Use ‘The 3 Gates of Speech’ When Writing Memoir

The Gates of SpeechIt was a summer day in 1977; I was watching “Days of Our Lives” with my mom while she folded laundry. The announcer broke in. “Elvis is dead,” he said, and my mom cried. I was too young to follow politics, and two years later, I would barely register the upheaval in Iran, but in my world, Elvis Presley reigned supreme. So I cried too.

It was my second week waiting tables at a vegan restaurant when I got a phone call telling me that my sister, just a teenager, swallowed a bottle-full of pills and was in the hospital having her stomach pumped. I don’t even remember who called. My mom? My boyfriend? The hospital? What is most vivid is the way I felt as I told the manager I had to leave (What would he think of me? Would I be fired?) and the way I babbled, ridiculously, that I could come back to finish my shift.

What do these moments have to do with one another? They are both stamped in my memory; one a public event, the other a private one.

We all have these “I’ll never forget where I was when….” moments that become part of our unique story. We own them, and what is ours is ours to share.

Isn’t it?

As the author of a memoir, I’ve struggled with this question. While writing one particularly raw scene, I took a break to listen to a broadcast on Unity radio. A musician named Scott Helmer was being interviewed and I heard him say, ”Just put it all out there. Allow the chips to fall where they may. That’s what allows you to move on.”

Scott’s story caught my attention because he was talking about his own near-suicide and how he found the courage to tell his family that he had nearly ended his life. And he didn’t stop there. He has continued sharing his story publicly because he wants to become what he calls a “difference maker.”

I was relieved to hear him say that because I do believe that sharing your story makes a difference. But let the chips fall where they may? Really? That approach will strike fear in the heart of any storyteller.

Because it’s one thing for us to share our own mistakes, like Scott. But maybe your mom doesn’t want to be reminded of the time she beat you with a hairbrush. Maybe your employer doesn’t want you describing the way he hits on his secretary. Maybe my sister doesn’t want me linking her to teenage suicide.

So who gets to say where your story ends and another person’s begins?

I think that if something affects you in any way–if it scares you, thrills you, embarrasses you, makes you feel ashamed, or makes you laugh–if it claims even the smallest piece of you, then you rightfully own a piece of it. Everyone learns through stories; and all stories require storytellers.

That doesn’t mean authorship has to feel like an episode of Gossip Girl.

Rumi wrote of “The Three Gates of Speech.” The Quakers have long taught “The Three Sieves.” They’re referring to three questions that are helpful to ask in any situation. They work especially well when moving from ownership to authorship.

  1. Is it true? The facts are the facts and trump all else. Granted, human memory is fallible, but events should be recorded as faithfully as possible, and the spotlight should be wide enough to cast its light on your role as well as others.
  2. Is it kind? The question is not whether a player in your story will react kindly to it, because that is unforeseeable and uncontrollable, but are you coming from a place of compassion and kindness? Is your intention to be authentic and promote healing?
  3. Is it necessary? This is the question that requires the most intuition. I imagine a sort of emotional gong. Listen as you tell your story first with all the details, and then without. How loudly does each version reverberate? Which one illuminates a higher truth?

Whether you aspire to write a memoir or not, you certainly have stories that want to be shared, maybe in a blog, or in an email, or in a phone call with a friend. What are they? When you tell them, in vivid detail, leaving nothing and no one out, what purpose is being served? What is the real story that you are telling about YOU?



Behind The (1)


This blog follows my 5-step blog blueprint pretty closely:

  1. Start with a story. Check. It starts with my personal story or, in this case, two stories.
  2. Deliver the message. Next comes the nugget, or the point I’m making: We all have moments that become part of our unique story. We own them, and what is ours is ours to share. But by adding the next line, “Isn’t it?” I show that there is more to this message.
  3. Pull back the lens to include the reader. I’ve already started generalizing by saying “We own them…” rather than “I own them…” So now I’m including the reader, and I’m going to “widen” my point even further by bringing in someone else’s opinion. In this case, it’s the guy I heard being interviewed on the radio whose words caught my attention. I spend some time reacting to his words as a way to figure out my own feelings about the point I’m making. Since my message was an assertion that I was not 100 % sure about, I bring in more opinions (or “experts”) by sharing The Three Gates. This is the meat of what I want to say, that yes, our stories are ours to share, but we have to do so mindfully.
  4. Return to the lead story. This step is optional. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it didn’t seem necessary to refer back to those two stories because they are both so firmly in the past. So I went straight to….
  5. End with a question. I don’t have to wrap anything up with a fancy bow. I can leave the reader to mull this over on his own.

One thought on “Use ‘The 3 Gates of Speech’ When Writing Memoir

  1. Compelling article, Tammy. And thanks for sharing your behind-the-scenes look at the art of writing. It’s very helpful for me as a blogger. You’re a great teacher!

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