Facing Shame: How Writing My Memoir Became A Spiritual Journey
Guest blog post by Laura Whitfield, who is writing a memoir entitled, All the Faces Looking Back at Me. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband Stephen. You can follow Laura at laurawhitfield.com.
People write memoir for many different reasons—as a way to process trauma, find healing, or even take revenge on family members who may not have been as nice as they could have been. I didn’t start writing my memoir for any of those reasons. I began writing down my stories because I felt compelled to do so. It was something I couldn’t not do.
My story begins with the sudden death of my brother, Lawrence. He had been my True North and all at once I was catapulted into the Universe without a compass. Shortly after his accident, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and found hope and a path forward. A few years later, I graduated high school, moved away from home, and began taking a path of my own. I’d understood the Jesus as Savior part; making Him Lord was a different matter. So off I went, doing my own thing. For years. I never lost faith. I believed. I just wanted to do faith my way. And I tried, and failed, time and again.
My memoir has evolved into the story of my journey back to faith. As I began to write, I stumbled upon dark painful memories that I could barely confront. I’d tell my editor, I dread writing this next chapter. I’d procrastinate, take naps, read—anything to avoid writing down the “Terrible Awful” (acts of my own doing), like the one Minny finally confesses to in The Help. I hadn’t made a sh** pie, but, actually, I had. Lots of them. As I began to remember, I fell into shame. How on earth could I face my past, much less share it with the world?
I’d pray, and finally, type this or that onto a blank Word document. Why am I doing this? Because I must. Still, shame persisted. Then one day I ran across a passage from Frederick Buechner, a trusted sage whose wisdom I have leaned on over the past few years. When Buechner was a young child, his father committed suicide. As he wrote about this, he asked God to walk with him down the halls of his memory and, as he opened each door, to bless what he found inside. So that’s what I started doing. As I’d sit down to write each day, I’d pray that simple prayer and add, Okay, God, here we go. Then I’d begin.
That’s when something began to change. Not only with my writing, but with me. First, I realized I’d been walking around with baggage I didn’t even know I had. Secondly, I began to see my shame for what it was. Ephesians 5:13 says, “But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (NASB). Opening the doors of my memory released that shame and brought it to light, where it could no longer survive. In the process of discovery, shame lost its grip on me. I remembered Who I belonged to; who I was in Christ.
I thought I knew a lot about shame. I’d been following Brené Brown’s shame research for years. I’d read her book, Daring Greatly. I’d even taken her COURAGEworks class, where I spent weeks learning about shame. Brené puts it like this:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It derives its power from being unspeakable. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. . . . Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”1
When I began asking God to enter with me into my shame, that’s when it not only began to be exposed, but destroyed.
“The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are … but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret … the saddest things can become … a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. “
It’s through these memories, Buechner emphasizes, that “we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off.” In all that happens to us over the years, “God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.”2
These days I’m looking shame right in the eye and saying, You don’t own my story. I do. And I get to write the ending.* So, while I didn’t start out writing my memoir as part of a spiritual journey, that’s exactly what it’s become. And I’m grateful.
1 Brown, Brené, (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Penguin.
2 Buechner, Frederick, (2000). Telling Secrets. New York: HarperCollins.