This Spiral Life

Searching For Wholeness In My Memoir Writing; Giving Voice To The Villains

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(1479 words)

Everyone carries emotional pain in their heart, the embodied trauma of our lives and our ancestors’. According to California’s surgeon general, Nadine Burke Harris two third of the populations have dealt with Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). I think the rest who didn’t, have been traumatized through cultural pressures and limitations in one way or another. Dr. Gabor Mate in his recent documentary The Wisdom of Trauma states that trauma is a hidden pandemic. All of us need to pay attention to the pain, instead of trying to escape from it.

To process the pain, many people have embraced memoir writing as a form of personal and collective trauma therapy. Those of us who become memoirists have a responsibility to take care of ourselves while writing. We are also responsible for writing trauma-informed stories that show the complex multi-layered human pain and resiliency in all characters in our stories.

Creative writing is going through an era of exploring different parts of our identities and piecing them in a bigger picture. What we read from today’s writers helps us connect to a deeper universal pain of human life. Shared stories that help us deepen our understanding about various Native American tribes and their beliefs; Palestinians and Jews and their long, complicated conflict; the many different reasons for immigration; the personal and collective emotions existing in LGBTQ+ communities; and all other unlimited dimensions of beings, the wholeness of life and all the pain it carries. We read and write not only to know each other, but to learn that villains were human beings, maybe with more pain in their closed hearts, and to find a piece, even a little piece, a nuance of ourselves and our pains in each of these stories; learning about non-conventional possibilities and freeing more of our potential by releasing our pain to live more fully.

Being an Iranian is only part of my identity but there is so much more to who I am. I explored the Iranian part and its traumas in some depth in My Persian Paradox, my first memoir. I am currently writing about the follow-up, American part of the story. But how about other dimensions of me; being a woman, a mother, a writer who gains deep satisfaction from writing but doesn’t write much, a Psychology lover and human behavior observer, a wife, a plant lover, a storyteller, a dog lover, a person with biases and hidden biases, a person who has repressed anger in her, a person who fears community building, a person with deep doubts on structured religions, and so many more that I know and I don’t even know about. All those untested strengths.

As part of the epidemic need for self-discovery and self-development, like many others, I have been an avid learner of self-help subjects. The combination of therapy and studying self-help resources have been helping me to move along that path of development and emotional growth.

Therapy especially has lifted me, and brought awareness of my subconscious.

Reading and intellectually understanding the information made me realize the pain. Getting in touch with the pain, however, didn’t immediately help me get into the healing process. I needed my brain to learn about it, but gradually I felt the need of involvement of my heart and body to feel it, to practice it, to live it. I could see the trauma and repression. I didn’t know how to deal with the depth of it, let alone writing about the healing process . I needed a teacher, a guide, and a community to help me embody what I have been learning, to learn it not just with my brain but sense it through my body and process it through my heart; to integrate different pieces of me, known or forgotten – dark or light. This assimilation needed more integrated practices. Therapy and studying are parts of it, but there is more to it. This type of integration would help me to begin coming out of my denial mode, accept myself and the world as is, in order to see the opportunities for growth, and to realize more of my potential towards wholeness. What I mean by wholeness is to be part of a bigger system of being and to believe that there is always more than one point of view; To give voice to everyone, even the villain of my story. We’ve heard that “the people who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it most.”

I long to write and tell stories that explore different parts of me in relation with the systems I have been living in. And what I mean by that is to delve into myself and other characters in my stories and see each of us as a whole soul, see the dynamic of the system we interacted in, feel the pain we all carried in our hearts. Exploring those back stories that shed light on the hidden pain that caused aggression, jealousy, and selfishness, and all other trauma-caused hurtful behavior, I want to write those tales about the darkness of trauma and its transformation to light. To use storytelling to create empathy and acceptance, to see the pain beyond the hurtful behavior, to process the pain, to forgive, to create change, and to move on with more resiliency.

Stories about a mother’s harsh discipline, father’s hurtful criticism, the uncle with his sharp tongue, the neighbor who always cautioned or actually scared everyone by her stories of burglary two blocks away, about the friend who always compared her situation and expressed her disappointment, the stepmother whose bad words damaged relationships, the little boy in the neighborhood who was always called a trouble-maker, the cousin who reminded us of Eeyore and his gloomy point of view, the other one who disrespected women, the acquaintance who didn’t welcome immigrants. Stories about my deep shame of not being enough every time I expressed an idea, the fear of being disliked by others, and about the judgmental analysis I run on my aunt’s behavior.

Each one of these characters has more than one dimension of being and they carried tremendous pain in their hearts. People dealt with the tension created from their personal experience and intergenerational traumas. We are confused. We hurt each other while we love each other. A lot of time we create stories with no substance to numb ourselves and get away from the pain. And we skip the backstories to escape from the deep heavy pain in our hearts.

I think not discovering the pain and the resiliency that came with it makes one’s writing shallow, showing only the face value. Compromising on the backstories and the underlying pain, the root cause, means we are not telling the whole story. Real stories, true memoirs, and personal essays need to shed light on the undercurrent of tension in the atmosphere. Otherwise, they are only bunch of words about a limited point of view. I should know how to add the hidden gem of the underlying pain to the story – coming from not only my brain but being poured onto the paper through my body and my heart, allowing the reader to see each character inside out.  That’s when I share a true story that helps us attain deeper self-discovery towards wholeness. It is still one point of view but connected compassionately to others. It becomes part of the collectiveness and universality of being a human!

I first learned about this concept when I started writing my first memoir almost six years ago. I’ve continued learning about this never ending transformation. To deepen this practice in my life including my writing life, a couple of years ago, I joined the Integral Life community and have enjoyed the deep practices they offer in integrating different pieces of ourselves and the world into our life.

This is a community that follows the school of thought of the great thinker Ken Wilber who has introduced, enhanced, and popularized the Integral Life Theory. While I participated in integral practices through this community, I felt I needed more coherent practices and deeper learning. I decided to take training to become an Integral life Coach myself. I started my one year certification program with New Venture West (NVW). Learning to process the difficult emotions through tested techniques within a safe community and transforming them to power have become a great tool for a deeper dive in writing my second memoir and has shown me stronger connection to life. It allows me to see myself and others as pure souls covered by layers of darkness and pain. I am hungrier to write about those who I resented or judged, to bring their stories to my story, to think about their pain and to see my pain in it, To explore our entanglements and transforming them to a powerful net of life. Wholeness.

Let’s celebrate life!

Editing credit: Mike Curtis

Author: Shabnam

Shabnam Curtis was born and raised in Tehran, experiencing the Iranian Revolution of 1979 firsthand. In 2004 she immigrated to the United States, where she now works as a project analyst by day and a passionate writer all other time. Shabnam teaches memoir writing workshops and is working on her second memoir (sequel). She lives in Virginia, with her husband and two dogs. Her motto is "We all have a story to tell. Share your story, listen to others' stories. Create more EMPATHY & LOVE!"

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