Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Writing

January 31, 2018 § 20 Comments

KV_C4336-2By Kelly Sundberg

In November of 2015, I placed my memoir proposal for Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival with an editor at HarperCollins, and in July of 2017, the final manuscript was accepted. Getting that email back from my editor—the acknowledgment that I was done — was one of the most validating experiences of my life, but can I tell you a secret?

It starts with this—almost exactly, a year prior, in July of 2016, my favorite writer had kindly offered to let me live and write in her beautiful San Francisco home for two weeks. I was stalled in my book writing at the time, and I thought that being in this writer’s home would be just what I needed. Her writing is so sharp, so insightful, and so beautiful. Surely, some of that magic would rub off on me? I sat at her dining room table with my laptop, and I did feel the magic. I wrote some of the most beautiful sentences of my book while surrounded by this writer’s energy.

At the same time though, my abusive ex-husband (about whom this book was written) was remarrying. One day, I walked to a nearby coffee shop and set up residency at a table. I started writing a chapter titled “I Love You” that was about my complicated relationship with the words “I love you.” I wrote about all of the times when men had told me they loved me, but the love hadn’t lasted. I wrote about feeling that my ex-husband’s love would last. And I wrote about the birth of my son and the love that grew from that. As I wrote about the birth, and about my husband holding my hand and telling me that he loved me, it suddenly hit me that the baby my then-husband had put into my arms was—at that moment—at his father’s house preparing for the new family that they would have. And right there, in that coffee shop, I burst into tears.

A young man was mopping the floor near me, and he stopped, looked at me hesitantly. I wiped the tears from my face. “Thank you” I said, then packed up my stuff and rushed out.

And that’s where my secret comes in—I rushed back to the generous writer’s house, and then instead of writing, I climbed into bed, and spent the next two days watching the entire first season of Grace and Frankie on my laptop.

At one point, I changed from my pajamas into cleaner pajamas (I only wish that I was kidding about that).

GoodbyeSweetGirl_EditBut, finally, on the day of my ex-husband’s wedding, a writer I had never met in person, a poet, Donna de la Perrière, asked me to come to Oakland so that she could take me out to dinner. I didn’t want to go, and messaged her that I was feeling too down. She gently messaged me back that she thought I should just do it, that it would be good for me. Since I’m not good at saying no, I agreed. I got out of bed, took a shower, put on some clothes, and took the BART to Oakland. She took me to a restaurant, bought me two fancy cocktails and a delicious dinner, and we ended up having a great discussion. After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt, and she said, “I have something I want to show you.” She carefully selected a stone. She said, “This stones represents your regrets. I want you to think of those regrets, then throw the stone into the Lake. Watch it sink and let go.”

I stood there with that stone, and I thought of my regrets. I had so many. I threw it into the lake and watched it slide under the smooth, dark, water.

I went back to the house that night, and I stayed up writing this. The next day, I was back to book writing. A year later, the book was complete.

So, recently, when a friend reached out to me to ask if I had some advice for her as to how to get through the process of writing her second memoir without sinking into too much despair, I had some strategies for her. They’re not guarantees, and they might not work for everyone, but these were some strategies that got me through the hellish landscape of existential loneliness of memoir writing.

  1. I changed up my writing routine quite a bit–went on writer’s residencies, wrote in coffee shops, wrote at night in my loft office, wrote in airports. Changing the routine kept me from associating any one place with the pain of reliving the experiences I was describing.
  2. When I knew that I was going to be writing material that might make me cry, I wrote it at night. Something about writing at night made it easier for me to let myself lean into the pain, and I had to do that in order to write the scenes honestly.
  3. I gave myself permission to take lots of naps. I’m not a good sleeper anyway, and I tend to retreat from my feelings by napping, so I would let myself nap, but I set a timer. I couldn’t nap all afternoon, but I could nap for an hour and a half. That gave me the chance to get through a full REM cycle of sleep, but didn’t leave me groggy.
  4. I planned lots and lots of lunch dates and dinners with my friends, so that I had regular escapes.
  5. I did aerobic exercise almost every, single day. Getting my heart-rate going seems to be the most effective thing I can do for managing my PTSD.
  6. I created rituals that rewarded me, so for example, if I wrote during the day, then I would make myself a delicious meal in the evening and watch Nashville because that’s something I really love to do.
  7. I planned vacations with friends, so that I always had something to look forward to.
  8. If I stagnated and wasn’t producing, then I gave myself permission to take a break from the writing. Those were good periods for reading.
  9.  If something from the material triggered me into a breakdown, I let myself break down.
  10. I reached out a lot–to my friends, my family, my therapist, my agent. When I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious, or sad, I reached out. Writing is a necessarily solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that we need to do it alone.

