Can Writing Memoir Trigger Old Emotions? Within The Hidden Landscape of Our Heart

September 22, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Mary J. Breen

In the many memoir classes I’ve taught, I’ve blithely told my students that since writing might stir up old and difficult feelings, it was good to pay attention as they can teach us a lot. By old feelings I meant flashes of anger or frustration, or the reawakened pain of old wounds. I assumed the arrival of these stirred-up feelings would be very obvious.

Then I started writing about my mother.

Some background: I was born in 1944, the only child of 41-year-old, devout Catholics. To my kind and loving father, I was a miracle; to my mother, I was a gift, but also a project. She was going to be the exemplary mother of an exemplary child, and to achieve this, she would use the same guiding principles that had made her an exemplary teacher: be completely in charge and know all the answers. And so, she set about trying to have absolute control over me: what I ate, wore, read, played, said, and learned. To get my compliance, she didn’t hesitate to use sudden hard smacks and loud anger. (I wonder if she ever understood how afraid I became of her, and if she thought this was how it should be.) When I was a teenager and later an adult, she continued her attempts to mould me through relentless criticisms of my looks, actions, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. But it didn’t work. I became her great and embarrassing failure, and a heathen to boot. Her shame, her stubbornness, and her fury increased with every passing year to the point that she wouldn’t allow me and my children to visit, and in her will, she left most of her treasured things, including her house, to people I didn’t even know.

Forty years after her death, I no longer hear her scoldings playing in my head, and I would have said that I have, for the most part, put her criticisms behind me. Of course, I’ve talked about her and thought about her a great deal over the years. I’ve also published many memoir pieces, but I hadn’t before tried to spell out in detail the exact nature of my mother’s tyranny. I didn’t unearth new significant memories during the writing process, but the writing certainly helped to give me a better understanding of my parents and their choices. It also led me to feel more sympathy for her, and it showed me that her loneliness in her later years was not all my doing. It also gave me the freedom to say publically that, despite how many people—including my dear, dear father—loved and admired her, she was wrong to have treated me this harshly. It’s even allowed me to move closer to accepting that, like it or not, she was my mother.

While I was writing, I felt neither sad nor angry nor fearful, just very preoccupied. Then, a month or so in, I began to feel nervous and vulnerable at home—but only at home. My partner would say something like, “What have you been doing today?” and I’d immediately feel afraid, sure I was going to have to account for how I’d spent my day, and sure this was the beginning of the kind of interrogation my mother specialized in that would lead to criticism and punishment. More and more, I found myself within a fog of apprehension, with moments of genuine fear when I was asked to make decisions about utterly minor things like what we might cook for dinner. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t yet connect these new feelings with writing about my mother.

And then, a few weeks later, I happened to read something that reminded me of how memoir writing can trigger old emotions, and the penny dropped: could it be that I was actually being ambushed by old feelings of fear and anxiety because I was writing about them? Could it be that the writing had rekindled the feelings I’d had so often when I lived with her? Was this why it seemed as if I had been thrown back to a time when my mother governed me and my life? With this realization, the thinking part of my brain woke up and set about reminding me that my mother would not be descending from above—as she had been wont to do in real life—ready to persecute me for whatever I had chosen to do. Moreover, it reminded me that I do not live with someone who picks on me, and reacting to this patient, kind person in my current life as if he were a threat was very unfair. As I paid more attention to the feelings, the incongruity between what I knew and what I felt became more understandable and less overwhelming. And within this process, these distressing feelings mostly faded away.

I don’t know if what I experienced is commonplace. I don’t know if feelings from the past often arrive like a kind of covert mission, infiltrate the brain unannounced, and then appear as if they belonged in one’s current life. I don’t know how long these periods typically last, nor how intense they can be. I also don’t know the best ways to handle them.

What I do know is that when my students are writing about the past, I plan to be much clearer in my warnings about how subtle and challenging these feelings can be. It certainly has been a huge reminder that we can never fully understand the landscape of our hearts.

If Brevity readers have thoughts about this issue, I, and maybe others too, would love to hear them.


Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Windsor Review. She also spent several years writing and editing easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada where, among other things, she sometimes teaches creative nonfiction and memoir classes while continuing her fruitless search for a publisher for her memoir.


§ 16 Responses to Can Writing Memoir Trigger Old Emotions? Within The Hidden Landscape of Our Heart

  • At some point, for our emotional health, we must move on. Perhaps examining and suffering from old emotions is an essential part of that journey, a necessary step in the process of healing. Or not.

    I like to know things. I am curious and a determined researcher, but there are things I never wanted to know, despite my curiosity. There are family secrets I prefer to leave in the dark. Unlike Mary J. Breen’s explorations of her mother, the secrets I prefer to leave alone do not directly involve me, and knowing them would not ease me or my life. They might explain but would not help me move past.

  • Lynn Haraldson says:

    I’ve had a similar experience this year while writing my mother into parts of my memoir. Thank you for writing about it so precisely; it’s like you read my journals about it 🙂 On the flip side, but still just as emotionally challenging, my memoir is about my late husband who died several years ago. I never stopped loving him, but I fell “in love” with him again as I wrote about our young (and short) life together and for a while I had a difficult time distinguishing between my love for him and my love for my current partner. Our brains are amazing and complicated things, for sure!

  • Hello, I’m a Catholic and wrote a book called “Shrinking and expanding: An autobiography of one Irish woman’s journey through Anorexia”. I like this post and have empathy and solidarity with you in your experiences, although I am 30… younger than you. Sorry you suffered for 40 years with these ruminating thoughts. I find the word “OK” “okay” good in “letting go” of ruminating thoughts, if it’s any use. I’m much younger than you though, of course. Well done. I love this blog post 🙂 lots of love and solidarity in your writings from Róisín in Ireland.

  • Sue Keefe says:

    Your search for a publisher will eventually bear fruit! I so-enjoyed this wonderful and thought-provoking essay!

    My current life is in some ways “ruled” by memories of a father whose disapproval of me was undisguised and relentless. While he was a loving and attentive father during my early childhood, I do not remember his ever telling me he loved me.

    Beginning when I was 11, his barbed criticism of my preteen 10 pound weight problem blossomed into a lifelong weight and self image struggle for me.

    I have come to believe that I grew up struggling to overcome my very flawed self by trying to be exceptionally kind and hard-working and generous.When I failed and was called on it, I became extremely defensive. Every mistake was a reminder that beneath the veneer of goodness, I was actually the “bad” person my father had taught me i was.

    He died at age 99 of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and while I had lived most of my adult life 3000 miles away from him, he lived with and was cared for by my husband and I during the final decade of his life. Despite the ravages of the disease, he eventually settled to become the father of my childhood: grateful for all that was given him and mild-mannered after a lifetime of rage. While he never did tell me he loved me, i feel blessed to have had the wonderful father he long ago had been restored to me in those final years.

    I am 73 now, and believe that in my lifetime I will slowly grow to be kinder and more accepting of myself, a better wife and mother, and a less defensive person. I will never be perfect and hope to stop struggling with that and in the end, learn acceptance and thus gain peace, my final gift.

  • Brad Ewell says:

    I have had a similar experience and the overwhelming crush of emotions when I write about difficult things from the past. When I write about finding out I was adopted at 48 years old, I often find myself in a funk for several days until I eventually understand that it’s the feelings being dredged back up by the memories. I found when I wrote about my adoptive father’s death; I constantly switched to present tense without thinking about it because I was reliving those moments in my head. Writing about traumatic things has been ultimately good for me in the long run, but it’s not always fun in the moment.

  • annavteditorgmailcom says:

    My mother was on the same continuum as your mother, probably for similar reasons. I learned very early not to divulge anything about myself to her because she would inevitably find a way to use it against me. Time, therapy, and friends have softened the impact, but I will always know what was missing. I have found Louise DeSalvo’s book Writing as a Way of Healing to be invaluable. DeSalvo includes advice to readers about caring for themselves while writing so as not to fall into a big black hole. Thanks for this essay, Mary. If the writing in your full-length memoir is of this quality, it will surely be published!

