Telling a Life Story Can Be Painful or Beautiful. Which One is Yours?

by Matilda Butler on February 24, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #70 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Painful Way to Tell a Family History

As you probably know, I am spending a month in Hawaii in order to get some writing (and walking in the sun) done. As a wonderful break from our work routine, we have friends visiting from Maryland. This lets us go to favorite tourist places where we haven’t been in more than 25 years. A few days ago, we drove to the Polynesian Cultural Center where we spent an enjoyable long afternoon learning about Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Marquesas, Aotearoa-Maori, and French Polynesia/Tahiti. Each area had a performance or speaker who shared information about the island’s culture, history, and crafts. We even saw how to make a sweet coconut bread that is cooked in banana leaves over hot rocks.

memoir writing, storytellingIn one area, we learned that in ancient Tahiti, the eldest son’s entire body was tattooed with the family’s story. The designs told of the history as well as the current members of the family.

Although the photo (taken from Wikipedia) shows a modern day tattooed lower body, you can still get the idea. The story was on the body, placed there using primitive tools. Painful is the only way I can describe what this must have been like.

Writing a family story can be painful. Recalling past hurts may be painful. Even digging into one’s history can be painful. Yet from this pain, you have both the opportunity to keep and share your story. And as you work your way through the pain of writing, through the pain of tattooing your story, you may find a form of healing.

Beautiful Way to Tell a Family Story

2013-Hula-Dance, memoir writingAt the opposite end of the continuum is storytelling via the hula. The body tells a story through motion. The beauty of these motions stay with the viewer. Yesterday, we visited The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum to better understand the anthropology of the Polynesians. In exhibit after exhibit and room after room, we saw the artifacts of their lives. A hula dancer taught us — a big group of willing but untrained — the words and motions to a hula. Story is powerfully told through dance and song.

The photo, taken yesterday at a gift store, is more commercial than the dancer at the Bishop Museum. But even these two dancers conveyed stories. I just kept thinking, “What a beautiful way to tell a story.”

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Write the core or heart of your story. Do this in a single paragraph.

2. Then think about whether you have a painful story to tell in your memoir or a happy story to share. Write which is true for your story.

3. If the story is painful, write how you want to find healing as you write through the pain.

4. If the story is happy, write how you can find the melody, the thread of your story so that you can share it with others.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Graham-Waldon March 13, 2013 at

Like most lives, mine has been both happy and sad. And although the story I am telling in my memoir is painful, as I review and relive the experiences of my life, I am relishing the joyous and happy memories that are being uncovered as well.

Matilda Butler March 13, 2013 at

Martha: Thanks for your comment. The good balances the bad times and memoir writing is the perfect way to reflect on the sum of our lives. I’m glad that your writing is bringing out your “joyous and happy memories” as well.

Pamela Jane July 16, 2013 at

Matilda, thanks for another great post! I think that even when there are sad or painful memories, the very act weaving a story from them is joyful. Also, one can often find humor in even the darkest memories.

Matilda Butler July 16, 2013 at

Pamela, I agree. And indeed, with the passage of time, it is sometimes possible to find humor in the situation.

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