View Full Version : Memoir Emotions

TH Meeks
01-04-2007, 04:52 AM
I'm looking for feedback on how memoir writers deal with the intense emotions involved in writing about your life. While writing a memoir can be a truly theraputic experience, it can also be very painful! I primarily work with senior citizen writers, many of whom want to write memoir; several of them have abandonded memoir projects because the pain of remembering the past plunged them into depression. When I was writing my own memoir, dealing with the emotions that arose slowed me down tremendously. I'm curious as to how other memoir writers have coped with the intense emotions associated with writing. I believe we expect it will be cathartic (which it often is), but are unprepared for the intensity (sometimes unpleasant) of memory. What do you all think? I know I was not prepared for the avalanche of feelings that hit me.


Sohia Rose
01-04-2007, 10:42 PM
The current memoir I'm working on is more light-hearted--although embarrassing at times--but there were a few incidents where I cried as I wrote them, even though the ordeal was over and the outcome was positive.

For me, it was very important to jump back into the moment to convey the exact feelings I felt at the time, whether it was pain or happiness. I felt like anything less would cheat the reader, so I had to go back there.

A childhood memoir (that I haven't decide to write yet) might be a little more intimidating. And actually, every time I talk about it, or even mention my childhood (like now), I start trembling and tears try to surface. I don't know, I'm hoping I can distance myself from it, but that might not be possible because I'm an intense person.

Hope this helps.

I guess that doesn't really answer your question. I give myself permission to cry.

TH Meeks
01-05-2007, 02:18 AM
A childhood memoir (that I haven't decide to write yet) might be a little more intimidating. And actually, every time I talk about it, or even mention my childhood (like now), I start trembling and tears try to surface. I don't know, I'm hoping I can distance myself from it, but that might not be possible because I'm an intense person.

Hope this helps.

I guess that doesn't really answer your question. I give myself permission to cry.

Yes, it definitely helps. I like what you said, that you give yourself permission to cry. Many of the people in my group are embarassed when they're overcome with emotions.

I think one of the really interesting things about this facet of memoir is that almost everything I've read extolls the memoir's thereaputic value, but I haven't really read much about dealing with its emotional intensity and not becoming paralyzed by those feelings.

Little Red Barn
01-05-2007, 03:13 AM
Well... painful adult or childhood feelings are always hard to confront.
While I probably thought I might never survive...I did and was able to sprinkle humor, a little sass and see it in a new light while writing it. Not that it's all such, but I purposely put in all the sillies which I feel did not take away but made it more real...that would touch a lot of more readers...In others words its a sad, stormy and humorous story.
It's unbelievable that youth is the shortest period, but holds the longest of memories.
Just realise you are only visiting your past for a brief time, then be thankful you are here, in the now and present. Good luck.

Penny Graham
02-17-2007, 12:32 PM
Hi Sophia,
I don't know what happened in your childhood, but if it was anything like mine I can sympathize and relate. Your emotions will help bring out the childhood event realistically, but that doesn't help you deal with the memory. I found, with mine, that I could not let that past ruin my present, and while acknowledging what happened I could leap over it and continue my life, looking back at the person I was and not the person I am and will be.
Look at it like a log in the road that kept you from something very important, it was painful to move it, time consuming and you could let that event ruin your whole life or you could...leap over it and look back at it from the perspective of the better person you are now because of it rather than how that log held up and ruined the rest of your life. That is what helped me and now I could write that story looking back at a person who is no longer me.

02-17-2007, 06:00 PM
I have found at times that difficult scenes also paralyze me and I can't write for a few days. I just allow myself the time to process these things and also realize that how I interpret these events now is not the same as how interpreted them then--no matter how hard I try to remember how I felt then it's always filtered through now and the experiences I had after the event. In twenty years, i'll interpret it differently. I'll remember it differently. Such is the perplexity of human memory.

