m chasing; stopping and thinking about it too much stalls this process and makes me self-conscious. Start small, talk about your favorite memory or the time you felt sad. Even a paragraph or two will suffice. If you don’t feel ready to discuss bigger topics (“What keeps me healthy and feeling complete?”) you don’t have to go there until the process of writing and being vulnerable about it becomes familiar enough.
Once you’re ready to go bigger, make a list of topics and ideas you want to discuss. Imagine having to pitch them to an editor–this will help with reigning in some of the tangents–so try to come up with one-liners that will explain what you want to convey. Occasionally, what I do is begin by writing down a few points that I want to touch on–if, let’s say, I am thinking about finding supports, I can write what the word “support” means to me, how I’ve found it in the past, how I look for it now. I don’t worry about tying it all up and coming up with a conclusion at this point, I just stick to the theme. Once I have enough points or some kind of a rough draft, I take time to think about it. This is when I need to decide what it is that I really want to say about finding support, how to say it in order to pass on the message. Yes, we need support in order to be able to recover, but why? Well, I can think of some of the examples from my own past and I also look at my readings to see what others have said about it. This is how I end up with a sort of a frame for my story. I now have the theme, the words and meanings, some examples and I have some research or my own past findings to back it all up. I can begin to write.
Photo by Andrew Neel
I try not to judge what I’m writing and how I’m writing it–in order to access my heart, I can’t be in a place that makes me critical about it. I usually walk away from that first draft and do something else. Later on, I come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes what I’ve written is only good enough for me, some writing is just too private, too raw. Maybe I haven’t quite processed an issue, maybe I don’t know yet what the solution is. This doesn’t mean that I’ve wasted my time! It’s the opposite because all the writing matters since it’s all a part of my healing and it informs me about myself. I’ve had many moments when I’d read something I’ve written earlier and realize that I know more than I do or that I am more attuned to myself than I thought I was. For that reason, I save it all because it’s all material.
And you: have you thought about writing your own story? What inspires you? What do you think the obstacles are?