Writing to Heal Our Ancestors
I was reading Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring last month, when a particular section stopped me cold. Chapter 11, to be specific: "Ancestors as Source."
"When I was just beginning my teaching career, I attended a reading given by Joyce Carol Oates. In talking about her writing process, she mentioned the idea of writing to heal one's ancestors. I hadn't thought about writing for that purpose before, but once I heard the phrase, it was obvious to me how true it was. Writing is a way we can rewrite our stories. A way to understand the chaos of our lives and worlds."
Its truth immediately became obvious to me, too. My memoir isn't just about my family's history; it's my vehicle for making sense of their past. And if I can't offer my ancestors healing, I hope to at least learn from their past, and prevent the suffering they experienced--the mental illness, the sex abuse--from rippling through future generations.
For writers on similar paths, Herring offers several questions:
- Where do you think your writing comes from?
- How does the past figure into your writing?
- Do writers have a responsibility to the past?
- Can the past be escaped?
"How much do you connect with your genetic ancestry? How many stories are there in each generation you can trace? Just as with all aspects of writing, look to the stories that are unspoken to find the ones with a lot of energy. Look to the moment your aunt's lips become a straight line of silence or your cousin's eyes close for a moment for longer than a blink. In those moments are stories."
According to recent epigenetic research, those stories might affect our lives more than we originally thought. Traumatic events have been shown to leave genetic scars that can affect the behaviors of future generations.
"They become a part of us," writes Dan Hurley in Discover Magazine, "a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. ... You might have inherited not just your grandmother's knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn."
If this is indeed true, as research has shown, then writing to heal our ancestors isn't just a feel-good exercise. It's a crucial way to temper the traumas handed down to us from past generations.