We, as human beings, are all tied together by the intricacy of the thin thread called life, and yet, not a single one of us can even begin to fathom the complete experiences encountered by those close to us: our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and friends we call dear. However, we can acquire small snapshots from their portrayal of important life events through verbal stories or writings.
As a result, memoirs have fascinated audiences for decades with their stunning honesty and vivacity. They allow insight into the writer’s most intimate thoughts and give us a chance to live vicariously through this person’s life, whether we knew them personally or not. A memoir, to put it quite simply, is an attempt to discover value in our experiences and to achieve self-awareness in the vast emotional landscape of life.
In his Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s normal cynicism and sarcasm surrendered to a dark and evocative confession on the destructive nature of his depression. President Obama captivated America with his compelling account of his quest to find meaning through the death of his estranged father in his memoir, Dreams From My Father and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking illustrated her mental and emotional trials in the year following the death of her husband.
Although many have experience in writing memoirs, whether it be from keeping a diary, writing letters, or simply submitting an autobiographical essay as part of a college application, writing about your own life can often feel discomforting. Cynthia Waring, the author of Bodies Unbound, says, “As a journalist, you know what you’re writing about, it’s pretty safe writing. When you ask, show me who your mother is and that person writes the story of their mother, it’s like something hits their viscera, and you don’t know what’s going to come out. That’s what I’m interested in. It’s not intellectual writing. Intellectual writing is very safe. Digging into your feelings is uncomfortable, so I think that’s what stops people, but it’s also the most valuable. When you think of a novelist or someone writing short stories or fiction, it’s coming from a different part of the brain, imagination. And when you’re writing about what happened to you or what you’re experiencing, it comes from what you see.”
Oftentimes, you don’t find what to write about; the writing finds you. According to Waring, “You could look at writing memoirs psychologically, religiously, or just how do I learn to write. Usually, we don’t have a hint about what our main story is, and a lot of people don’t know what they want to write about at first. I knew I wanted to write plays when I first started writing, but you just don’t know at first what your story is. So you just write about this and that, and then you can’t believe what you’ve just uncovered. Writing is so surprising. You never know what you’re going to write. You put your pen on the paper and you never know what’s going to come up. It’s so exciting and it’s so frightening.”
An Ojai native, Waring currently teaches a number of classes on writing memoirs in Santa Barbara. The classes, hosted in her home just off State Street, provide insight on how to break down a life and translate memories and emotions into words. When asked whether her students have had any previous writing experience, Waring says, “I have a lot of students here. Many have been a lot more educated than I. PhDs, med school, things like that. I’ve had students who have been journalists and English teachers. One woman works at a bank. One woman teaches at Boston College. But none of them have been trained how to look inwards, not just the big picture, but little chunks. One of the first prompts I used described the house you grew up in. So you’re not really even asking for memories, you’re just asking for them to describe where they lived. What the house looked like. Where it was situated. What it looked like when you opened the door. It just fills you with memories…I think the writer tells you how to start writing. I’ve talked to them about finding their own voice and it’s just like how you talk. Your voice is very similar to the way you would talk about in your writing. Write quickly and don’t think about what you’re writing and suddenly you’re writing beautifully.” In a way, writing unlocks the long-forgotten memories tucked away in a seldom visited corner of the mind.
Sounds simple enough, but Waring elaborates that the difficulty in writing memoirs arises from pinpointing the insight gained from the experience and how it has shaped the person you are today. “A memoir, if it is really going to be published, must contain insight. The public wants to see the writer struggling to understand something about him or herself. Like, why didn’t I know this, why couldn’t I do this.”
Yet, becoming published is not the only reason to write a memoir. According to Waring, “There are so many reasons for writing, not just to be published. I think the first thing is self-awareness so you can know how you have lived. The second is to leave it as a record to your family. And then see if it can be published. When I taught at senior centers, I had so many children call me and say, ‘Oh my gosh I read so many things about my mother that she wrote in your class that I didn’t know about her.’ I tell this story to my students so they can leave these things to their children.”
With the advent of technology came a large disconnect within families. Recounting events that took place throughout the day and important life memories with friends and family seated around the dinner table has transitioned into gathering around a television screen or leaving the dinner table early to return to the computer. As a result, many children don’t have a clear image of where their parents come from. Waring says that without taking the time to reflect on our own lives, we don’t really know how we’ve lived and therefore struggle to find peace within ourselves.
