I hear you…

Writing memoir is about listening. Not to what you hear out there—there’s a lotta noise out there.

Writing memoir is about turning your ear inward and listening for your story’s heartbeat, which is where your voice resides.

Hi, I’m Marilyn, and I didn’t always know that I had a voice. Hell, when I started writing, I had no idea what a voice was! That was decades ago.

Now I teach women who are done with silence how to free their voice, claim their truth, and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness.

My Writing Journey

I

Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor who wore tweed jackets. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about a girl with anorexia. I was nervous but—drumroll!—my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)

Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been culturally conditioned to silence her truth from everyone, including herself. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”

I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.

II

Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and the craft of voice. I also studied voice as integral to a woman’s sense of self, a subject not mainstream in the late eighties. Hell, not mainstream now.

My studies on women and voice led me to a course taught by Gail Collins-Ranadive at Georgetown University called Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail was the antithesis of the famous novelist professor. She said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.” She said, You will each hear yourself and others name what you didn’t know you knew.” She said, “Do not interrupt yourself or anyone else. Simply listen to what has come up and out through the hand onto the page.”

In that writing circle, my voice came through my hand and connected me to something larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.

When that course ended, I started my own women’s circle. Four young women in our twenties listening to ourselves and each other name what we didn’t know we knew.

Do any of you hear a voice? Yes, I hear a voice.

III

Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and to lead women’s writing circles.

One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat is the founder of Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA). She said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.” Yes, oh, yes. I became a certified AWA group workshop leader.

IV

I took a creative nonfiction course with Kate Hopper. During a writing prompt, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page.

Uh oh. My mother’s red medical book. There was a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.

Kate said, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” She said, “I want to hear more.” She said, When you’re ready to write it.”

V

Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction—a genre that includes memoir—and guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to tell that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.

Earning an MFA did make me a better writer and teacher. I studied the craft of writing memoir. I learned to sniff out the images and metaphors that tell a story’s deeper truth. I learned that every story has a deeper truth. I learned that without its deeper truth a story is not yet a story. I wrote (and rewrote) memoir stories that readied me to write my memoir.

VI

I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?

I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and the winding road of experience as both a writer and a teacher to understand that everyone has a voice, and that part of a writing teacher’s job is to create a safe space for that voice to come out of hiding onto the page. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety.” Julia Cameron says.

Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.

VII

Every twist and turn in my writing journey has readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now deep in the revision process of writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.

The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.

Earning an MFA did make me a better writer and teacher. I studied the craft of writing memoir. I learned to sniff out the images and metaphors that tell a story’s deeper truth. I learned that every story has a deeper truth. I learned that without its deeper truth a story is not yet a story. I wrote (and rewrote) memoir stories that readied me to write my memoir.

VIII

Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.

That’s the thing about stories: they have a heartbeat, a pulse, a voice. A soul. I think it’s the soul of a story that thrusts us onto a writing journey in the first place. Stories, after all, are healers, and we are nothing if not creatures wired to heal.

 

About Marilyn

I am a writer and a writing teacher. Over the years I have also come to think of myself as a healer. Here’s a story: In 2013 I was teaching an early version of Excavate Your Truth/Free Your Voice. In those days my Writing Women’s Lives classes met in my writing room at my house. A woman named Maryann was in this particular class. Maryann is a shaman. At the end of the course, she pulled me aside and said, “You realize you’re a shaman, right?”

Um, no?

A shaman, she pointed out, guides someone on a healing journey.

You lead women on a journey out of silence and heal their voices through writing,” she said. “You’re a healer. Writing is your medium.

You lead women on a journey out of silence and heal their voices through writing,” she said. “You’re a healer. Writing is your medium.

I understood where she was coming from. As someone who has recovered my voice through writing, I know firsthand that silence is a painful, debilitating wound and that recovering one’s voice from silence is profoundly healing. Yet, at the same time, I was uncomfortable by her comment, afraid, perhaps, that it would mark me as too woo-woo for literary circles. And if there’s one thing I am, it is unapologetically literary. Literary memoir—which is to say memoir of substance, depth, and meaning—is kinda like my religion.

Then something else happened.

At the time that Maryann called me a shaman, I was also teaching writing at a local college. My syllabus included critical reading, critical writing, research, grammar, analysis. This course was academic, nothing woo-woo about it. And yet, on the last day of class, a young woman sat back in her chair, stretched and yawned, and said, “This was the most therapeutic class I’ve ever had.” I laughed and said, “Please don’t tell that to the administration.” I was only half-joking. Would the college invite me back if they knew students found my classes to be therapeutic?

What did my student mean by therapeutic anyway?

I think the intangible—dare I say therapeutic—quality I bring to my work as a writing teacher stems from my intuition. I am an intuitive empath. I have a sixth sense for seeing beneath the surface of a story to its deeper emotional truth. My ability to coax a story out of hiding to the page makes my heart leap. Without trying to, I seem to create the conditions for people and their stories to be seen and heard.