Here I am now: I’m fifteen pounds lighter from all of that PTSD exercise. I’ve watched the entire run of Nashville. I still haven’t finished Season 2 of Grace and Frankie. I’m a better cook. I have more friends than ever because I learned how to really reach out when I needed it. My book is coming out in June, and I’m still alive.

If I survived it, so can you.

Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in GuernicaGulf CoastThe RumpusDenver QuarterlySlice Magazine, and others. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and she has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival is forthcoming from HarperCollins on June 5, 2018. She is, we are proud to say, a former managing Editor of Brevity.


§ 20 Responses to Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Writing

  • […] via Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Wri… […]

  • Thank you for putting words to the many emotions I have felt writing about my father’s death. Every rewrite brings tears even after thirty-six months. It’s hard work and your strategies are helpful advice. Looking so forward to reading your book, Kelly.

  • Amy says:

    So inspiring- thank you! Look forward to reading your memoir.

  • This is wonderful. I confess I am often leery of certain kinds of memoirs, but you have found wisdom and so I am eager to read your. The advice you share is brilliant. Instead of treating your anger/fear/grief/regret as pathology, you honor it as a natural human response to adversity. I honor this choice. You are a wise woman. Thank you.

  • CJ says:

    Thank YOU for both sharing so much in this essay and for giving me/us some very specific suggestions to try when our writing gets trying.

  • floatinggold says:

    Memoirs definitely bring you right to “there and then” and the emotions are unstoppable. That is OK. You need them to write. However, being able to take a break, to dissociate yourself from writing is of great importance. So happy you found ways to deal with the heartbreak. You seem to have such a supportive bunch of people around you. That’s great.

  • Thank you for this. Writers need to reach out to each other in tough times, if not for a meal or drink, at least to say, Hi, how are you doing?? A very moving and helpful piece!

  • Thank you for this. Writing my memoir was incredibly exhausting. I could not understand why my body hurt so bad, and why depression was encasing me. My editor sent me an article explaining just what I was feeling, which helped me understand I was not alone in the depression and pain of writing my past for the world to read.

    • When Mary Karr came through Portland the first time, she explained why she wrote her first memoir. (She claimed, perhaps joking, her agent assured her there would be a buyer for the book and she needed a car to drive her son to school.) Someone asked if she found writing the book cathartic. She said it was only painful, not in the least reassuring or comforting. I think memoir probably can be cathartic, but I wonder if those books are the ones less valuable to the reader? Memoirs that are primarily self-justifying and vengeful are not worthwhile for this reader. The ones that come to grips with everything, the ones that most hurt to write, are the ones I am eager to read.

  • […] was so verry jacked when Dinty Moore shared this little gold nugget by Kelly Sundberg from Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. It is so very hard to walk that line […]

  • annebbecker says:

    Thank you, Kelly. I loved this piece, and it resonated with me. Memoir writing is painful, and we do need to find ways to honor ourselves in the process.

  • Vicki Nelson says:

    I am writing my memoir about my brain injury, and it’s been the hardest, and most satisfying, thing I’ve ever done. I’ve cried more tears than I ever could have imagined, and had horrible, haunting thoughts. Some days I just want to quit. Thank you for your encouragement and inspiration. I wish you the best in everything you do.

  • I have been thinking about writing a memoir about my life journey. I haven’t got to the place I will like to be in like but life is too short! You have inspired me to start writing or even blogging. I wish you all success!

  • ateafan says:

    The title of your memoir really grabs me. Good bye Sweet Girl. It says so much.

  • herheadache says:

    I love that regret stone exercise. Awesome.

  • sharono360 says:

    Reblogged this on Writing My Way Through Life.

  • lindawis says:

    Kelly, I like your list of strategies. Could have used them a few weeks ago. 😉

  • Sirvaysa says:

    I want to express my gratitude to @WriterSweeney and Kelly Lundberg. They made me realize that I had not written my memoirs at all. Oh, even though I have spent the last three years writing about my life, I realized that it is more of an autobiography. I’m not an emotionless person. On the contrary, I visit the right side of my brain more often than most men will admit. Dredging up seventy-six years of life certainly recalled many emotional moments but my mental meandering was not focused on any one of them.
    Therein lies the difference between a Memoir and an Autobiography.
    I don’t think I will embark on any memoirs as I think about this difference. My therapist has retired and I really don’t want to spend any time in San Francisco !

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