One thing that has helped me is to take responsability for my part. By owning up to my own wrongs, it has made it easier to forgive others and write with compassion. For example, I have a chapter that describes in detail my sister's schizophrenic breakdown. I was thirteen when it happened. Was it my fault? No. But what role did I play? Where was I responsible for my behavior? It turns out that my fault in the matter was that I relived it over and over in adulthood, that I refused to accept it, to let go and forgive, that I blamed people for it happening, including myself. That was my wrong. I had to own up to it. I did some of that before I started writing the chapter, but I discovered my part in the matter through the writing too. For me, memoir isn't about how bad other people have treated me --that's called victimization. For me, it's about self-discovery, finding out who I am, because I'll never truly know another person or understand their motives. And that's why I decided to write the memoir, to figure out who I was--the good, the bad, and the unbearable.

Susan B
02-18-2007, 08:33 PM
Interesting question!

I agree that writing about personal experiences can stir up painful feelings. It may or may not be "therapeutic." I've urged my mother to write about her childhood and now realize I need to respect her sense that it's just too painful for her. Same thing with my clients (I'm a psychologist). I'll sometimes raise the possibility of journaling, but I'll never push it. I trust people to know what's best for them.

Kay Redfield Jamison (a prominent psychologist who rights about bipolar illness, including its relationship to creativity, and who is herself bipolar) says she writes when she's manic, and revises when she's depressed!

This sounds a little flippant, but I think there some truth in it. For myself, I find that certain kinds of writing-related tasks are less daunting emotionally, because they require less of that opening up of the self. So I'll sometimes take refuge in revising small sections, working on matters of craft, running spell check :-) To sit down and write something new (like a new chapter I just added, in the middle of my book) requires a kind of readiness, an abandonment to the process, that I have to be ready to allow. There is great joy when I allow it to happen, but getting there is sometimes hard.

03-17-2007, 09:48 PM
I havent done a lot of writing, but the writing I have done concerns past events in my life. Memoir or personal narrative Im not sure. The story I wrote about getting my finger cut off was a pretty traumatic time for me, but the story pretty much wrote itself. I was kind of encouraged by this and decided to try and write about some experiences when I was younger. One story turned out to be very emotional for me. It was harder to write but I found myself looking back on the experience from two points of view. How I felt then and how I felt as I was writing it. Then I tried to write another story, and the emotions and feelings that came out made me unable to finish that story or any others about my youth. I guess its easier to try and let the past go at some point for me as Ive moved on. I cant change the past and writing about it is just too hard to deal with. my 2 cents worth.

04-28-2007, 08:45 AM
I have finished most of my memoir at this point and it has been an extremely painful process. In fact, I avoided it for years because of the pain, and life kept aiding me in my avoidance as I built a business, had kids, etc. I started writing it 25 years ago on a manual typewriter. Then I put it away for years. Then I tried again years later, etc. I also tried writing in different voices - the sarcastic in-control voice, the breezy I'm-just-fine voice, the clinical analytical voice, etc, and technically I could pull them off, but none of them were true to me and my experience, and the writing was not authentic. Now I am deeply into it and am ready to continue until it is done no matter how difficult it is. I just wasn't ready until now and I wish I had done it years ago but I accept that I am dealing with difficult material and it's OK that I had to be fully ready, in my own time. Most of the writing goes smoothly and I am even able to laugh and inject humor into painful situations. But once in a while I have a good cry, and occasionally I find a reservoir of pain and sadness where I thought I had healed.

It helps that I am a retired psychotherapist and understand my reactions from a clinical standpoint, but that does not diminish the pain. I have supportive family today, good loving friends, and have intentionally created a safe writing environment for myself. If not for those supports I do not think I could do it. One good thing is that I find that once I write about an event or painful time in my life, I am freer emotionally and more clear-thinking that I was about it before. I have been very out about the problems in my family of origin and have done a lot of public speaking about my childhood, on television and at conferences and other public forums over a period of many years, as well as being honest about my life when I have provided training to other professionals, but this writing has given me a depth of freedom that I have never experienced before. For me it is truly the last frontier in letting go of the past and the pain and it is very rewarding. I do hope for publication, but even if that were not to happen I would not regret this writing. It has been totally worthwhile even for its own sake.

