Marilyn Norry on writing women’s history, starting with your mother
It never occurred to me to write my mother’s story until I met Marilyn and attended one of her workshops on how to do just that. It was an enlightening experience, and in our conversation below, Marilyn shares a recipe to help you write your mother’s story.
Marilyn Norry is a Vancouver-based actor, playwright, and author of a new book, Writing Women’s History: starting with your mother. She is on a mission to empower each of us to write our mother’s story—about her life as a woman of her times, not just as a mother.
This might sound a little daunting; it was for me, but Marilyn makes it easy to get started, and her origin story made me see my mother’s story in a whole new light.
It all began in 2004 when Marilyn was at a wedding listening to a friend tell a story when her friend said, “To know what I mean, you have to know my mother’s story” and proceeded to tell the details of her mother’s life (born here, moved there, did this, did that) in about 5 minutes.
Marilyn found this story fascinating, and, even though she thought her mother’s life ordinary in comparison, told her friend the story of her mother’s life back, just the facts. Her friend was enchanted. A few days later Marilyn asked her women actor friends to send her the story of their mother’s life in 2000 words or less.
It became clear that regardless whether these women thought their own mothers ordinary, they did in fact lead extraordinary lives, and collectively their stories portray the history of 20th-century women, a history not recorded anywhere else.
The group started having meetings to read their stories to one another and compare experiences. Writing that simple story had been an exercise of both high anxiety and great liberation. Sharing them with friends was another experience again.
The stories collected for the project inspired the creation of numerous projects: MyMothersStory.org an online archive, writing workshops, anthologies: My Mother’s Story:The Originals (2012) and My Mother’s Story: North Vancouver (2012), radio and film documentaries, plays, and a nascent social movement, telling women’s history…one mother at a time.
In conversation with Marilyn Norry
I caught up with Marilyn recently to ask what she has learned since the inception of My Mother’s Story (MMS). Here’s our conversation.
Can you tell me why you created My Mother’s Story?
I was searching for stories of women. I felt there had to be more than the derivative characters I was auditioning for and reading in scripts and seeing on the screen. What I found was a fog of silence that prevents most people from even seeing notable aspects of women’s lives.
It’s easy for all of us to diminish the importance of women, as if half the human race doesn’t want to call attention to themselves. We downplay; we discredit; we devalue women’s lives. We all do this. For many of us, this is especially true of the stories around our mothers. We say she was nothing special, average, just a mom.
For people wanting to write memoir or biography, this fog around women’s lives makes their stories dull. Through this project, I’ve discovered many people now understand storytelling better through watching movies than reading books. Using techniques that come from writing movies and plays, they’re able to see their mothers and all women as human beings and the fog dissipates. They are able to write the stories they grew up on, the stories of their families and see them as unique and extraordinary.
Writing about your mother in this way contributes to a collective history where women are seen as well as heard. It’s about uncovering all the great stories we have within us so we can better appreciate what has shaped us – as individuals, as communities, and as the human race. It’s time to fill in the holes in our human tapestry and who best to do it than you? Who best to inspire you than your mother? We will never know the history of women until we start talking about our mothers.
Why should we write My Mother’s Story?
We are all storytellers but many people believe sit’s someone else’s job to write them down. They feel overwhelmed at the thought of writing, not knowing how to organize the swirling thoughts and emotions, the unhealed trauma of their family life into a coherent story. I say stop thinking of your life story like a book and see it as a movie. Not what you think is going on inside someone’s head, not looking at your analysis, your issues, but just what happened. That’s a story. And in this project, it’s not about you.
It’s an overlooked but useful step in individuation to make peace with who your mother actually was.Beyond honouring or praising or continuing to hate her, you will find peace when you understand her, adult to adult. As writer Mitch Albom says, her stories are where yours begin. And we need to do it because women’s history needs to be recorded. And, you’ll discover, if you write her story, you can write anything.
Yes, there are therapeutic values that will come from this but this is not therapy. We are artists creating a work of art: we are writing the story of a life.
I love that you draw upon your cinematic and theatrical background to teach us how to tell a story. Can you share your recipe?