Aside from seeking clarity in thought or improved writing skills, Waring’s class also builds a strong community of incisive individuals tied together by the power of words. By uplifting each other through feedback and constructive criticism, the class empowers even the most demure of students to build up enough confidence to share their story with an audience. A while ago, Waring began a writer’s club: “We meet every week at a winery and we have two designated main speakers at an open mic. My students are given the opportunity to read their stories in front of all their friends and there’s a lot of confidence in doing so. For a lot of people who are shy, it builds up confidence. You don’t have to read, but I find that a lot of people want to read. They want their stories to be heard. They want other people to hear their stories about their lives.” More often than not, the story shared resonates strongly with many of the audience members through some inexplicable bond.
For those hesitant to venture out into the realm of memoir writing, Waring offers this piece of advice: “Take a risk and come to a class. Get the support of a community. Don’t face it alone because you’ll scare yourself to death and you won’t get past a month of writing alone.”
For more information or to enroll in a class, please contact Waring at 805/ 798-2930 or visit her website here. Continue reading below for a sample of Waring’s work.
WRITING IS A GIFT
By Cynthia Waring
I recently received an Instagram from a woman who attended a workshop I taught. She just finished reading my book, Bodies Unbound, and wrote, “I ate your book. Every word!” Later that day a card came in the mail from someone saying, “I loved your workshop and your book. You told my story.” A card I got years ago, and one I will never forget; “I read your book every year to make sure my heart is open.”
I am telling you this, not to brag, but to let you know how important your stories are to others. Writing can be a sacred act. Think of the books that have changed the direction of your life, or at the very least softened your heart enough to forgive your mother. When you take the time to find the words to tell how you overcame character defects, drug addiction, anorexia, co-dependency, family secrets, fears, handicaps, relationships—it is a gift to all who read them.
Years ago, I was at the bedside of a friend on life-support. Her husband, Brian, invited Paula’s best friends to be present to say good-bye. It was obvious to all—Paula was gone and we were bereft. Brian asked me to recite a poem. I was caught off guard. The only poem I could think of was one of my own called, Woolly Mammoth. I used a woolly mammoth as a metaphor for someone facing life without their beloved. I likened it to a woolly mammoth facing the Ice Age. In the silent room, with only the sound of the machine keeping Paula’s heart pumping, I recited my poem:
Loving you, I am transformed
into a large Woolly Mammoth.
5,000 pounds of clumsiness
Filled with pre-historic blood
Wants only to roll before your fire,
Wants to go down before you
And worship at your alter.
When I am alone,
It is as if I flounder knee deep in snow.
Staring with small, bewildered eyes for signs of you,
As if your fierceness could make all this
Fog and snow disappear.
Could bring back the Sun,
Could bring back warm, tall, grass.
My heart beats wildly
When somehow I stumble on your scent.
My legs, weakened and confused, paw the ground.
I bellow at the cold,
Craving the warmth of your golden fur,
Dreaming of the song we sang tusk to tusk for the stars.
Somehow I know if we could just love each other
In this white, frozen world,
The age of ice would never come.
If we could perform the ancient rituals
And journey as one before the glacier,
It would surely melt at the joy of us.
That poem and the image of the woolly mammoth, which I’d been given when I was in deep grief, worked for Brian about to lose his wife, Paula. He kept saying, “I am that woolly mammoth. That’s just how I feel.” With that image, Brian was able to begin his journey of living with the loss rather than clinging to the hope his beloved would get well. He asked me to recite the poem at the memorial service and it was printed on the memorial literature.
When I wrote the poem I stayed in my pain long enough to find each word. Afterward, I found the process had healed my heart. When Brian could enter his grief through my words I realized being a writer was an honor and a gift to my community.
We never know if our writing will ever be read by anyone. Sitting alone on the sofa with a pen, paper and a box of Kleenex, we know nothing, not even what word will come to mind next. It is a lonely moment but filled with the wonder of capturing our minds, hearts, and feelings with words on paper. We don’t know if it works as a poem, or if anyone else will like it. But we write what life has given us to say the best we can.
I have had painful poems about heartaches I thought I would never survive—read at weddings. I’ve written songs that are funny, sad and outrageous. I have caused both tears and laughter from my poems, songs, and stories. Each one is a gift from life itself, and you have no idea how life will use it.