On Memoir: When Angst Is A Prompt

May 2, 2016 § 31 Comments

By Laura Vrcek

Laura Vrcek

Laura Vrcek

I recently read an essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers. In it, he mentions that occasionally a beginning writer will submit a horror story or screenplay in his Dangerous Writing Workshop. The misunderstanding is honest at best but what Spanbauer wants is considerably scarier. He writes, “To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore…” The kind of writing that challenges the personas we publish on social media and defend when they’re wrong.

It was timely when I read it, just after AWP’s 2016 conference in Los Angeles. My goal this go around was to find enough panels to attend so that I could sponge and then justify writing about my mother’s bipolar disorder despite the fact that it makes her unhappy. On a panel called “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir,” four female memoirists (Honor Moore, Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis) discussed the ethics of writing about loved ones, how to navigate those relationships after publishing, and whether or not you really need permission at all.

I’ve asked a lot of friends about this too, some writers, some not. They suggest that I share my stories not out of angst or in an effort to hurt my mother’s feelings but because her (and my) stories can help others.

I so want to believe them. I want to believe I wrote about the time my mother told me I was ungrateful after I flew to Dallas to help her recover from surgery so that other children of parents with mental illnesses feel less alone. I want to believe that there’s a noble reason behind sharing that my mother once told me if I were to get a tattoo of a seahorse, people would think I’m a whore because “seahorse” sounds like “whore.” But it’s just not true. Loud, for the world to know: I’m still angry. And when I write about what it’s like to have what feels like a broken mother, part of me leaks steam.

When I come into contact with confident, women writers in their 50s or 60s, I tend to baby-bird them. I see in them the strong-female figure I wish I’d had growing up. The idolization is accompanied by incessant guilt. Guilt for not wanting to fly to see my mother more. Guilt over what she’d do if she found out I felt this way.

Spanbauer is right. When you write, you have the constant option to be dangerous. When you and your pen walk right up to the edge of a cliff and glare over, you always risk an inevitable drop.


Laura Vrcek‘s poetry and nonfiction work have appeared in The Red Clay Review, Apple Valley Review, The Orange Dot, and on KQED’s storytelling segment, Perspectives. She lives in Oakland, California and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University.

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§ 31 Responses to On Memoir: When Angst Is A Prompt

  • Writers always have to think about they write.

  • I’m just starting my foray into personal essays, and I’m excited about this new direction for me. But there’s always the question of, how far do I go? You have to walk the line of going deep, or ruining your personal relationships. There’s a sense of holding back, which compromises authenticity. Writers have touch choices sometimes.

    • Laura V. says:

      That’s a great question, Tina. My rule fo thumb recently has been to write relentlessly and then edit later. Often times, I start by sharing something I don’t actually want to share in the end. Sometimes that part is what’s stripped out and what’s left is a story that still rings true to my intent without the coarseness of the initial prompt. Other times, the initial morsel is the whole story. I think there’s a balance between sharing honestly and respecting boundaries (or figuring out what those boundaries are for you).

      • That is such good advice. I’ve been trying to learn how navigate being honest and sharing the stories I want to share with not sharing too much or completely wrecking already problematic family relationship. It’s so messy. I want to write my story but my story is mixed up and overlapped with so many other people’s stories that I have to talk about them in order to talk about me.

        I recently heard someone give the advice, “You should write from a scar, not a wound.” What are your thoughts on that?

      • Thats a great ‘rule of thumb’ Laura. I wrote my entire horror ‘story’ out about my ex husband and my dad , who I am still carrying anger towards. It felt great to write it out but I doubt I will keep it in my final Memoir. I do love the idea of ‘write relentlessly now and edit later’. Thanks!!

    • philipparees says:

      Or you could follow my option.Grow old.Old enough to outlive the people you want to portray.then let rip!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Every time I try to write about depression I get slammed by people who honestly believe that I know nothing about living with depression and they know everything. That is because, I think, I have tried to optimistic in my public life. (The alternative is not pretty.) Tom Spanbauer’s approach is compelling. There is always a worse story than ours. A memoir has to offer something we haven’t already figured out. A memoir has to be hard on everyone, including ourselves. That is the danger.

    • Thank you Jan. ‘A memoir has to be hard on everyone, including ourselves. That is the danger’. I am RIGHT at that point now in my Memoir. My dad is 86, and still alive. I am uncovering some unresolved anger and..honestly RAGE towards him. I must admit that this realization has halted my writing for awhile. (a tleast writing about him, in any way).

