Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Helpers Who Write Memoir

We all need to be needed, but some are more driven by the gratification of having helped someone than others. And some of us really need that as instant gratification - to give a donation now, to interrupt our quiet time and help a neighbor in need.

There's nothing wrong with being needed, and helping others. In fact, the Dalai Lama has recently pointed to our deep fear of not being needed under a lot of the current anxiety in our political experience. If that's our motivation for helping, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. While keeping busy to alleviate anxiety isn't always skillful, if we wind up benefiting others and not burning ourselves out in the process, helping as a way of staying engaged is great.

However, I have found a lot of the women I work with who wish to write memoir have a hard time trading in these kind of short-term helping circumstances to commit to the longer-term gratification of writing memoir. Here's a conglomerate case study:

Anne has a history of having been emotionally and physically abused. She wants dearly to write a memoir about how she got through these situations, so she can help other women see how to get out of abusive relationships. She believes strongly in her story, and knows it is worthwhile, at least during class and when we meet. She's in her fifties, and is less ashamed of her struggles than she used to be. She has always wanted to write this story, and feels she is ready, but when she sits down to write, it won't come out. Whenever she can get some words down, magically, other people suddenly call on her - a neighbor who needs her help cleaning the garden, her mother, who is constantly calling for assistance. It's like they know she was just sitting down to write! How is that possible?

Anne has a hard time saying no to these folks, both because she's helped for so long, and also because not helping in the face of working on a project she is not sure she will finish (self-fulfilling prophecy) seems like a selfish act. How can she say to them, or herself, "I won't help my neighbor today so that one day, maybe, years from now, I will finish this book and benefit hundreds of other women I don't know."?

Though I don't want to reduce the need to help to simple gratification, the fact is most of us have a hard time committing to projects with longer-term gratification than shorter-term gratification, if not instant gratification. It's important that we honestly recognize our desire to help, and also recognize the needs of our own that get fulfilled when we help. If we get a lot out of helping others, that is wonderful! But we can't simply expect to not help anyone with instant gratification now, and get our full gratification later, once we are done with our project.

So how do we balance the two out?

1. Build in some short-term gratification in the writing process itself. Celebrate having finished the draft of a chapter, by sharing with a trusted friend, or with a treat that helps you recognize you've done something good.

2. Write first. Prioritize the writing, but then promise to help the neighbor after. Even if your neighbor swears this can't wait until Tuesday, you'd be surprised what happens when you offer an alternative.

3. Check to make sure you still believe in your project. It's hard to keep up morale on a long-term project, especially one which involves re-visiting difficult periods of the past. By asking for positive, re-inforcing feedback, meeting with a coach or group, you can keep your critic in check, who might claim it is selfish to try and help thousands of others when your mom needs you to get her five groceries immediately.

4. Without seeking comparison or getting overwhelmed by the "competition," read other inspiring and similar memoirs. This way, you can be reminded of the long-term benefits of sticking with a project like this.

While it is true there may already be "a lot" of memoirs like yours, there's no one with your specific story, and no one memoir speaks to everyone. Even if you never get it published, the healing that can come with the process of writing will help you be of longer-term benefit to others. This kind of self-care is essential for real compassion, for not burning out in helping others.

1 comment:

  1. I love these strategies, Miriam, and I totally relate to this composite case study! I so relate to how people magically seem to appear just as you FINALLY get a flow of words going. I'd love to hear more about the part where, when Anne sits down to write, the words "won't come out," and how she might coax the words to show up.