How do you stay happy while you’re writing about unhappy things? Is there one concrete thing we can do to develop a sort of “memoirist’s Teflon”, a state wherein we can write about our most gut-wrenching memories in stinging detail — but be able to step away from the desk with every hair in place?
To get more insight into the psychological ramifications of writing a memoir, I decided to pick the brains of a few other writers who’ve gotten through the big bad memoir-writing process and lived to tell about it.
“Well, it was obviously no fun to dwell on painful memories – I got angry, I got sad, I got sentimental, and I got angry some more,” Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb told me. “But out of all the painful memories I had to re-encounter, it was especially hard for me to write about doing hard drugs, because I had to remember and recreate mental and physical sensations that I really didn’t want to experience anymore. I’d find my heart pounding uncomfortably hard when I wrote about being on cocaine, or I’d get a paranoid, dissociated feeling when writing about taking acid. One night I was writing about doing coke, and I freaked out and called a friend and went straight to her apartment, because I didn’t feel like I could stand to be alone right then. It was a very desperate, coked-up feeling.”
Erin Vincent wrote her memoir Grief Girl about her parents being in a road accident when she was 14.
“I decided to write it in my teenage voice, so forced myself to relive everything,” she said. “I realize now that I retraumatized myself. Some days as I wrote, my body would be covered in hives. I went to the hospital one night with internal bleeding, felt exhausted most of the time…I became depressed for a while. Some days I could only write for 15 minutes before needing a nap!”
Janice suffered some similar exhaustion and psychosomatic phenomena:
“I experienced a period of intense exhaustion, where I thought I had narcolepsy or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or something, because I’d be working on the book, and I’d get so dizzy and tired that I’d have to lay down on the floor by my desk and shut my eyes for a while.”
But, Janice also says, “It got easier with each draft. The first draft was the hardest, and then I had to go deeper for the second draft. But I’d already had some practice in confronting the material, so at least none of it was a surprise anymore. By the third draft, I could see it as a story with characters, and not so much as real people and events. And now it’s like someone else wrote it; it feels so distant from my current life.”
David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades, had a completely different experience.
“I didn’t find the process of writing about painful things to be inherently painful. I think that for me, I was cushioned a bit in that I was a writer who decided to write a memoir, rather than an individual who just wanted to tell my story. Being a writer enabled me to approach the subject matter as a work, rather than something that had happened ‘to’ me.”
So there may be some hope of a painless process yet! But what if your memoir-writing experience does end up being as visceral as Janice or Erin’s? Will that really be such a bad thing?
“I had to revisit some very painful experiences, and own up to things I’d done that I really wasn’t proud of,” Janice admits. “But now that I’ve been honest about those things, I’m glad – writing the book helped me put a lot of old demons to rest.”
Aside from getting some kind of personal pay-off from surviving an emotional writing journey, perhaps the trip will be more bearable if we can get over ourselves and think of how the final product might serve someone else. Wade Rouse, author of three memoirs including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, points out:
“(Writing a memoir is) not for the weak of heart, and there is great risk, not the least of which is emotionally. But you know by writing your truth you are helping someone else reach his. You also know that people will, undoubtedly, be hurt in some way, big or small, by what you are sharing. Still, the very best memoirs force us to hold up a collective mirror to our faces and take a good, long, hard look at our lives, even though they reflect someone else’s.”
In order to write her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer, Tania Katan got visceral with her memories on purpose.
“In order to access all of the feelings around cancer, chemotherapy, toxic relationships and unsavory phlebotomists, I had to go back and experience all of those things in my body. I would sit with a stack of journals and start reading about being in the oncologist’s office awaiting treatment, and that would trigger a vivid image of me in that space, and soon I was feeling the prick of the needle in my vein and tasting the bleach-like chemicals in my mouth. That’s the only way for me to write an accurate description of what I went through and by doing so, I allow my audience to experience these things as if they’re going through it, too.”
Wade told me, “It’s impossible to pen a memoir—about any piece of your life—by distancing yourself from your life. You must laugh, and cry, and scream, and writhe, just like you did the first time. That’s when you know you’re getting it right … and real.”
I asked Erin: Do you think one sacrifices an intensity of writing by attempting to keep past emotions at a distance?
“Absolutely! That’s why I immersed myself in my past. I wanted ‘Grief Girl’ to be raw and immediate. I wanted the reader to feel they are there with me.”
Janice agreed. “Unfortunately, I think you have to be a ‘method writer’ – you have to use your emotions in the same way actors do in order to perform well. You have to dredge up the ugly stuff and use it, or your writing will be flat.”
So I guess we all just have to batten down the hatches and hold on tight. If you’re determined to write a memoir, you’ll want to bring forth the most remarkable work you have in you. Be willing to dig deep, to sob and pummel pillows. Surely, though, there are SOME things we can do to minimize the trauma and stay positive.
Janice confided, “I’ve been in therapy for the last eleven years; my book is dedicated to my shrink, Judith. There’s no way I could have come to a place in my life where I was stable and happy and motivated enough to tackle this project had I not been in therapy. She cheered me through the draft, and held my hand through the really hard parts.”
Therapy was also helpful to Tania, “both creatively and personally. It doesn’t hurt to learn about yourself in-depth when you’re trying to write about yourself in-depth, you know?”
Janice found other ways to keep the more bleak aspects of her memoir from coloring her here-and-now (which may be especially helpful if you can’t afford a therapist):
“I tried to have as much fun in the present as possible. And I tried to treat writing like it was any other job. I set goals, and rewarded myself for working hard.”
“My advice would be to think of the protagonist of your memoir as a character, rather than as a literal (no pun intended) version of yourself,” David suggested. “The protagonist (who only happens to be you) suffers, laughs, loves—the writer (who also only happens to be you) records these events in an exciting, meaningful, and truthful way. You’re the court stenographer.”
Tania had a great idea:
“Keep two journals. One is the Emotional Journal. The other is the Writing Journal. Allow yourself the freedom to write all of the feelings and fucked up thoughts you have in your Emotional Journal without editing. Let the words sit for a bit, then go back and read. See how fucked up you were just a few days ago. Smile and relish in the fact that you have grown. Now get dressed and grab your Writing Journal and start crafting a coherent story. When you feel like you are not being true to the emotional content of your story, go back to your Emotional Journal and access the real, raw stuff. But whatever you do, don’t mistake one journal for the other. Both serve a purpose. One is a soliloquy and the other is a dialogue.”
Since Wade’s first memoir America’s Boy was composed of short chapters and vignettes from his life, he says he “tried to intersperse the difficult parts with big doses of humor, and memories of good times. That helped me come back from the abyss many times.”
Wade’s experience is a reminder that we’re not required to write our first drafts in any prescribed order. We don’t have to write chronologically or linearly. When we get through a rough chapter, we’re free to give ourselves a break by working on a “fun part” before diving into another harrowing event from the past. We’re in control. (Why is that so hard to remember?)
What memoirists like Janice, Tania, David, Erin and Wade have shared with me only reaffirms what I think I already knew. My fellow memoirist-in-the-making Mary Elizabeth said it best:
“…as you’re writing and reliving things, you’re deeply aware that you got through them.”
Hey…that’s right. We got THROUGH our pasts! We made it!
We’ve got everything we need to make the journey back again. We know the terrain. In fact, each of us is the world’s foremost expert on our own pasts! Plus, we’re going back armed with the insight of age and experience. You’ve got my own experience, and the travel tales that “been-there” memoirists have been kind enough to share.
Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone.