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Memoir Writing: Understanding the Why

In the summer of 2015, I was pregnant with two projects. The most obvious was my daughter, but I was also about to give birth to a memoir about my father. My father had died in a bike accident the day after I finalized plans to become pregnant by invitro fertilization. His death kicked off an urgency to take the recordings I’d made of my conversations with him, and finish the effort I’d begun before he died to write about his life.

I spent the nine months of my pregnancy nurturing both projects, afraid that if I didn’t finish the book I might not be able to after my daughter was born. Then on a night in August 2015, at the end of the day on which I’d finished the very last line edits for the book, I went into labor with my daughter.

Essentially, I gave birth to both at the same time. And both events were joyous, scary, and full of “what now?”

I’ve also come to realize that there is another parallel between book projects and children – our understanding of them grows with time. This is the thing that surprises me the most – that with the benefit of hindsight, I continue to learn about what I myself have written. Who knew that was possible?

Here’s what I mean. I recently was reading Vicki Atkinson’s book Surviving Sue which is about Vicki’s journey with her mom, Sue, who suffered from anxiety, depression, alcoholism, Munchausen’s by Proxy, and Alzheimer’s. On the surface, I wouldn’t have drawn parallels between that and my memoir about my beloved father who didn’t suffer from any of those things.

But reading Vicki’s incredibly insightful, entertaining, and reflective words about her mom as she charted a trail through Sue’s life, I realized that we all navigate a path in our parents’ shadow. Whether we dig deep into what that was and write a memoir about it, or choose to go our own way and not think about it, the influence of a parent, present or absent, is powerful.

I think my beloved dad was an incredibly helpful influence on my life – and yet there are habits of his that I still carry, like aversion to conflict, that I need to heal. Maybe even more so because he didn’t do that work.

As I devoured Vicki’s well-written and insightful book about Sue, I found myself engrossed in the themes that Vicki wrote about, including:

  • Rethinking our parents as people
  • Understanding complicated family members and finding ways to love them anyway
  • Tending to unresolved childhood pain
  • Secrets and lies and how the weight of distortion impacts mental health
  • Dads and daughters and special bonds
  • Grace and patience

Whether the themes related to something in my life or not, reading a memoir from someone like Vicki who has done the work to understand the patterns in theirs is so inspirational. Whether our parents were hurtful or helpful, being able to tell their stories is an incredible gift to ourselves to uncover the a-ha of how their touch continues.

As we search for our “why’s” in life – the power behind what motivates us and defines us, figuring out our parent’s why’s is incredibly illuminating. Watching the way that Vicki uncovers that for her mom in Surviving Sue is like being at an archeology dig. Instructive to see the way she teases out the gems, suspenseful as we wade through the project, and thought-provoking for how we can apply it to our own lives. Then we can uncover, as Vicki does so masterfully, the objects and knowledge that give us the power and a chance for intergenerational healing.  

I’ve written more about my dad in a post Holding Out for a Hero on my personal blog. My memoir about his life is Finding My Father’s Faith and Vicki Atkinson’s memoir is Surviving Sue. I also post on Mondays at the Heart of the Matter blog. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

45 thoughts on “Memoir Writing: Understanding the Why

  1. I really resonate with “we all navigate a path in our parents’ shadow”. I *felt* the weight of that as I read it! Both as a son and as a dad.

    Here’s to hoping my shadow is small. Or maybe smaller than my dad’s.

      1. Well, first… thank you, Wynne. I appreciate and respect you, so that means a ton to me! ☺️

        Also, it sits like a ton – as I think about how even having a “courageous shadow” might influence my kids. I want my shadow to be like a butterfly, not like a brick! Ya know?

      2. Thank you, David. I think shadows don’t have to be weights in the way that I think you are implying. They can also be comforting presences that follow behind us so that we know they have our backs. At least that’s how I perceive my father’s…

  2. “we all navigate a path in our parents’ shadow” is a generational truism for so many generations. Either we choose the path our parents took or we set out purposefully not to repeat the same path they took because their mistakes took too much out of us.

    When I first started to write, it was at the urging of the publisher of my illustrated children’s book, to write down my philosophical thoughts. When I started doing that, I discovered the healing power of writing, and dove right in, because my spirit was raw and unhealed, Writing was the salve, not only because I was able to get the stuff out of me, but because I was able to connect the dots in my mind and heart, to gain deeper understanding of how my mother ha affected me and what lessons I had learned and been able to put into practice in my own life.

    I feel I had to do all that inner work just to learn how to feel “normal” and healthy. I’m working on writing a memoir novel and it is revealing more truths to my spirit. This type of writing is gut-felt writing, but it is the secret sauce to be able to grow and gain more insights.

    1. You make such a great points, Tamara: “Either we choose the path our parents took or we set out purposefully not to repeat the same path they took because their mistakes took too much out of us.” I’ve seen this play out amongst my friends… vowing to either raise their kids the way they were raised themselves, or do the complete opposite of their own parents.