Write your mother’s story in less than 2000 words. The facts, ma’am, just the facts, and keep yourself out of the story as much as possible. You are just one fact in her story. We call this story a “character arc” —a device used in scriptwriting to track a character’s emotional and narrative journey from beginning to end. There will be “plot points” that are most important in your mother’s life, such as her hopes and dreams, first love, graduation, adventures, marriage, and so on.
I found that exercise so illuminating. I realised I did not know a lot of details about my mother’s life before I was born, so I called her up and interviewed her— twice. I wrote up her story in time for Mother’s Day and read it to her over the phone and she thought it was pretty good. The experience has certainly helped me understand her better as her own person, just like you say.
At your book launch, you asked the audience “What did you feel at the suggestion to write your mother’s story? Delight? Fear? Outrage? Did you think what a wonderful idea for someone else?” Why do you think there is so much emotion about telling MMS?
We all have a hesitation to truly tell the story of what our mother lived through. As far as I can tell this is common all over the world. I believe it’s linked to the silence around women’s lives. Could it be we believe we have no voice just as our mother had no voice? That we can only stay safe by staying silent? As babies, we believe our survival depends on not making mom mad and some people hold on to this fear of abandonment even if their mother died 40 years ago. There’s also the fear that writing her story will involve looking at unexamined grief and resentments which can be painful. Memories often hold on to the emotions that were there at the time of the event. They dissipate in writing but few believe me when I tell them this until they really get into it.
What have you learned since you started My Mother’s Story in 2004?
Everyone has a mother and every mother has a story. Transcendence comes when these stores are shared. We experience how we’re all so different and yet so much alike. Here I found great theatre, those moments and events you hope to capture in a script, in a show, but rarely achieve. Living, authentic, heart-based stories. People don’t realize the power of the stories they grew up on.
Many people today want to write memoir or biography but it’s hard. Thoughts and feelings swirl around. How do we distinguish what’s important? What’s necessary? What’s clutter? Great literature has not helped these writers find their way. Great writers make it all look easy. They can have themes jumping back and forth in time; their meanderings are interesting and insightful.
Regular writers are rarely so clever. In movies the action has to be simple, the story contained. The strong structure of the writing recipe we use holds people to the facts of a story told in chronological order. This constantly brings writers back to their story as they organize their memories.
You describe Writing Women’s History: starting with your mother as a history lesson, a meditation journal, a project, a challenge, a manifesto, a call to action, and an archive. What is it your hope for the book? It sounds like you want to create a movement. Can you say more about that?
I hope that through this exercise people get some sense of the larger tapestry of humanity we all live in. It is so huge, so varied and contains all the good and bad, our best and worst, and the only way we can know this is by telling our stories. Especially the stories of women that haven’t been told.
Here’s one thing: The stories of our families are the most important stories of our lives. They are what made us, they are the beginning of how we have defined who we are. Here’s another thing: At this time of human history we need to record what was because our present and our future are all changing so fast. But here’s the problem: we write down facts, birthdates, marriages, deaths); but we tell stories (car trips, washing dishes, after one drink too many).
What would it take to write down the stories we know: where your mother was born, what her parents were like, how she met your father? Writing about your mother in this way contributes to a collective history where women are seen as well as heard.We can’t rely on these being saved only through oral tradition anymore. We have to write down the stories in order for them to be saved, in order for the future to know who we were.
My hope is that people realize that this exercise is an empathy builder, a community healer, a voice builder, a shame-shatterer, and the start of many meaningful conversations.
Well, I think you are on your way, Marilyn. Your book was snapped up by everyone, at your book launch — including past workshop participants. Some of us bought extra copies to give to family members and friends, a testament to the power of writing your mother’s story.
Now it’s your turn
Are you up for the challenge of writing your mother’s story in 2000 words? Marilyn’s phenomenal workbook is designed to guide you through a step-by-step process of writing the story of your mother’s life. Along the way you will be asked a series of questions for reflection and illumination, given tips for overcoming writer’s block, provided with story prompts, and a template for crafting your story.
Get started now and read your story to your mother on Mother’s Day.
(If she has passed on, read it to at least one other person close to you.)
My advice is to learn with friends. Hearing friends tell their mother’s stories motivated me to tell my own. Plus, it created a great bonding experience. Enjoy your learning journey
You are invited to post your mother’s story in the archive at www.mymothersstory.org where they are saved for present reading and future generations.
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