Friday, May 4, 2018

How to Deal with Memory and Emotions When Writing a Memoir

Several clients have emailed me lately, asking how to deal with the flood of emotions that comes with writing memoir.  "Memories bring back the feelings, especially traumatic ones, and I get stalled out with my writing," said one client recently. "Do you have any tips for handling these overwhelming emotions so I can keep writing?"

I'm very familiar with that internal flood.  When I was writing my second memoir (a spirituality memoir with self-help components called How to Master Change in Your Life), I remember working on a chapter about business failure and bankruptcy.  Reliving that terrible time was so difficult, I actually had to run to the bathroom and throw up.  Other times I'd get so stuck, I couldn't write one word.

Two things were happening:  I was processing what I hadn't finished. And, at the same time, I was trying to get enough of a perspective to tell the story for others.

This double duty affected me on so many levels, I sought help.  Talking about the events with others, especially a therapist, helped the processing part.  I moved through shame and sadness, anger and fear, to gradual acceptance. I also got great help from resources like The Tapping Solution, my daily mediation or spiritual practice, and chanting to get above the constant mental chewing over what happened (here's a short video on a chant that helped me the most). Walking was my next rescue remedy.  Whenever it just got too much, I got up and moved.  Even thirty minutes out in the fresh hour was incredibly helpful.  

But serious trauma work requires serious help.  I know many memoirists who work regularly with therapists while they're writing very sticky parts of their books.  It's no-foolin' kind of work, so no shame in hiring professionals to help.

As I processed internally, I was trying to write. I found a morning freewrite a great warm-up and way to get above the emotional swamp.  Morning pages, a la The Artist's Way, helped me process out the dross and get closer to what I wanted to write about that day.  I also drew from a handy list of topics, my  "brainstorming list," selecting one each day for a 20-minute freewrite after my morning pages.  If I tried to do the more serious writing without either step--the processing writing and the warm-up writing--the emotions flooded back and I got too overwhelmed to proceed.  

Then there was the challenge of memory itself. Letting memories emerge was not always easy. Often, they were fuzzy at first.  I read old journals, talked to friends or family, wrote down what I knew to allow more to come. Patricia Hampl's classic book on memoir writing, I Could Tell You Stories, proved very useful for this task. I couldn't push myself or my memory would block up, so writing in short bursts worked better than forcing longer stretches. I set a timer for 45 minutes and made myself take a break when it rang: fold laundry, drink a glass of water, step outside for some air, read, move to music. 

Trusting my memories was also part of the writing process.  At first, I doubted.  I remember talking with my sister about my grandmother's death; my grandmother was deeply devout but after being mugged one day on her apartment steps, she lost her faith and her interest in living. She died soon after. My sister remembered the story so differently, I lost my certainty in my own memory. But I learned over the course of my books that my truth was as accurate as anyone else's and I had to keep both courage and belief in my story to write it.

For your writing exercise this week, check out some of the links above or these great articles on how to navigate the emotional storm of memoir writing.


And if you're a novelist, take a breath and enjoy.  Your characters may have to go through this, but you may not--unless like many novelists, you draw from experience for your stories.  If so, reread above and try a few of the suggestions.