Bethlehem Area Public Library is offering a monthly workshop on memoir writing to foster creativity, introspection, and community among Bethlehem citizens who are interested in making meaning of the world through their own lives and stories. Lead by healer, memoir coach, and writer, Jerry Waxler, the workshop I attended was a small, intimate conversation that consisted of participants alternating between sharing their writing samples and group reflection on the strengths of each one. Waxler had a measured, thoughtful, leadership style that allowed the conversation to be very free-flowing and open. This digital workshop, in non-pandemic times offered in person, reveals the power of being vulnerable and creative together.
As Waxler noted at the beginning of the workshop, the act of memoir writing inherently makes writers feel vulnerable as they are sharing personal stories about their lives. You not only have to admit to yourself some of your own shameful actions, mistakes or imperfections, but you also are taking the courageous step of opening up to the criticism of others. As I wrote my own piece of memoir to prepare for the workshop, my self-criticism was running rampant. I was anxious that my words would be generic and dull. More than that, I feared that since I am so young, I wouldn’t have much life experience to draw upon. I doubted my story was worth listening to because of this lack of originality. Despite my fear of sharing personal stories, Waxler created a space where vulnerability was not something to be feared, but something to be explored with kindness toward one’s self and other participants. Waxler made a point to normalize difficulty, suffering, and pain as welcome in a participant’s writing. He emphasized that exploring the journey of one’s life in such a concentrated way can be revelatory. The act of narrating our lived experiences back to ourselves reveals connections and patterns in our life we might never have otherwise seen.
In the amazing session I attended, participants shared essays and stories reflecting on a variety of topics: home, childhood, friendship, family, racism, emotional abuse, travel, loneliness, and self-expression. Buoyed by the genuine supportive atmosphere, I too shared my own small writing snippet. After each participant shared, Waxler offered quick comments, and then opened the floor for participants to affirm each other as well. Complex discussions of genre emerged, as well as discussions of writer’s block. We delved into why we feel that writing about something emotional or difficult was taboo, or dangerous. Reliving such emotions in our past as we write can be exhausting labor, even as it is helpful in the work of processing those aspects of our lives. We reflected on the difficulties of writing about living people, how there is often a tug-of-war between wanting to respect their privacy and yet process the indelible mark that others leave on our lives. And of course, we also struggled with the ways some things in life simply seem inexpressible, even as such memories or thoughts clamor to be explored. Jerry Waxler argued that the topics that cause us to doubt our writing can actually be the very best content. In fact, not only can these be the most interesting and profound topics for one’s writing, but Waxler also cited research that suggests that people who write about the worst things in their lives—even those who write privately, with no intention of sharing—actually go to the doctor less. According to this research then, there are health benefits to making sense of one’s life through writing.
In many ways, I experienced this workshop as a practice in listening attentively. The workshop was a space that upheld an expectation of caring and openness, so I was able to listen with openness to other’s experiences of pain, suffering, and joy without being too worried about being judged myself. This is too often not something we are able to do, because we become defensive, or are musing on our next response, or anxious about our own contributions in any given conversation. But when I listened attentively, I got swept up in the details: the fancy socks the neighborhood girls used to show off, the feeling of shampoo suds and curlers in one’s hair as the writer’s father styled her curls in their family barbershop, the bright vermilion of betel juice on a trip to Micronesia. I identified connections with these other writers not only in the beauty of their words, but through their vulnerability in sharing their cares and desires, and the way they make meaning of the world. It is a terribly relieving thing to be willing to see someone openly, and to be seen. Especially in the context of the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, this workshop provided a space to connect with other people. Waxler’s skill in facilitating discussion and mentorship of writers also reveals the power of the literary arts for building empathy.
Beyond self-reflection and meaning-making that is a benefit of memoir writing, the group dynamic also shows how community arts can help us work through difficulty, practice deliberative discussion with care and love, and provide space for our voices to be heard. As for me, I hadn’t ever truly voiced my experiences with emotional abuse in intimate relationships before, not in narrative form, and the compassionate, thoughtful, reactions of the other participants towards my story revealed something deeply important: my writer’s block about originality was unfounded. What’s far more important in a memoir are those connections your story draws between your life and others’ lives. The workshop experience, for me, illustrated the importance of the echo, of resonance. And in just an hour of sharing and conversation, a handful of Bethlehem residents were able to find that resonance with each other through the painful and beautiful stories they shared.