Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Directing Your Helping Nature Into Memoir

I have a client who meets with me bi-weekly. She's working, as many of my clients are, on a memoir. Hers focuses on surviving some pretty un-survivable sounding things: drugs, abuse and more. She has been driven to write it for years, but not found the time or support to do it. She hired me to help her keep on track.

Her vision from the beginning was very, very clear: "I want to write this book to share with other women who have been in situations I have been in - battered, abused - so they know they can find their way out."

This is a stellar and beautiful vision. This woman has a very strong helper nature, and I am excited to help her help others.

In the beginning we had a hard time getting her to stick to any kind of schedule. Not. Unusual.

After a few weeks of repeatedly doing the same meetings - her telling me how much she wants to write but then telling me (what basically was) her latest reason for not writing, all of which sounded legit - she finally cottoned onto her own game. She had to wear herself out with this. After a few laughs about how she kept deceiving herself into believing she was exceptionally overburdened (more on that in this Inside Space blogpost), she finally got writing, and she sustained really well for a few months.

Then something crept in - doubt, delay, or a drop in discipline (more on this at Inside Space next week) and she stopped for a bit.

The key thing is that when she was writing, the same issues that supposedly kept her from writing - a sick mother, a roommate situation, suffering neighbors who needed her help, back pain - were workable. When she had a regular practice going, those didn't get in the way. She didn't ignore them, but they didn't stop her.

She came in after not writing for a bit, her head hung, talking about how she couldn't get it. She had been doing so well! What happened?! Now those things were on the front burner again and she couldn't seem to write. This time, because she had felt trust and experience in her own practice and could see how she could work with these distractions, she could return sooner.

How did we do that?

Mainly we had to look at two things: fear and the need to help.

Fear: Underneath every not-doing is fear. I know you don't want to hear that. I know you want to tell me you are not afraid, that's not what this is about. That is what this is about. Sorry. It's much easier to see this when we look at it at the core fear level - not so much about fear of success, for instance, as just fear of not being loved. This client in particular is actually afraid of her material, which is not unusual when the writing you have to do is heavy. Both for the writers' sake as well as the readers, if you are writing very intense material, you need breaks. You need to take walks, talk to friends, cry, do yoga. And you need to write about the good times, too. Remember that resilience is behind most of these kinds of writings - how and why you survived - and make sure to put that in the foreground. That will help you stay connected to why you are doing it and also help the reader want to keep reading.

The Need to Help: Most of us want to write memoir to help others. However, we get distracted by daily kinds of helping. Helpers want to help, and helpers are best satisfied by having the immediate gratification of knowing they were helpful. No matter how altruistic we are (great book on altruism versus empathy by Matthieu Ricard here, if we don't get some kind of immediate acknowledgement or feedback, we are less likely to do that kind of helping.

Let me tell you something - writing to help others is powerful and worthwhile. However, it's very long-haul and the results are far from immediate. There's a lot of room for gaps and insecurity, doubt and delays in the writing process. It is not at all like replying to a neighbor calling because she fell and can't get up. Not at all like taking your aging mom to a doctor's appointment. And I am not saying to give up immediate kinds of helping, but you have to keep the big vision of helping in mind. In an amazing interview with Elizabeth Gilbert that I can no longer seem to find online, she notes that she gave up a LOT to write Signature of All Things, her novel. She had to choose to turn things down in order to get the writing done. Chances are, that was perhaps easier for her because she already had seen how successful Eat, Pray, Love was, you might say. Or you might say it was just as hard, since success doesn't bypass the inner critic that easily.

So if you identify as an Obliger - someone Gretchen Rubin says can follow rules made by others, but not by themselves (and they often overlap with helpers) - and struggle with getting yourself to commit to personal projects you really want to make happen, please consider you might need a shift in view. Remember that whatever helps you sincerely and deeply helps others. Self care for helpers is essential. And being an Obliger is not a bad thing - there's no problem with that. But if you don't accept it and lean into it, you won't get the tools you need.

Some suggestions:
-Direct your helping nature into longer-terms projects by setting up short-term positive feedback.
-Remember that you are doing this to help others. Get friends or coaches on your side to reflect this back to you when more immediate forms of helping gratification take over.
-Set boundaries. Say no. Choose and direct that helping energy into your creating.
-Take breaks - literal physical ones.
-Make sure to write about what inspires you - your resilience and survival - and not just how hard it was.

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