  • Viga Boland says:

    Well you could be really cowardly, like I was when I wrote about being sexually abused by my father for 14 years. I waited till he’d been dead 13 years, and mom 8 before I told the world all the ugly details. Fortunately, I or unfortunately, I was an only child. So no-one else in the family to upset. And my own little family of husband and 2 daughters were so shocked I’d kept it all hidden for nearly 45 years, they encouraged me to write it to help others. The best thing I’ve done with my life is to write dangerously!

    • Laura V. says:

      That’s very motivating, Viga! (That the best thing you’ve done in life is write dangerously.) I think part of why I wrote this piece is so that I could hopefully hear from other writers that what I’m doing is okay (and even brave).

    • Thank you !!!! the best thing youve done is to ‘write dangerously’?? WOOHOO! I needed to hear that today. Thank youuuuu. I am still ‘on the fence’ about how much of my family ‘dysfunction’ toreveal since my mom (83) and dad (86) are both alive and well, and might be aorund for a long time.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Yes, Laura. It’s brave and important- for both you and others. Good work, here. Keep going!

  • hoppernomad says:

    Sorry to hear about the difficult source material, but I really liked this intro to the idea of dangerous writing. Sure, I’ve heard people describe a writer or a writer’s work described as exploring dark topics, focusing inwardly on aspects of our lives that we don’t rush to post on instagram. But I hadn’t heard it described as writing dangerously, I like it. It makes sense.

  • Jim Smith says:

    I created a folder I call “Bless me Father for I have sinned”( the old opening to catholic confession. As I write memoirs, when I get to dark topics, I put them in my confession folder. Not only is it incredibly cathartic, but in confronting myself, I put things in perspective rather than holding it inside and pretending I’m on my way to heaven. RL Stevenson had an appropriate quote, “There is nothing so monstrous but we can believe it of ourselves.”

  • Susan says:

    I was at that panel as well, hoping for the same thing. I’ve been stalling on writing my own mother’s story (which she wants to keep secret) for decades for many of the same reasons. I had to move from angst to compassion, and even though I feel that, I’m still stalling. It DOES feel dangerous. I send you compassion and courage!

    • Laura V. says:

      Thank you, Susan! The good thing about writing is that it’s yours (and yours alone) until you chose to share it. Maybe writing in solace (or secret like panelist Alice Eve Cohen) could be a way for you to pump it out regardless of when and how you share it. I’m glad you found that panel inspiring too! I’m not going to forget it anytime soon. Sending compassion and courage right back at ya!

    • Me too Susan. I am ‘stalling ”also. Id love to stay in touch with other Memoir writers who are in similar situations. I am looking for some support here, honestly.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I’m working on personal essays now which I hope to turn into a memoir. But while it may be cathartic for me to write, there is a lot I haven’t forgiven. I strive to have some perspective, or some distance, of past events with my mother, but am having such a hard time doing that. No one wants to read verbal diarrhea of angst. I loved reading this article because you address this. Thank you!

    • YES Barb! No one wants to read verbal diarreah of angst. haha. Perfect. I am compiling a poetry book now (while I let my Memoir marinate) and some of my angst diarreah poems are left in though. Yes just because this stuff is cathartic for us to write doesnt mean it has to be shared. The question now is ‘why’ are we writing? Hmm. I thought it was to tell my ‘honest story/my truth and that it could possibly be of help to others and myself. I hear you when you say there is a lot you havent forgiven. Do you feel you will stall your writing because of that fact?

  • I struggle with the same questions.
    My standard answer when people ask me why I started writing in English is that “I need an ocean and a language between my mother and I to be able to write.” But that is not the whole truth. The deepest, darkest events in my life I need to write as fiction first, to see us there on the page, my mother and I (and in some cases my husband and I), as an outsider and see what it is I’m not telling, what aspects of the relationship I don’t grasp – and if the light I shed on one of the characters is completely lacking in empathy.
    Eventually, sometimes years later, I manage to write it as non-fiction.

  • Jan Myhre says:

    I’m encouraged by Anne Lamott’s observation of what to say or not say in a memoir: If people will be offended by what you write about them, they should have behaved better at the time.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    If the title of this re-blog doesn’t pull you in, perhaps this statement from the author will:

    “When you write, you have the constant option to be dangerous. When you and your pen walk right up to the edge of a cliff and glare over, you always risk an inevitable drop.”

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