      1. I love that point, Erin! We often react in one way or the other, for better or worse. Doing the work to understand makes that more of a visible process, I think.

    2. Wow, Tamara, this sentence is so powerful, “This type of writing is gut-felt writing, but it is the secret sauce to be able to grow and gain more insights.”

      The secret sauce for sure! And your relationship with your daughter and grandchildren shows the amount of incredibly brave work and intergenerational healing you’ve done.

      Can’t wait to read your memoir novel!

  3. It’s never easy to write about your childhood unresolved trauma, yet it’s very therapeutic. Exposing yourself in front of your audience is another phobia that can get in the way to exploring your past and creating your future.

  4. Just wait until you are a grandparent.
    We all have realizations at different times in our lives. As kids, we react without adult coping skills, and an adult parent, we react in that paradigm, including our particular paradigm from schooling and work, plus recreational activities. As a grandparent, we can understand the Dylan line: “I was so much older then, I am younger than that now”.

    1. I love that Dylan line, Dave. It says so much. And your comment about reacting – as kids and parents, wow – so true. Being a grandparent — can’t wait for that delight!! 🙂

  5. Thank you very much for this lovely piece of writing.
    I have been working on a memoir for many years.
    But something in me is holding me back from taking the plunge and publishing it. And thanks for the recommendation of Surviving Sue.

    1. I love that you’ve been working on a memoir and I can totally understand the hesitation to publish. As Milena puts it so well – it’s not easy but therapeutic. Can’t wait to read it! 😉

  6. Those are such good points and you’ve made me realize I need to work on some of them. Especially “Tending to unresolved childhood pain…”

  7. The first bullet about rethinking our parents as people is an interesting one. Growing up, they’re just our parents and we don’t usually give much thought to them—other than the fact that they look after all of our needs. I think the first time I really thought of my parents as people was at my Dad’s funeral. Hearing the stories people told me about him made me see a different side of him. As I’ve grown older, I definitely relate more to my mum as a person now instead of just my mum. I hope my girls can see me that way one day, too.

    1. I couldn’t agree more! We’re so busy growing up that we don’t realize they are growing up too! Maybe the more things we have in common – especially parenthood helps fix that view! Thanks for the great comment, Michelle!

  8. I find enlightening the sentence Rethinking our parents as people, it’s really something that I need to do, as I have idealized them, but they are humans with their flaws which I am not willing to forgive. Thank you for recommending so well Vicki’s book!

    1. Oh, what an insightful comment, Cristiana! I think you are right that it’s hard to give up that idealization. It changes the relationship when we see them differently. Thanks for the great comment!

  9. I can’t wait to read Vicki’s book. I found it interesting that you described her work similar to an archeology dig. I found the work you did on your book to be similar. As I’m in the middle of reading it, I find that I’m asking questions about my relationship with my father …. Where I’m viewing things with fresh eyes versus the “just cause” eyes of a child. It’s hard work, but your writing has definitely inspired me to retrace my steps and taje a fresh look! Thank you Wynne and excited for Vicki too!

    1. The “just cause” eyes of a child – wow, Brian. That’s such an interesting and deep comment. Yes, hard work but I love your willingness to “dig” in. Just in time for Father’s Day! 🙂 Thanks, Brian!

  10. I understand completely! Sifting through all the papers and memorabilia from my mom’s house made me wonder if I knew her at all. She seemed to be a different person in her ‘past’ life, before her role as ‘Mom’. Now, things make more sense to me. I see how compromises and sacrifices shaped her view of the world. And I can start to recognize those patterns in my life. Thought provoking!

    1. Wow – that is so interesting, Gwen. You really are doing the archeology dig and putting the pieces together. I wonder if motherhood often eclipses so much of what went before that it’s nearly impossible to see without the “evidence” you are uncovering?

  11. I think that letting go of the role that a family member fills and becoming aware of and appreciating the actual person in that role is such an evolution within a relationship..I don’t know why it takes so long to get there at times! Parents do shape us in so many ways. Lovely post! Thank you for the food for thought.

  12. My challenge with family is not so much with parents, but rather with overall dysfunction and a very complicated relationship with a sister. The line in your blog about “Understanding complicated family members and finding ways to love them anyway” is something I’ve been working on for years with her. I’m beginning to see a tiny bit of light through the cracks, and am looking forward to reading about Vicki’s experience. Kudos to you for helping her promote her book. I can’t wait for it to arrive in my mailbox!

    1. Julia – ditto to all you said. My toughest relationship is with my sister too. I’m so delighted Vicki’s book is on its way to you – it really is such a wonderful and worthwhile book! And, as always – thanks for all your delightful support!

  13. Hello Eloi how are you how long does it take you to write a book when you already have everything ready like the main theme of the book and almost everything Because I know that other things are coming as we write?

    1. Such a good question. I did it in about 7 months and I think about the same for Vicki. But I’ve known someone who’s taken as long as 17 years so I think we all vary!

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