Meet Linda Joy Myers
Linda Joy Myers has many strings to her bow. With a Ph.D. in psychology and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, she is a therapist, a published author, and a teacher of life-writing. She has written her own memoir, titled Don't Call Me Mother, and has published Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story, a book aimed at helping other life writers to approach the often emotional process of memoir writing and to allow the writing to heal their emotional wounds. She was interviewed by Jane Ross for The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 7, No. 2, June, 2003).
Visit Linda Joy's website.
Interviewed by Jane Ross
Posted on 06/15/2003
Tell us a little about your childhood experiences and how these helped set you on your path.
I grew up with my maternal grandmother. She was very proud of having left her lower-class farm origins but at the same time ashamed of her own lack of education and culture. She left my mother when Mother was a little girl and pursued a life of work and re-acculturation in the big city of Chicago, a life which included trips to Europe. She believed that education and musical training, along with a knowledge of history and literature, would give me a good foundation. Most of her training had a positive effect, but at times her zeal descended into abusive control over my actions and learning. Luckily, I did well in school, except in math, and many teachers praised me for my efforts. These were major building blocks in seeing myself as someone who could learn and succeed. I was encouraged to be a creative, artistic person.what I think my grandmother had wanted to be, but it was too late for her. In a way, she lived through me, which gave me some confusion.
When did your interest in writing emerge? How did you discover that writing helped you cope with painful events?
I began writing as a child, even started a childish novel, but it was poetry that emerged as a savior after a friend of mine killed himself when we were sixteen. This tragedy.being abandoned by my mother and father, and my grandmother.s descent into what I now feel sure was manic-depression.fragmented my world. The beauty of the Great Plains landscape and an ability to find comfort in this natural beauty and simple things like a rose or the wind helped me, along with the power of literature to remove me from "reality." Words then were a life raft on a sea of chaos.
At 16 I began putting my thoughts, feelings, and images into poetry.bad poetry of course, but it gave me an outlet. I kept a journal in my head, as a written down version would have been read. I also was one of the finalists for a state.wide writing contest, which helped me believe in my ability to use words and to gain recognition from writing.
Tell us about your quest to find the courage to tell your story in your own way in your to-be-published memoir, Don't Call Me Mother. How did the writing process change your feelings about your family and your childhood?
I wrote and rewrote this story many times, faltering in my courage dozens of times along the way. But the most inspiring reason to complete and publish the story was the compassion I felt at my mother's deathbed in 1995. After years of searching for her love and approval, even for her recognition of me as her daughter, (hence the title, Don't Call Me Mother) I saw her as an abandoned little girl. She was left by my grandmother when she was a baby or a little girl.I'm not sure what age.and it wounded her terribly. She was also diagnosed with manic-depression in the last few weeks of her life, which helped explain her erratic, abusive, and crazy behavior over the years.
I think all the years of therapy helped me to see her as a wounded human being, terrified of death and in need of my love. Seeing her that way helped me to reflect on my grandmother in a more compassionate way as well, as she most likely had had the same illness. Things began to fall into place. I wanted to write a story about healing and love, as well as the darkness that had plagued my family for several generations. The healing has worked as I am a very happy grandmother now to a grandson I watched being born in February. For the first time in three generations, I am part of a loving mother.daughter relationship and a proud grandmother. If it took all this writing to get me there, it was worth it.
You began writing your story as a novel while you were at Mills College, in the M.F.A. program. Tell us how the story evolved into a memoir.
A fiction teacher told me that the plot of my story.which involved three generations of abandoned daughters, manic-depression, messy conflicts between my grandmother and father, and my mother's denial that I was her daughter.was too unbelievable and confusing, too dramatic and even melodramatic. She said I should change it all to make the story "work." In fiction, the truth of it didn't matter. That's when I realized "truth is stranger than fiction" and decided to present the "true" story, mess and all.
It was far more scary to write the "true" version. It meant going down into that well of darkness and finding a way out without turning away from painful aspects of the story and myself. I like to use the image of Ariadne's thread, helping me to find the way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. I kept following the "truth" as I knew it to the heart of the pain, and found through the writing more compassion for everyone in the story. Gradually as I wrote, the shame burned away, leaving a light feeling and more love and compassion for everyone.
One of the questions that you want to help your life-writing students answer is "How can I forgive and be forgiven?" How did you find the answer to this question for yourself?
