Do I Want to Drag up the Past if I Write My Memoirs?


Do I Want to Drag up the Past if I Write My Memoirs?

I get it, I do. Do you really want to drag up your awful past? I went through the same struggle when I was working with my writing teacher, Barbara Turner-Vesselago. She encouraged me to turn my semi-autobiographical writing into a novel. This is how I recollected it, looking back on that time:

I walked up the steep hill at Kimbercote. I remember climbing the hill, the reluctance as strong as my panting. I wasn’t sure there was enough there because mostly what I had was a feeling of a vast and terrifying darkness. Unrelieved abyss from which, on entry, one might never return. I remember the dread of willingly consigning myself to years back in the hell from which, I thought, I had escaped. But so strong was my wish to write that I ventured in. And found, to my growing delight, that it was not entirely a place of shadow and terror. That is was also a place of light and laughter. That in the wish to escape the night, I had forgotten the day.

And also, in a bastardization of Shakespeare (since I can’t remember the exact quote and in addition, it’s about jealousy), as I say, in a bastardization of Shakespeare—that the remembering fed upon itself and I remembered more and more.

So, in the long run, it was a gift. It gave me back who I was. Not all darkness, not all light. But me.

I think that you might find the same—that your past is more nuanced than you might think.

Remembering the good things of the past

So your past isn’t all dark, no matter how you might feel at the moment. Going back lets you remember the kind neighbor who always had a sympathetic ear and a cookie for you. Or the feeling of safety leaning into the soft leather of the policeman’s jacket. Or the teacher who gave you extra art lessons after class. The kindness of strangers and acquaintances is kindness nevertheless and worth remembering.

Even better, it allows you to recall the bright, warm, and touching moments that made you love the people you think so poorly of in the present. It fills out the picture which might have gotten telescoped into a caricature without gray tones.

Remembering the hard past

As a mature adult, you can look back on a scary or sad incident and provide the context that your younger self was incapable of. That Dad’s temper was more about mental illness than anything you did, no matter what you thought at the time (and might be lingering into the present). That Mother’s lack of care was not because you were unlovable but because of her alcoholism.

Something happens when you give yourself the space, time, and permission to revisit in detail incidents from your past. It opens up closed spaces or even ones you had forgotten were there. It makes writing a memoir worth it even if no one ever sees it except you.

This is not about forgetting, down-playing or even forgiving. You need to remember accurately and whether or not you forgive the people is an entirely different issue. This is about capturing who you were and looking at the hard times from a long enough distance to get a perspective.

For more on this, read Susan Shapiro’s interesting article, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.