The Art of Writing Memoir: “A Sound from the Heart”

This past weekend, while writing a segment in my memoir about my son in the context of my larger family history, I felt a stirring in my chest, i.e., in my heart chakra. As I wrote, the stirring became a swirl that expanded through my chest cavity. When this energetic swirl began to buzz, I thought, “I am writing from my heart. I am having heart thoughts.”

The idea of “heart thoughts” brought to mind the Japanese word kokoro.

 

Years ago, before my son, now age 20, was born, I read an essay by children’s book author Katherine Paterson titled “Heart in Hiding.” In this essay, Paterson attempts to describe her experience reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover” as an undergraduate student. She writes, “Something happened to me that day I find hard to articulate. I learned something about how language works on the ear and the mind and the heart.”

 

Ah, the mind and the heart.

 

Paterson, who spent a portion of her childhood in Japan, goes on to say,

Kokoro is the Japanese word for heart. But it’s not simply heart as the seat of the emotions; kokoro is also the seat of the intellect—the mind/heart, if you will. Thus the Sino-Japanese character for “idea” combines the ideograph for the word “sound” with the ideograph for kokoro. So an idea is a sound from the heart.

 

When I first read those words as a young woman in my twenties, I experienced what Virginia Woolf would call “a moment of being”: the word kokoro gave me a word for something I knew intuitively but had no equivalent word for in English. It shocked me into a new level of awareness, of being, that has informed my writing ever since: my heart feels and thinks.

 

Hence, heart thoughts: the buzzing I felt in my chest while writing a scene that depicted my son as part of the deeper web of emotional truth at the nub—the heart—of my story.

 

Our hearts, after all, remember the truth of our experience at an emotional level.

 

In this way, then, the heart is also the seat of memory: it holds within it the deeper emotional truth of our experience. And, of course, the word memoir derives from the French mémoire, which means memory.

 

It is at this level of truth—emotional truth—that we approach the universal truth of our memoir stories. And it is by writing to the universal truth of our experience that we engage our readers at an emotional level and deliver the gift of felt human experience.

 

Paterson goes on to say in “Heart in Hiding”:

What happens is a reciprocal gift between writer and reader: one heart in hiding reaching out to another. We are trying to communicate that which lies in our deepest heart, which has no words, which can only be hinted at through the means of a story. And somehow, miraculously, a story that comes from deep in my heart calls from a reader that which is deepest in his or her heart, and together from our secret hidden selves we create a story the neither of us could have told alone.

 

Isn’t that beautiful? Seeing your writing as a call from your deepest heart to your reader’s deepest heart? Knowing that your writing carries with it the power to bring both you and your reader out of hiding?

 

Indeed, memoir is a powerful art form that returns us to our deepest knowing even as it stirs our readers’ hidden selves out of hiding.

 

So my wish for you today is that the word kokoro stir the heart thoughts deep in your chest to a buzz that becomes the sound of your heart on the page. And that this sound rings a universal truth that beckons your reader’s heart out of hiding.

 

What do you think of the Japanese word kokoro? How will you let it inform your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

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