Luckily, or sadly, the people in my family who comprise most of the chaos and characters in the book are all dead. It is because of the way my father and grandmother died that I became very interested in the issue of forgiveness. I saw how my grandmother's death affected my mother.with no resolution or forgiveness between them. I arranged a last minute semi-forgiveness connection between my grandmother and my father, a day before he died and ten days after her death. It was terrible, all these warring factions fighting literally until the last minute. I decided that no matter what it took or how much it cost (for therapy), I would try to come to a resolution with my mother.
For four years prior to my mother's death, I had no contact with her because I could no longer stand her rejection and abuse. However during those four years, I prepared myself through therapy and meditation to be ready when the call might come that she was ill.as I knew it would someday. As soon as it did, I got on a plane to be with her, knowing that generations of pain needed to be resolved, knowing that at death there is a possibility for clarity and compassion, and the only way to help that happen is to show up. In fact this resolution did happen, though without words, as a brain tumor had taken away my mother's speech. At least it happened for me, the narrator of this tale.
I believe that my resolution, forgiveness, and compassion carry back into the spiritual domain to help heal even those who have passed on. We continue a relationship with those we have loved forever. My goal with the memoir evolved into showing what I loved about everyone, along with the truth of the pain. In the end, I loved them all again, in a new way. I hope they can see or feel this.
You have been offering classes in memoir writing for some time now. Tell us about these.
I realized that one of the most delicious components of my inner life was the ability to remember and to reminisce. I am a nostalgia junkie to some extent. I realized that memoir writing was a way to preserve history, something I believe is very important for understanding ourselves and the world. So I started offering memoir writing classes four years ago this month with four people and now have about twenty people on average in my classes.
It is a challenge to help writers swim to new levels of understanding and healing, and sometimes it.s hard to persuade them to keep writing in spite of the dark stories. I teach them how to weave from dark to light and back again. Often they realize there was a lot more good in their lives than they remembered at first. Many students and therapy clients, taking the journey through time and memory, have told me how deeply healing they have found the writing. Some have told me that they have been able, by writing the specifics of scene and detail and inhabiting the persona of the story, to heal issues that therapy had not been able to reach. My sense is that the writing continued a therapeutic healing path already begun.
How did you come to write your new book Becoming Whole?
I had been trying to write a book on spiritual autobiography when I discovered the research into writing and healing of Dr. James Pennebaker and his colleagues. This was the link I was looking for that explained what I had observed.that writing creates change. My classes have always given me the inspiration to try and understand more about how memory, writing, and healing work. Because I believe that anyone can write a good story, I used my students' writing in the book to demonstrate that one does not need to be famous or an experienced writer to write a memoir and to write healing stories.
Dr. Pennebaker's recent work has shown that we get the most benefit from life-writing when our writing exhibits understanding and self-reflection. How does your book help us break through to a deeper level of self-reflection?
Memoir writing is a deeply psychological process. Reflecting and remembering can be quite daunting at times. The critic-censor, the voices of internalized abuse, shame, and guilt, as well as society's criticisms (Do you have to keep going back to the past all the time?) get in our way. In the book, there are many exercises designed to penetrate this wall of silence and shame. (Dr. Pennebaker was surprised to hear so many shocking stories of abuse, depression, and trauma in his studies. These stories are silenced by society, and it is clearly healing to learn to find our own voices and to speak our truth.) One student of mine is going through the book from the beginning, focusing on each exercise as a way of containing the voices that stop her from writing. Each chapter gives suggestions for breaking through and claiming the story that needs to be told as well as how to work with the family and your own ethics when deciding what to write and how to write it.
Not only are you a therapist and writer but you are also an accomplished artist. Tell us about the cover artwork for Becoming Whole.
The image arose from a dream as I began to finish the writing. Each night I'd ask my unconscious for help in writing the book and envisioning the cover. I awoke with the memory of painting I had done when I was 32 years old, a dark and light world and a split self. Always that moon is there.in nearly all my work. I resisted painting and tried to create it with photography. I hadn't painted in nearly twenty-five years. Finally the image insisted that I paint it. I love the smell and texture of oils. To my surprise, the painting happened almost of its own accord, arriving on the canvas with me simply as the conduit. She's me and not me; she is in a world of dream and potential integration. She is spirit in a world of movement from darkness into light, aspects within all of us.
What other writing and teaching projects are you working on now?
I am editing my memoir as well as preparing an outline for an on-line class. I would like to write a workbook to go with Becoming Whole and I'll also be re-writing the second volume of Don't Call Me Mother.