Writing A Memoir Can Be Dangerous Work. Protect Yourself!

February 1, 2021 § 31 Comments

By Aimee Christian

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started my memoir because I’d been writing personal essays and creative nonfiction for some time. It didn’t take me long to learn that I was wrong. Writing memoir meant wandering around in my past in a whole new way, and I learned that my past can be a pretty bad neighborhood to be in alone.

When I try to re-immerse myself in how it felt to be a child or a teenager, it’s nearly impossible not to feel all the feelings from those early years, which is great for the story but, as it turns out, is terrible for my marriage and my children. In revisiting my memories to write, I found myself mourning breakups, looking up old apartments on Zillow, Googling my bullies from summer camp, and spending hours rereading old journals and old yearbooks. The worst was when I cried for a month over a death as though it was yesterday. I walked around in such despair that I couldn’t quite believe that I was the only one in mourning.

“Why are you crying, Mama?” my daughter asked when she caught me.

I ran through my options. The truth, because my boyfriend killed himself, seemed like the wrong answer, especially when I’d have to tell her next that it happened eleven years before I met her father. “I bonked my funny bone,” I said finally, rubbing my elbow, and was able to smile when she gave it a little kiss, but when she walked away, satisfied, I started crying again. I felt stuck in the kind of time warp that wasn’t just a jump to the left and a step to the right. It felt like a jump off a cliff, with no coming back.

Life is difficult enough without giving myself PTSD anew just from trying to write a book. After revisiting some of the hardest things in my life for the sake of my manuscript, I realized that if I don’t remind myself that I’m deliberately going in and coming out, I could get stuck back in an ugly place I’ve already spent too much time in.  

So I started a new ritual. When I’m writing, I turn on my Himalayan salt lamp. They’re supposed to cleanse the air and boost your mood. I’m not sure I believe in any of that, but mine casts a pretty pink light (and if it boosts my mood, that certainly wouldn’t hurt). When I light the lamp, it means I’m going in, and whatever happens while the writing lamp is on, I get to leave behind when I turn the writing lamp off. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough to serve as a reminder that whatever might feel like it’s happening in the present isn’t really. I am writing because I have learned from my experiences, not because I want to relive them all.

If new writers ask me for advice, I tell them to keep writing no matter what. They’ll figure out the craft in time. First they need to just write. And now, if writers I know turn to memoir and ask me the same, I tell them to find a ritual to protect themselves. Whether it’s turning a lamp on and off like I do, lighting a candle, saying a mantra or a prayer, setting a timer, or having some other routine, it’s helpful to have something to keep them – especially if they’re writing about trauma – grounded in the present, to help them remember who they are now, and that they already did all that work to get here once. Stay here. Yes, we need to dive deep, but equally important is making sure we know how to get ourselves safely back aboard the boat.

If we can do that, the rest will come more easily.
___

Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.

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§ 31 Responses to Writing A Memoir Can Be Dangerous Work. Protect Yourself!

  • This post is most fortuitous for me as I keep putting off starting my memoir because I don’t want to re-live the trauma, I just want to write about it.
    I like your idea of a protection ritual and of course, you chose salt which has been a source of protection for hundreds of years. Thank you for your advice. 🙂

  • Kelbungy says:

    I know EXACTLY what you mean! If only you had written this (and I had read it) a year ago when I started on the first draft of my memoir! Bwah-ha-ha….

  • Yes! I’m just starting to experience this. Sadness for sure but the happy memories are waking up too.

  • I LOVE the strategy of turning on and off your salt lamp. My memoir is finished (yes, you too will see that day!) so I’m past the worst of the emotional upheaval, but your idea would have been awesome. Thank you for sharing it. All the best on your journey!

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is great advice. I like the idea of having something to clearly mark your writing session. I would argue it’s not a small thing…it’s huge!

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Wise words! I tell myself: “don’t get in to the time machine.” But I’ll try your method too.

  • Love this advice. I’ve had similar experiences while writing a memoir about my child’s life-threatening, life-changing illness. I came across this book several years ago that has a lot of wisdom as well: Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.
    https://jessicahandler.com/braving-the-fire

  • Marilyn Kriete says:

    Great article! I look forward to finding and reading your memoir someday. I’ve written three memoirs so far, and am on my fourth. Fortunately, most of the trauma I needed to revisit had already been processed: I waited many years to start writing. But I know exactly what you mean about old grief resurfacing as if it happened yesterday.

  • Thank you. It’s good to have this perspective as I wonder what I might be getting myself into.

