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.

Won’t I Hurt People If I Write a Memoir?


Won’t I Hurt People If I Write a Memoir?

Some people are prevented from writing what they really feel about events or people in their lives (i.e. their memoir) by the fear they will hurt people they care about in doing so.

The difference between hurt and interpretation

In my semi-autobiographical novel, Kimono Spring, this is how I depicted my sister:

When we got home, Mommy cleared the pepper and salt and napkin holder off the kitchen table. She brought out the package she had gotten at Ogilvy’s.

Diane held the paper bag the package had been in. “Go away,” she said, turning to me.


“You’d better!”

“Oh yeah, says who?” I said bravely.

She took a step towards me and I backed up involuntarily. “Says me,” and she stepped even closer.

“Enough,” said Mommy in a tired voice. “Julie can see, too.”

“But it’s mine.”

Mommy folded back the tissue. “It’s just looking, Diane. It doesn’t matter.”

I bustled past a molten Diane and pushed myself right against the table, just to show her.

I depict my sister as overweening, superior and mean. Obviously, she would not agree with that interpretation. But I wrote the novel from the point of view of a seven-year-old, dealing with her ten-year-old sister. As an adult, even I might agree that the portrait is very black and white but that is how a seven-year-old would see the world and therefore, the people in it.

What you write is always going to be from your view. How can it be otherwise? You’re not trying to write your life story from someone else’s perspective.

And anyhow, unless your memoir is populated with saints—never angry, vindictive, destructive or sly (boring memoir, by the way)—nobody will agree with your characterization of themselves. Despite your efforts to be honest and even-handed, you’ll still get I never said that. You started it, not me. My son is not a bully. I don’t have a big nose. Etc.

So what others might read as hurtful you may see as interpretation of what happened.

How to deal with the fear of inflicting hurt

Still, you don’t set out to hurt people in writing a memoir. But writing with this fear in mind will restrict what you record even if you’re not aware of it. Unconsciously, you might gloss over an important event because it puts your mother in a bad light. Or soften the impact of an action by your brother so that its hurt doesn’t look as if it stung as much as it did.

The answer?

Write it as if no one will ever read it. As if it is a very extensive diary. Not meant for anyone but you. That way, you can tell your truth and not somebody else’s or worse, how you think they want you to think/believe.

When you’ve got the whole thing, revisit the issue. You may be surprised that over the course of the entire work, your depiction is more generous or even-handed than you had thought, even when writing it. But it is a question to pose once you’ve recorded what you want to say—not before.

I’ll do a post sometime on how to handle reactions when you do release your memoir to a larger audience than your computer.

Emotional Truth in Your Writing


Emotional Truth in Your Writing

What is emotional truth?

I know you have experienced it—otherwise, you wouldn’t want to be a writer. You know it when you’re reading a novel which is, by definition, fiction, made up, untrue. And yet, you feel its truth, its emotional truth. It touched something in you which was real. Mike Ruso, a writer and photographer, has some interesting insights if you want to explore more of its definition, but I’d like to focus on, not what it feels like to experience it, but how to create it.

What is emotional truth for writers?

It’s one thing to experience this honesty as a reader, but how does it feel when you are writing that way? The best I can do it is to describe my struggles as I journaled about them.

I feel like I am not getting down to the core—the place from which I write—the deep place. It feels very at the surface, perhaps because I was thinking of the characters as vehicles for the essays[1]. Now I want to think of them as existing on their own, without reference to anything else.

So, where is that deep spot in the middle of my chest from which all else flows? It doesn’t feel like I have accessed that for a long time and it is this that I think is lacking in David[2]. That one true thing. Which is more than one true thing but it is about true things. It is a sinking down to allow a bubbling up. Who is David?

The fantastical, illogical, and moving side of my brain has not gotten much exercise lately. To wit: none. And I fear it is atrophying due to lack of use. What I continually fear.

Although maybe because it hasn’t been used for a while, it’s like the muscles in the front of my shoulder. Because I was hunched forward for so long, they went unused. Now that I am straighter, they are called upon to function and are remarkably weak. Who knew. So now, the movements I can make with them are limited and painful. But I am making progress.

I hope the same can be said of this thing which I seek.

Not a definition, I know, but perhaps approximating how to know, as a writer, when you are writing from a place from which emotional truth can arise.

How do I get it in my writing?

Ah, the $64,000 question. It is the pinnacle of writing, which all writers strive to reach. It is what makes writing magic.

I have a simple but not easy answer: honesty.

When I think I have approached emotional truth in my writing, it is when I have been completely honest. I think it is the willingness to show up naked on the page, to bring your scared and trembling self to the writing, not hiding behind technique or elegant writing. It is writing about feeling unattractive and unloved rather than about heroines who are beautiful and worshiped. It is the willingness to go to the places in yourself which are raw and writing from there.

There is no paint-by-numbers method. Push yourself to be honest with yourself, to be honest on the page. And then, every once in a while, emotional truth breaks through. And every once in a while, so does the magic.

