Here is the written version of my recent interview with author Johannah Warren. The interview can be seen here: http://youtu.be/Dsa5AdiEBuo
“Hi and welcome back to TalkTherapyChannel on YouTube. Today I am going to be talking with Johannah Warren about the experience of writing your own life story. Johannah is the founder of Saint Columba Press, where she publishes and promotes these unique treasures. Welcome, Johannah.”
1. What are the benefits of writing down your story?
People write down their stories for a variety of reasons; usually to leave behind a personal accounting of their life. Whether they served in combat or were a farmer’s wife, it offers a sense of purpose and meaning that these experiences will not be lost forever; that they have some wisdom or “life lessons” to pass on. [There is a quote that I like from The Bridges of Madison County, from a mother who leaves behind a story and prefaces it with, “…as one gets older, one’s fears subside. What becomes more and more important is to be known.”]
However, you don’t have to approach the end of your life to be able to reflect on it. For the writer, it can be transformative. Writing down your story is a form of taking personal inventory. Some of it is just plain nostalgic, like the childhood curiosities and blunders. But traveling down memory lane is not 100% uplifting. When I shared with people that I had been writing my own memoir and some things were coming up that were unpleasant, I heard things like, “What’s the sense in digging up the past,” and “There is a reason you’ve put these things out of your mind.” I disagree, because understanding one’s self is critical. It’s completely natural to want to put things behind us, focus on the positive, and keep moving forward. I’m not suggesting dwelling on negativity, but anyone familiar with the expression, “sweeping things under the rug” knows that these little things build up. We are a collection of our experiences, and the rug starts to get lumpy, maybe even turns into a mountain – and it can affect our judgment, our relationships, and our well-being.
Some of the experiences are not traumatic but simply have not been processed appropriately because they happened in the developmental period of childhood before we were emotionally mature enough to understand their significance. But with a pen and paper (or laptop), in a non-judgmental environment, recalling the details can give a shape to these events – a story with a beginning, middle, and end and ideally an acknowledgement of how you became the person you are.
For example, I was able to recall vividly a humiliating comment by my 2nd grade teacher about how I smelled like cigarette smoke. Of course it was from my parents, but I was already self-conscious about their lifestyle. And everyone deals with things differently. The same comment made to my sister would have provoked a response that landed her in the principal’s office, but I internalized it and let it contribute to my already existing sense of isolation. I never thought about this again until I began writing, and now as an adult I can put it into perspective. It certainly wasn’t positive but it was very influential, and I believe being the recipient of such insensitivity made me more empathetic, which is something I’m quite proud of. I could only see that in retrospect. Overall, the process was cleansing and changed the way I looked at myself.
In writing my own story, I was able to recognize patterns that I wanted to change, and the sense of isolation that sort of lurked in the background and created a ceiling on my growth. I was able to admit things that I didn’t even know I felt. Most importantly, I finally accepted what a colorful kaleidoscope of life I had been a part of.
2. Who might want to try personal storytelling, and why?
Personal storytelling has become very popular for professionals as a way to connect with their audience, fan base, and customers. Many of us know the story of how Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was ousted by his own company. Business leaders like to tell the tale of how they overcame obstacles to become the successes they are. But you don’t have to be the head of a Fortune 500 corporation to do so. You don’t have to have a rags-to-riches scenario or even have crossed the finish line yet. Everyone has a story, and inspiration can be found in the smallest things, in any industry, in every walk of life.
People in transition are probably the most likely group to benefit from the therapeutic effects of storytelling. Divorce and unemployment are just two of the major life changes that can trigger someone to look for answers, and – as cliché as it sounds – the truth can usually be found within.
Not all transitions are undesirable or sudden, like the newly retired or the Empty Nesters, but they still bring about mixed emotions of freedom and restlessness, excitement and fear, as you find themselves with time on their hands to examine the richness and wisdom of a bygone chapter.
There are also those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers – both external and internal. Sometimes the triumph of the human spirit is heroic in itself, like overcoming addiction. There are also those who took a painful experience like the loss of a child and channeled it into a movement to help others. Stories such as these are moving and inspirational for the people who are going through the same thing by reminding them that anything is possible and there is light on the other side of healing.
3. What are a couple of key points to help someone get started?
I would say the most important thing is to identify what’s unique about you. Some people are naturals – they can talk about themselves all day long with complete strangers – and others take a little more coaxing to share. The obvious identifying markers are thing like where you were born, marriage, children, career, but these only tell part of the story. The truly defining moments are usually thrust upon us; the detours that changed who you would become and possibly your worldview. These stories within the story are the gold. You can start with the obvious, like immigrating from overseas to New York City fifty years ago. Or maybe you grew up in an orphanage. The back story will begin to leak through.
If I’m making it sound easy, my apologies. And there are many ways to get the thoughts flowing in ink before you dive into the deeper issues. My favorite prompt is for you to make a list of all your addresses and jot down the first memory that is stirred from each. Then pick one to describe. How old were you and who else lived there? Was there a particular neighbor that aroused curiosity? Maybe it was on Skid Row. Imagine that you will take this writing and roll it up into a bottle anonymously, send out into the water, and it will be found by a stranger. The best advice I ever heard with respect to memoir writing was from Joan Didion who said, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” As a reader, I want you to take me there.
4. If a person needs help in this process, where can they find it?
There are some great books on memoir writing, various blogs, and local writing groups. I have been involved in an exciting project that will launch this month, so make sure you go to my website and connect with me if you want more information. There will be a link below. In summary, it is a hub of resources as well as a Road Map to Writing your own Memoir. There will be a place to connect with other writers on the journey, collaborate, and share your stories (privately or publicly). I have been collecting these stories for publication, and I’m really excited about where this will lead. My hope is to have a positive effect on understanding the human race, beginning with ourselves.