    • Soon after her first memoir was published, I attended Mary Karr’s first reading in Portland. Someone asked her if writing The Liar’s Club was a cathartic experience? She said it absolutely was not, it was painful, and she only did it because her agent had already gotten her an advance on the book and she needed the money. She was funny and the book is funny, but she was a recently divorced poet in the real world. She said the memoir paid for what she needed to support her young son “and slutty shoes.”

  • Dorian Fox says:

    Terrific advice, Aimee. Such a helpful reminder that when we write, we go somewhere else, and we can get stranded there if we’re not careful. Lovely piece!

  • I think this advice of empowerment should be mandatory for instructors to give to every beginning memoir student. I was re-traumatized by my story and I wouldn’t wish that pain upon anyone. Yours is a great solution to a very important problem.

  • I feel ya! did you publish this?
    I have noticed the same thing.. irt aint for sissy’s. Not sure now where to go with it.
    Great job Aimee.. 🙏 nice to meet you too, Cindy

  • sonyaewan says:

    And then there’s the reworking, and editing, and more reworking and more editing. I just submitted my manuscript for professional editing and believe me, it’s worth the chunk o’ change to NOT have the tough material drag me down any more. If/when you can afford it, pay a pro to help you hang onto your hard-earned sanity.

  • Kay D says:

    I really appreciated this essay. I have written two memoirs about light-hearted situations in my life (traveling with our children, etc.). But, one of my daughters has asked me about “why/how I chose to leave my hometown.” And as I try to compose this story, which would only be for my children, I find myself mired in a difficult childhood and can’t get past it. Maybe I will try the salt lamp trick, too.

  • “I am writing because I have learned from my experiences, not because I want to relive them all.” Thanks for those words, I need to remember this as I re-visit my addictions and other struggles and hurts. Just reading my journals can be traumatic. I do light a candle, but I will dig out my Himalayan salt candle and try to light & extinguish it more intentionally. Hang in there, thanks for the companionship.

  • stacyeholden says:

    The special lamp is a fantastic idea. Thank you for writing this…

  • Polly Hansen says:

    I’ve taken a break because I just got sick of the material. I’m happy now, why go back there? I say, to give that girl the voice she didn’t have. But I like what Mary Karr said–she needed the money. But what if no one wants to read my story? Is it worth telling? Is it too upsetting. Mary Karr is funny. I am not. I’m more like Kathryn Harrison, dead serious, and not nearly as eloquent. But I keep saying, it’s a good story. I think it is, because here I am, I survived it. It took stamina, bravery and perseverance. I never backed down, not really, and I’m not going to this time either. I’m going to slog through to the bitter end until I have a book I can be proud of. I’m not proud of it yet, but I’m getting there. Yes, I have paid a professional editor and now I have to address all his comments. It’s good to read all these comments and know I am not alone. It gives me courage and inspires me to continue. Thanks for the post.

    • I have always been more interested in how people rise back up after terrible experience—that process of recovery—than I have been in the details of the fall. We all suffer and fall, but not everyone finds the pathway and strength to rise. Polly, I respect your journey.

  • hellafied432 says:

    The past is the past….. letting go is definitely harder than holding on. i am by no way a counselor. what’s that saying “The past is the past, the future is untold, and the present is a gift” I probably F’d that 1 up but, it was close…. you can’t move forward if you keep looking back, and when you stop holding yourself hostage, you will free the one’s around you….. Just my thoughts

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for sharing this; I find it useful.

  • Sumi says:

    This is a necessary disclosure. Not to mention, it’s very suiting for me as I start my journey of expression. Thank you for sharing this!

  • So glad you got that figured out better. Onward.

  • wendock says:

    Great job, thanks for sharing. Writing indeed is a great work that hard when you have no clue of what you really want to writer.

  • armentha says:

    Awesome writing.She really expressed herself very well

  • nez1978 says:

    I had some of the same issues writing my memoir. Thanks for the advice!

  • eileen527 says:

    I love the idea of a ritual to signal Going In and then Coming Out. Brilliant and such an important point. Thank you, Aimee. I love this essay and look forward to reading more of your work!

  • westmoonmama says:

    Thank you for sharing. It can be so difficult to dive into heart-wrenching times in the past, but it can be so healing once the work has been completed. You are doing a beautiful thing for yourself. I love your idea of the salt lamp – what a wonderful way to protect your mental wellbeing. ❤

  • apparelldebea1103 says:

    very nice. really like the article.

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