Here’s a funny tidbit about me: When my husband Steve and I go to parties, I’m inevitably the last one to leave, engrossed by a story someone is telling me. Sometimes the person telling me their story says, “Wow, I’m not sure what made me tell you that.” Steve, he’s used to it. We’ve been married for a long time. He dubbed me the Story Midwife ages ago when Writing Women’s Lives Academy was but a blip on the horizon.

Another tidbit:

Me: Do you ever see people as walking stories?
Steve: Yes.
Me: Yeah, me, too.

Since Maryann called me a shaman, a comment I now hold dear, I’ve rethought the term woo-woo.

Woo-woo, I think, is an umbrella term that includes the feminine energies of intuition and empathy, energies that are devalued—not seen, not heard—in a patriarchal culture. Yet these are the very qualities that make me who I am as a writer and writing teacher.

 

Woo-woo, I think, is an umbrella term that includes the feminine energies of intuition and empathy, energies that are devalued—not seen, not heard—in a patriarchal culture. Yet these are the very qualities that make me who I am as a writer and writing teacher.

 

Without them, I may never have picked up my pen, turned my ear inward, set out on my writing journey. Which has brought me here, to Writing Women’s Lives Academy, where I am so glad to be.

Wherever you’re at on your writing journey, welcome. I’m glad you’re here, too.

Sign-up for the Raise Your Voice Free Writing Workshop!

scrabble tiles that spell writing word

A Brief History of Writing Women’s Lives Academy

I taught my first Writing Women’s Lives™ course in 2012 at a downtown arts center converted from an old factory. But the overhead air duct was loud, which made it hard to hear. Because hearing each other read our writing aloud is central to the way I lead writing workshops, I moved my classes to my house, where we sat in a circle of eclectic chairs in my writing room around a table spread with my mother’s cardamom bread. (No, I did not inherit her bread-making gene.) It was not unusual for my poodle, Lexie, to join us, curled in my lap, scarfing what she could from my plate and, yeah, farting as she pleased.

I had no initial plans to teach my classes online. An online format, it seemed to me, would compromise my cardinal rule that every woman who wishes to share her writing be heard voice-to-voice, as I like to say. I’m a mama bear about this. And for good reason.

I’ve witnessed the power sharing and responding to each other’s work in real time has on women’s writing and their confidence as writers. I’ve seen women deepen their connections not only to their writing and to each other but also to each other’s writing.

 

I’ve witnessed the power sharing and responding to each other’s work in real time has on women’s writing and their confidence as writers. I’ve seen women deepen their connections not only to their writing and to each other but also to each other’s writing.

 

How could I possibly replicate the conditions for such lively interaction online?

Then two things converged. First, I began to receive messages from women far and wide who’d found their way to my website and wanted to know if I would consider teaching online. A number of these women lived in places where writing classes were few and far between, never mind courses designed to help women recover their voice from silence. I even heard from one woman who lived in a city with writing classes to choose from, but she sought the anonymity of an online community where she could write about something she was not ready to share with her local writing group.

At this same time, I myself happened to be taking an online energy medicine course that met by weekly teleconference calls. Granted, this was not a writing course, but our teacher was warm and personable, and she made sure that everyone who wanted to share had a chance to speak. It dawned on me as I listened and shared and forged connections that perhaps I could adapt this model for online writing workshops.

The rest, as they say, is history. My first online course met via live teleclasses in the summer of 2014 with such success that some of the women who met in that class continue to write together today in the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Inner Circle, an ongoing writing group that gathers twice a month for virtual writing retreats. These days, our online classroom sports both a teleconference platform and a chatbox. Best of both worlds: We can hear each other’s voices and read each other’s comments.

As Lori, a founding member of the WOLS Inner Circle, wrote in the chatbox at a recent Open-Mic Reading “We connect our hearts thru our words.”

I’ll admit I’m not the most techie tool in the shed. There are times when the technical side of teaching online challenges me in hair-pulling ways. But you know what? I would not change it for anything.

Through the online classes and mentoring programs at Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, I’ve met women who’ve become my dear writing sisters and friends. We are a community of women who write together and grow together. We are the real deal. I love us. No, I double-love us. We are writing true.

 

Through the online classes and mentoring programs at Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, I’ve met women who’ve become my dear writing sisters and friends. We are a community of women who write together and grow together. We are the real deal. I love us. No, I double-love us. We are writing true.

As for Lexie my poodle? She’s aged over the years. These days she’s in doggy diapers. But she’s still here, curled in my lap during online writing retreats, where there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hear her snore during a writing prompt.

As for her farts?

Not to fear. She saves those for me : ).

Short Bio

Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives(™) Academy. Her holistic approach to writing integrates the craft of writing memoir with the consciousness work necessary for women to claim their voice from silence.

A certified Amherst Writers and Artists group writing facilitator, Marilyn holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her published writing appears in numerous literary magazines. Her memoir-in-progress explores the correlation between the female body, sense of self, and voice.

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