It was a lucky day for me when Regan Burke turned up for one of my memoir-writing classes. A civil rights activist, Regan was a White House staffer during the Clinton presidency and has colorful – and moving – stories to tell. She files away unusual words she hears and cleverly shoehorns one or two of them into each essay – you’ll find one here in her guest post about the value of honesty in memoir-writing.
There’s a Lacuna in My Story
by Regan Burke
Sometimes I email the essays I write for my memoir classes to a good friend.
She tends to find my work imprudent and irresponsible.
”You read that aloud in class?” she’ll ask. “Yep,” I answer. “I did.”
I have a strong motivation for writing the truth. A book by Dr. Howard Schubiner called Unlearn Your Pain caught my eye a few years ago. Dr. Schubiner treats chronic pain psychologically through fearless writing, and after completing his prescribed writing exercises, I joined a memoir-writing class.
I knew assignments and deadlines would encourage me to delve further into the unfinished emotions that may be the genesis of my pain. After six months of writing, pain from my severe spinal canal stenosis disappeared completely.
That’s not the end of the story, though. I still have arthritis and fibromyalgia pain that can be mollified by narcotics or surgery. Instead, I choose bibliotherapy. Writing is my journey to a higher quality of life.
In conversations with other memoir-writers I find some of us worry we’ll run out of new stories to write. The weekly assignments help, and often the prompt brings some emotionally painful incident from my past to light. I don’t always want to write about these first thoughts – consequences of my alcoholism and drug addiction, mean sisters, non-parenting mother and father and my own non-parenting. However, since I have proof that bibliotherapy works, it is essential to force myself to sit with my MacBook and coffee plunking out stories.
Some of my writing classmates have asked me how I can be so honest in front of our groups. Writers in class were once anonymous faces, but as happens in the passage of familiar time, we are now interesting companions curious to hear each others’ next 500-word installment. I have trusted them.
Don’t get me wrong. If all my short memoirs were put in chronological order, a reader of the work might wonder if something was missing. “There’s a lacuna in your story,” I can hear my friend say over coffee. “What about THE MEN?”
No matter how many weekly 500-word memoirs I turn out, there will always be holes, i.e. THE MEN. I will never be honest about the men in my life, even the dead ones. This may prolong or even deepen pain in my knee joints but there you have it. No men stories.
I considered starting my own 12-step-type memoir-writing group where we adhere to honesty and confidentiality. But if I’m not writing about THE MEN in one group, I’m not going to in another. I don’t trust my own resilience to withstand the anticipated embarrassment, shame or judgments.
The class Beth teaches is on break now but my other memoir-writing class led by Linda Miller at the Center for Life and Learning continues. Our assignment this week is to write a “big story.” Obviously my only “big story” is THE MEN. The hole goes unfilled. And as I write this, I drink coffee and ice my knees.