05-12-2007, 04:59 PM
Reading this thread evokes some very tender feelings. I appreciate the peeks into hearts that many of you have shared.

Getting back to the initial question -- of helping others get past the roadblocks of pain -- I'm also interested in this, as I also teach lifestory writing classes, primarily to senior citizens, and I've noticed this phenomenon. Some students are spilling their guts all over the room by the second session, others are tightly clenched for ages, perhaps never opening up.

One whisper seems to underlie at least part of the reluctance: "What will people think when they read this?" The fear of disclosure is real, and often justified.

In my forthcoming book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I describe a process I call writing into the fireplace. It's a variation of freewriting, with the safety net that you know nobody will ever read what you wrote, because you burn or shred it when you are finished.

I developed this technique for myself when I was writing reams of garbled nonsense as a means of working my way through the confusion inherent in earning my MS in counseling psychology. It worked. I could scribble for an hour or two and emerge with amazing clarity and peace. The scribbling went into the fireplace for ever so many reasons. I've never regretted not keeping it, and I continue to use the technique on occasion.

I've suggested this to a few students on an individual basis, and I think I'm going to revisit the subject in my own mind, perhaps emphasizing it more strongly.

Best wishes to TH, and to those who shared their hearts.

05-12-2007, 05:16 PM
For my part, I didn't write my memoir until I had done some serious work (in psychotherapy and spiritual meditation) dealing with my emotions and the heavy fallout of the topic I eventually wrote about (e.g., growing up in a family pervaded by severe mental illness and abuse). So, when I actually went to write the book, I had a certain level of detachment. It was not "therapy writing" for me at all. I spent many years prior to actually writing the memoir doing "therapy writing" of various kinds. I think you need to get all the "therapy writing" out of your system before you seriously attempt a publishable memoir.

This is not to say that writing my memoir was not painful. It was. But I was emotionally/psychologically ready to deal with that pain and to not be afraid of it when I was writing my memoir, because I'd already worked through those issues before even beginning the memoir. It gave me a certain amount of distance from what I was writing, which allowed me to devote more energy to crafting the writing and making it more authentic to an outside reader, rather than being an egocentric pity-party, as much "therapy writing" is.

If your students are becoming very depressed just by writing, they should probably be referred to professional counseling.

05-12-2007, 07:16 PM
Ritergal, I really like your idea of throwing it into the fireplace. It reminds me of a technique that my own therapist taught me years ago, which was to, as I was writing, visualize the thoughts going from my head, down my arm, through my hand, and out the pen onto the paper. Then I would leave the thoughts on the paper and be able to walk away from them until I needed to pick them up again, at which time they would be safely waiting on the paper for me to pick them up again. It was a helpful exercise because I was often exhausted from lack of sleep due to nightmares about my childhood during that time in my life. After my therapist taught me this technique, when I awoke with a nightmare, I would write it down, leave it on the paper, and then be able to get some good sleep.

I later developed a similar exercise for my own clients where they would visualize a cloth bag (I would ask them to tell me what it looked like - size, color, etc - to help enhance the visualization) next to the door inside my office. When they left at the end of a session, they visualized placing their painful thoughts and feelings in the bag, where they would be waiting for them to take them out again at the start of the next session. This exercise enabled them to leave that unhappiness in the therapy office so that they could function more productively at home between sessions. It can be so hard for adults to be good parents, students to be good students, etc, when they are in the throes of their own pain.

It sounds like your class may actually be providing some therapeutic benefits to your students, but if it starts to cause problems for them, as Sakamonda suggests, it might be a good idea to refer them for counseling. How wonderful that they have a sensitive teacher in you.