Writing a memoir is much like going through your trunk of family treasures and keepsakes. At times the memories may be fuzzy, just like the ink on the pages of that 70-year-old journal your great-grandmother kept. Sometimes the memories may be painful, much like the ring your father gave you before he passed away. And sometimes the memories may be glorious, like the wedding dress you have stored safely, in hopes that your daughter may one day wear the family heirloom.
Due to the emotions that emerge in memoir writing, it is often necessary that the writer understand how to navigate and conquer the writing process, in spite of the added element of being taken for a ride on an emotional roller coaster each time one sits down to write. There are strategies writers can use to help ease the pain, slow the emotional twists and turns, and take the raw emotions and coat them with a little extra love and understanding, so as not to startle our readers.
As I work with memoir writers of all ages and backgrounds, we have collectively been creating a list of strategies which help us better cope with the emotional aspects of writing a memoir. I know the pain, and pleasure, first hand. In fact, when the hard parts of my own memoir became too much to write, I actually had to pack up and go to a little cabin in the woods to finish the chapters I had skipped. Being alone allowed me the space and time I needed to process the raw emotions and put them down in draft form. That little cabin held my pain, my rage, and soaked up my tears... ultimately allowing me 10 days later to emerge with a finished manuscript.
9 Tips for Dealing with the Emotions When Writing a Memoir
1. Many writers are concerned about the pain they will bring to others — especially when writing a memoir. I must say that this is a real issue we all face with this genre — whether it is pain caused unintentionally, by sarcasm, just by telling the truth, or an invasion of privacy. I sincerely believe most of us do not set out to hurt others, but if you are a writer, of any type, there is always going to be someone who is hurt or who doesn’t agree with you. My best advice is to write the truth, always, and know going in that if you can stand in your truth, and speak from a place of truth, this will bring you much comfort when the questions start pouring in from your readers.
2. The memoir genre is unique in that you need to be able to provide emotional distance for your readers. That distance, at times, is closeness, and at times needs to be far away. I think this “distance piece” is what attracts readers and pulls them in. Raw emotions usually emerge first, and sometimes we can leave them as is — and at other times we need to wrap them in love and understanding and softened tones, so that we don’t offend our audiences. The key is that you just have to write — and write a lot — many drafts, many entries, many rewrites — so that you can eventually find the right emotional distance and balance you desire in your story line.
3. Fuzzy memories and gaps in memories are real obstacles for many memoir writers. We may spend much time thinking about how to make our memories sharper — but there is really only one solution to getting the sharp memories back: We must write, consistently. A daily writing practice helps the memories resurface. And what if you happen to get super-stuck? Well, just skip that memory and continue writing the next part of your memoir. Most likely, later into the writing process, your mind will recall the details. And if not? Well, a great editor will help you patch up those gaps!
4. I believe it is imperative that memoir writers balance the negative and the positive memories — so that we can sustain our energy levels and complete the manuscript. At first, when writing my own memoir, I wasn’t adhering to this “rule” at all. It took a toll on my writing and my stamina. I quickly learned to balance the writing each day — some days were “negative” memory days, and they were always followed by “positive” memory days.
5. All writers need a support system in place. This could be a family member or friend, writing coach, or a fellow writer who we can go to when the writing gets tough, or when we need a dose of encouragement. For memoir writers, especially, because we are often dealing with highly charged emotions, and then reliving them all over again in our writing, I think a support system is even more important. Having a solid support system in place is more valuable than you might realize.
6. It’s okay to cry, scream, yell, weep, and hit your pillow! Holding in the emotions as the memories emerge in your writing may do more harm than good. So, let them go. It’s okay, I promise.
7. Take time off, especially when you are feeling very fragile or vulnerable. While writing my memoir, I kept a list of enjoyable things I had always wanted to do. And then, when I needed a break, I took time away and rewarded myself with a special treat. Writing is hard work — and you deserve time away so you can recharge.
8. Keeping a journal will be a beneficial tool for you as you process emotions, or capture memories as they filter back into your consciousness. Journaling is therapeutic on so many levels, and I used mine quite frequently while writing my memoir. My journal, at times, became my own personal counselor.
9. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. Your memoir is important, and you will impact more people than you could ever imagine, once your book is done. And besides, you set out to write a memoir, and you will feel proud when your project is complete!
The first was one that I was worried about the most when I began taking down notes for my memoir. This I noted in several blog posts last year as I began this process. Premature anxiety over possible lawsuits or even just mere anger from people mentioned by name. At first, I did not try to think of names, even fake ones, but got tired of having nameless people. So I looked at the intros to memoirs that have been published and saw that the author did in fact change names, so I have been doing the same. Some people's names I could not recall at all, so I left those nameless. Other people I didn't even try to come up with a fake name for, but it remains to be seen if I will (still working on the thing).
As far as crying and such goes, I have been crying less than I had before the Prozac. I was very prone to tears over a lot of things that I have recalled in my memoir, including some that seemed less tear-worthy than others. In Prozac Nation, the author recalled being deprived of her tears when her mother was mugged. I too, have often feel deprived of tears when I feel a need for them most. Only once can I recall ever crying since being on Prozac, over feeling discouraged about writing my memoir, thinking it was too similar to what had been written. I recently felt like crying, but the tears just didn't come.
I still am in want and need of a support group for writers that is near me. I've tried posting on Facebook about people who may be interested in starting such a group, but to no avail. I'd be glad to get just one person to read my work in progress.
I have pondered going to my storage unit to find the journals I was asked to keep the first time I went to behavioral health services and was on Paxil and other SSRIs (other than Prozac) to see what I had written then. This in order to expand on those and others details I've already mentioned from that era. Mostly I've been writing what I can recall now, and what I feel is necessary to what I am writing about.
Taking time off from writing my memoir is what I have seemed to be doing recently. It was last weekend that I did my latest revision. But I have been too tired the last few days to do any revising. This makes me feel as if I am neglecting my work entirely, but as the article says, take some time off. Which is was I appear to be doing right now. Will be getting back soon.