Memoir writers I work with often comment on their stories with statements like, “I wrote about this topic seven years ago, but I don’t see things the same way now.” A great thing about memoir writing is that it provides the opportunity to learn from and reflect on experiences through the process of putting words on the page. A great writing prompt for writers wanting to explore lessons learned is: That was then, this is now.
I recently used this prompt to defuse a situation with one of my writing mentors, someone I’ve been in relationship for more than ten years. This woman supported me through my early writing process, guiding me through to the publishing stage of my memoir. In our first years together, I experienced her as a mother figure: kind, compassionate and a great listener. After publishing I launched myself into my own business and have since returned to support other clientele within her company. Writing in my journal, I started to recognize a relationship pattern from an earlier time.
THAT WAS THEN: In my relationship with my mentor, I sometimes responded unconsciously as if she was my mother. The mother who seldom made eye contact, except when she was angry. The woman who used sarcasm and humiliation as a parenting technique. My requests for help with my biological mother were met with cruelty rather than kindness, so as an adult, I limited my time with her.
- I’d experience feelings of abandonment, red flags, lights flashing, danger!
THIS IS NOW: Journaling with my pen and notebook, I was able to write about a compassionate understanding of the present situation. Whatever was happening with my mentor was not a deliberate attempt to leave me out of important conversations. She’s creating a new program and she’s mindfully choosing what needs to happen next. I’m part of the bigger vision, it wasn’t time for us to meet and go into any details about my role in the company.
During my journal writing, I crafted the words I wanted to say to my mentor, so I didn’t completely silence myself. Respectful words, not the angry spew I vented onto the page at the beginning of my practice.
- I asked for a conversation, so we didn’t fall into old patterns of making assumptions. My mentor thanked me for making this request.
THAT WAS THEN: “Who do you think you are? I’m in charge here, you live in my house, you live by my rules.” “You are getting a big head. I have to cut you down to size.”
THIS IS NOW: “Thank you for your request. When can we meet?”
Memoir writing sometimes requires that we enter painful memories and difficult times. We may write ourselves into the pain without intending to arrive there. If this happens to you, you can explore that earlier time in as much detail as you are able to tolerate. That was then. Bring yourself back to the present by writing using the prompt: This is now.
The process of moving between past and present day can give you a safe way to step in, then step out when the emotional charge is too high. It’s also a way to create meaning from the past, a way to digest past experiences to share with your readers. It’s a time for self-reflection, for touching the edges of unexplored challenges.
Even when everything feels the same as the original traumatizing, difficult event, remember: This is now. This is not my mother, not seeing or hearing me for who I really am.
This is me now, growing beyond the edges of who I thought I was, beyond the limits of what I once thought was possible. A simple writing prompt, “That was then, this is now” is one to return to again and again. I suggest you try it. I invite you to post your insights from this exercise in Marie’s Writing Oasis, my private Facebook group.