[1] Referring to Cross My Heart and Other Tales of Life and Art, soon to be released.

[2] Referring to hero in the Honest One, a novel on the consequences of stealing ideas

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?


Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

Depends what you mean by truth.

Yes for the major events in your life. Really, isn’t this the time to tell your eldest that he really wasn’t born three months premature? If you don’t tell the truth about the big things, why bother calling it a memoir?

No for the small stuff. You cannot possibly remember every detail of your life so you may have to include what was likely or expected to make the narrative flow.

Yes for the emotional truth. I will have another post on this as it is an ability all writers need to develop but I want to focus on how it applies to memoirs.

An example of emotional truth in memoirs

Say you want to record how you recovered and thrived after your divorce. But you need to deal with the betrayal which prompted it.

One way you could do this is:

Larry seemed anxious that evening but things had gotten to the point that I didn’t care enough to ask. He came into the living room after dinner.

He just stood there. He cleared his throat. I looked up.

“…you know that things aren’t working out between us.”

“And whose fault is that?”

He waved a hand and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to fight any more. I want a divorce.”


He didn’t look up. “I’ve found someone else.”

“What! You bastard! Who is it? I bet it’s that Rachel. She’s been all over you since she and Amir moved here.”

“No, not Rachel. Amir.”

So, this is fine as far as it goes. And although there is the emotional honesty of simply writing down the event, you also need to include the shock, tears, anger, and disbelief you felt and continued to feel for the months following. How did it affect you? Did it make you question what was real or who you were? Did you wonder whether you were a true woman if you married a gay man?

Public versus private face

I know that this is tough to do. And that it asks you to go deeper than you perhaps had originally anticipated.

But people already know your public face—the one you turn to the world. Everything is fine. Yes, my daughter is great. No, I’m okay financially. Never worry about getting old. Don’t wonder how to cope without a spouse.

Your public face, while safe and comfortable, is less compelling than letting the reader see the true you. The private face of the human being with her doubts, fears and triumphs.

Write from your private space. At least for the first draft. Once you have a complete manuscript, then decide whether or what you want to alter. The range can be from publication to nobody ever seeing it and all stops in-between.

The truth of remembrance

While I’m here, so to speak, just a word about how you handle the early days of your life. Obviously, you know what is coming in later years but beginnings larded with Little did I know, As I found out later, He was all charm then, can get tiresome and more importantly, doesn’t present those days as you truly experienced them, untainted with the knowledge of future events and without regret and revenge. Let the reader take the journey with you rather than throwing out constant bits of foreshadowing of the traumas to come.

A Memoir is a Lifestory


A Memoir is a Lifestory

It’s important to remember that a memoir is a story, the story of your life. It’s not a memoir (well, not an interesting one) if it’s just a set of facts, even with interpretation. While readers might be interested in facts, they really perk up when they have access to what you thought about the facts, how they affected your life, who you are because of them. In other words, the lifestory.

I’m kind of hitting you over the head with this since I think that often people don’t realize how important personal feelings are in a memoir, beyond the facts. Look at the example below.

An example

Say you start off your memoir with something like:

I was born in 1932 so I was seven when the war broke out. The war was something that was happening to others; around me but not intrusive. Except that sometimes the rationing pinched.

My father, who was just 26 at the outbreak of the war, enlisted immediately and went overseas in late 1940.

Seems okay, no? But what might it look as if you focused on a more personal angle? Read the next example.

Better telling of a lifestory

You say that the rationing ‘pinched.’ What if you told the story underlying that summary statement?

No chocolate!”

“Sugar is rationed, now,” said Mom.

This made no sense to me. Sugar was what Mom put in her tea. What had that to do with chocolate?

“Are the soldiers getting it?” I asked suspiciously.

Mom shrugged. “They might be.”

“Couldn’t they leave some for me? I won’t take much, I promise.”

“Linda Eleanor Birch, the soldiers deserve the best food we can give them! They’re fighting for us.”

This is the first time it came home to me that war was a crisis.

Difference between the two examples

The first example isn’t bad but I think it’s more effectively used for minor things (why Aunt Minnie was there when the big explosion happened).

But, particularly because it is your opening, you want to grab the reader’s interest right off the bat. And showing how rationing affected you in very concrete terms is a more vivid way to start. Often what works is to look at summary statements (rationing pinched) and remember an incident which illustrates it.

But there were other opportunities to flesh out the narrative even in that short excerpt. You say the war was around me but not intrusive. What would that look like? How did you know that it was around?

Similarly, the statement that My father went overseas can be expanded to introduce a more personal feel. How did you feel about your father leaving? What was the day like when he left for overseas? Did your mother cry? Did you? Did you know what it meant?


Of course, you don’t want to simply string a bunch of memories together. The memoir needs background information, a grounding in the when and where of the lifestory, your reflections on what happened, etc. However, slowing down at critical points and remembering in detail what happened will make for richer reading.