When Feeling Called to Write a Life Story

Stories bind us. Stories help is find our place in the world. ~ Mary Ann Kirkby, 
author of I Am Hutteritie

I just responded to a LinkedIn Women's Memoir Writing group discussion and then realized this is a great blog post to end the year with.

Kathleen Pooler asked a great question: "How do you handle painful memories that are part of the life story you feel called to write?"

This question is very fresh in my mind, and it is not an easy one for any memoir writer. In my first book, Why I Left the Amish I was very honest, and there was fallout — none of my siblings would talk to me. (My parents are both deceased). A year ago, one of my sisters began communicating again.

Why I Left the Amish was about my childhood, when I had no choice but to endure abuse. I simply could not change the life I had. So, when I wrote this book, I could not shield my abusers from what they had done because it would only have added to the silence that shrouds all abuse. And these experiences were central to my life story — they literally helped to shape who I am. Breaking the silence was important in Why I Left the Amish.

My new book, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman's Ties to Two Worlds, is about my young adulthood, when I could change my life situation — and I did by leaving home. But there were still conflicts with family members that are central to my story, and so I cannot avoid them. I have learned from reactions to my first book that there are ways of saying things that are less provocative and I can still stay true to my story. The editor at Herald Press, Valerie Weaver-Zercher, helped me to handle these situations with finesse. And whenever something negative about someone else was not central to the story, we omitted it.

Perhaps there is more to writing a memoir than writing down our memories. By examining our store of them, we gain new perspectives on this journey we call life. It's as if we go into the unconscious and light a candle down there in the darkness. By doing so, we can bring those memories to consciousness and reflect on how our experiences have shaped our world view.

Finding a balance between censoring our life stories so as not to hurt someone and "telling all" is difficult for memoir writers. None of us have the answers for anyone else, but if we feel called to writing our life stories for an audience, we must answer it for ourselves. It requires that we search our souls for the essence of our lives and stories.

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9 thoughts on “When Feeling Called to Write a Life Story”

  1. I am so glad you have the opportunity to publish your second book and that you found a good editor to help you through the difficult process of omitting certain things. I know this must be difficult when things are so much a part of your story.

    Looking forward to your new book.

    1. Hello Sadie… so good to hear from you!

      Letting go of certain things in my story has been an interesting process. It’s like letting go of the clutter in my attic… sorting out what is important to keep and what to let go of.

      I hope you and your family have a Happy New Year!


  2. All of us have our stories and all of them have pain and misunderstandings, rejections.I started keeping a journal as a source for an outlet and only wrote when I was full and over running. Months or a year later I reread my journal and it was the most depressing thing I ever read. It took this to make me realize that I only write when I am down. I burned all of these journals and purposed to write daily the good and bad. I have kept this up for years… I haven’t gone back and reread anything I wrote the last 15-18 years. Someday I will…

    1. Hello Katie!

      I had that experience once… realizing I was using my journals as a “dumping ground” for when I felt down. I then began writing about things that were on my mind, which included inspiring things, too. However, I did not burn the depressing ones. I never know when I want to remind myself of when certain things happened.

      When you write your memoir, your journals from the past 15-18 years will certainly come in handy. You will likely mine them at that point.

      Thanks for stopping by, Katie, and I hope you will again. Getting a visit from you is always a pleasure.


  3. Oh goody, a new entry! I’ll probably have to hop back on on another day since I just got home from a 10-hour drive to visit the family in TN, through the snow with crazy Chicago drivers on my booty being bullies and me using every non-curse word because my children were in the car… and a caffeine buzz which makes everything bounce in my line of vision, but was necessary to obtain because I didn’t get enough sleep at Moms and diet Coke always does the trick. Woo Hoo! I’m such a light weight.
    Anyhow, I’m re-reading “Why I Left the Amish” which my husband gave me for Christmas signed by you with a very sweet note. I would like to comment on what you wrote about above, but I think my hubby would like to visit with me for a while.
    Oh yeah, have a Happy New Year! I’m sure I’ll be in front of the tv with hubby watching a drama or murder mystery with a plate of jerkey, Wisconsin cheese, and crispy crackers when the bell tolls 12:00. A good send out for 2013 in my opinion. And I will be making some resolutions for myself this year which in the past I thought was totally dumb. Making resolutions that is.
    Here’s a hug, Saloma.

  4. I did a lot of personal writing in my 20’s when I decided to take a different route with my life. “Is this all there is?” lurked about and prodded my thoughts even in my teenage years. My notebooks consisted of absolute rage and my telling off and getting angry at those who hurt me deeply. Sometimes I couldn’t even address the people by name because it seemed too intimate and I wanted no part of intimacy with them. I was very angry and very hurt. I stabbed the paper with my pen as I released penned up rage. This went on for years. After a time I noticed I kept writing the same thing about the same person. It was getting old and I wanted to move forward. I was free to decide now.
    My point is, a tremendous amount of healing came from my writing and things became more clear that were cloudy and confusing to me. Nobody ever read my journals and I’ve since disposed of them. It was a way of closing a door and should anything ever happen to me I didn’t want my family to see what I had written.
    I’m almost done re-reading “Why I Left the Amish.” I must confess, I wondered how your family reacted to it. Yet, at the same time I could just imagine how many people you helped writing about you life. Have you ever heard, “Your only as sick as your secrets?” Abuse is often kept a secret because the victim feels like it was their fault. To bring it into the light and to have people speak truth explaining the reality of the situation is a balm that can change lives.
    It’s as you say- the writer must decide. I bet it’s not an easy decision to make. Please forgive my babbling from above. I fear I embarrass myself at times. Especially when I’m on a caffeine high. Something I’m giving up for 2014.
    Be blessed, safe, and happy.
    Your friend,

  5. Hello Francine,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Long before I began writing for an audience, I wrote out my hurt on paper. I hope it will never make it into print, for my level of hurt was very deep. I did this in the same time period as my most intense healing process was taking place. It was a necessary step before I was ready to write for an audience. Once I had worked through the deepest hurt, then came the self-reflection and a different perspective. The years of distance help also.

    I realize now that I could have been kinder to several of my siblings in my first book. My parents are both deceased, and so is my older sister, Lizzie. The rest of my siblings ceased communications with me after reading “Why I Left the Amish.” Since then, one of my sisters is communicating again.

    You named why I felt compelled to expose the “secrets” of my childhood. You’re right, silence shrouds abuse, and only when we expose it, do we have a chance at changing the cycle. My next book is different… it is about my young adult years when I actually had a way out, which I didn’t when I was a child. And I took my way out… by leaving home. So the second book is not about being a victim. It is about discovering and using my power for making decisions and advocating for myself. This is how I overcame adversity and began building a new life for myself.

    Thank you Francine, for stopping by. May love and light shine on you always.

    Happy New Year!

  6. There’s a feeling of lightness and joy in your words, Saloma, even though you are writing about one of a memoirist’s hardest tasks. I take that to mean you have clarified your intentions and your narrative and can locate the place between the “whole truth” and the truth that matters most to your story. Such a freeing place to be. I know that your readers will benefit from your care in choosing that place. Blessings. Eager to celebrate the new book with you!

  7. Thank you, Shirley. You know of which you speak. And I agree… it is one of our hardest tasks.

    I look forward to doing joint talks with you soon. I’m sure something will work out.

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