Writing to heal yourself is a powerful tool—a means of personal transformation. In my book The Power of Memoir, I present a step-by-step program to help writers grab onto the images and memories they want to explore, and to move past the pain and trauma to get to the “takeaway” of survival, learning, self-knowledge, and deep personal change. When a writer has a deeply personal and even painful story, here are some ways to help get that story out and onto the page.
First, think about the special moments, the turning points that changed the direction of your life in a significant way. Make a list of these moments, at least ten to twenty, and write down each event and when it occurred.
Memoirists get overwhelmed by the large number of memories that spill out in all directions. The turning point and timeline tools that I talk about in The Power of Memoir help organize memories and give a focus to creating a narrative. You need to sift through the jumble of memories to find the most important stories as a spine around which to build a longer work. You need to find a focus and a message–and you may have several messages to share. This is great—allow the creative juices to flow, using brain storming and journaling to invite your ideas to the page where you can objectively sort through them.
A way to help manage the emotional aspects of writing a memoir, particularly if there are dark parts to the story, is to keep track of the “dark” and the “light” stories. Again, list making helps to contain and focus what the lighter—happier, joyful, and inspiring moments were in your life. Perhaps you need to revisit the darker moments to help banish the stories that swirl in your head—and create a new narrative with the perspective you have now as an adult.
It’s very important to learn about story structure and scenes. A story, unlike a journal entry, must have a structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and is constructed with an aim toward a goal and the unfolding of a plot where dramatic action guides the reader through the story. I devote a whole chapter in Power of Memoir to sketching out how a new writer can approach and learn about structure—it does not tend to be a strong point for most memoir writers, but you can learn it! Step by step.
Scenes bring your world alive!
Scenes are important! When we write a scene, we find ourselves in the places and times of our lives in a kind of creative hypnosis. A story uses scenes to bring the past to life. A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, and taste, along with characters, dialogue, and action. In a memoir, you are both the narrator and the “I” of the story—the main character. This dual point of view helps to create a witnessing experience of yourself as you write from your current point of view about who you once were, an artful weaving of then and now, past and present.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, says that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process, and of course we know that when we are seen and acknowledged, we feel affirmed and stronger. We are able to confront past experiences in a new way. Writing helps us to do this ourselves through the power of story. Writing a memoir allows us to witness all the stages of our lives, and when we read others’ memoirs, we witness and empathize with them, thus deepening our connection with humanity.
Tips for writing darker stories in your memoir.
- Create distance from the story. Write about what happened in the third person: “she” or “he” instead of “I.”
- Write as if you are watching the event unfold in a movie.
- Write a scene about a difficult incident, but make it turn out the way you wanted it to, ending it positively.
- Tell what happened before and after a difficult incident. Write around it, but not about the event itself.
- Only write a darker story for 20 minutes.
- Follow up a darker story with a lighter, happier story.
- If the past is too painful, write about the blessings in your life now.
- Write about yourself as a survivor and hero of your life.
What helps you to write past your painful memories? How do you balance the dark and the light as you write? Share your tips here. We all need to weave these elements when we write a memoir.