  • Thanks to each of you for your comments, especially the reminder that memoir writing can elicit good emotions too—of course! I’m very glad to know that you all recognized what I was talking about. Thanks for sharing your stories and for your supportive words. These memoir projects can certainly be powerful.

  • Beth Kaplan says:

    Mary, this is a moving and honest essay. I’m a writer and teacher of memoir writing in Toronto and have written an article about the arduous journey to publication of my latest memoir. If you’re interested in seeing what happened to mine, you can find me through my website at, and I’ll send it to you. It’s a brutal world out there for our words.

  • While not my intention or even my hope, the writing of my memoir put me right in the middle of the trauma of my past. I required the help of a therapist and medication to get back into the present. The writing of it also moved me further in my healing from the trauma I incurred from being burned in a fire 35 years ago. Without that writing, I may not have known I still had healing to do. The truth is writing has always been healing for me. From the story I wrote when I was 10 about the bully who got his comeuppance to the poetry I wrote during the years of my recovery from burns, I have written to heal myself and in turn, to help heal the reader. Thank you for this validation and for sharing the impact of writing on your life.

  • Lynette Benton says:

    Your essay (and experience of your mother) bowled me over to the extent that I can’t even leave a useful comment—yet. Will return to try to comment in a coherent way, as my mother treated me similarly, though for different reasons.

  • Ursula Teegarden says:

    With one DEEP breathe I reflect on my Muttie as one of the bravest, most humble, sincerely loving and most underrated of all humans. With another breathe of my Mutter the reflection is interwoven in Catholic shame and fear too great to type out in this forum. I would like to think and also pass along to my own daughter positive traits of a human cancels the negative actions but unfortunately life doesn’t work this way. Rather a residue of comments as revealed in different ways mentioned here on healing and how we individually find healing or just to cope. As for myself, I chose to delve into my Mothers life following her death. I studied her childhood, growing up during war times and put her negative traits she later developed into a wounded adult, a result of her own life’s struggles, failures, rejections and moment to moment survival. I am not a writer, and please don’t critique my grammar, but during my younger years I desperately wanted to be writing but quickly silenced by a Mutter who thought dreaming, writing and reading were idle useless tasks compared to cleaning the floors and windows. So what would my Muttie say to me when catching me reading…….Your Oma died at 81 washing her windows!

  • Flo Levia says:

    Boy, do I hear you! I had to do LOTS of personal work, alone and with others, during the writing of some of the chapters in my book, so that any residual “charge” from old memories could be more deeply healed. Because of that, I have an addendum at the end of the Introduction to my book, addressing just that issue. I encourage readers to take the self-care steps they need to (with suggestions), while also seeing their emotional responses to possible triggers as a blooming into conscious awareness of something inside themselves that is asking for their attention and care. Trauma lives on in our bodies, thoughts and emotions, and can most definitely be triggered by our own writing or other people’s stories. Working through these is often not a “once and you’re done (and over it!)” process. We heal in layers. I think it’s because we’re supposed to learn something significant with each step we make forward! Who wants to miss out on some pretty deep and significant learnings? Not me.
    The intention of my memoir is to inspire people who have been dealing with their chronic health issues for a long time, to come to a more compassionate and accepting place for everything they’ve been through, while introducing the hope that it is never too late to begin healing — even if your pile of “s!#!t” feels more like a mountain! It can be possible and doable when we set a strong intention to heal, and take it one baby step at a time. The book is my own personal path in looking for, and finding, healing — with some of the biggest gains coming between ages 65-68. Go figure! For anyone interested, my book is “There’s A Leak In My Boat! The Challenges And Gifts Of My Journey Through Chronic Illness”. It will be out (I think — it’s my first book) in weeks to a month or two at FriesenPress first, then at Amazon, etc. a few weeks later. Before Christmas for sure.
    By the way, it was Mary Breen who got me started memoir writing in the first place, just 3-4 years ago!

  • Patricia Thompson [Nee Schouten] says:

    Mary, I so enjoyed reading your article in “Drop Threads”. I feel life is a process and we continually learn from others…There were many statements in your article that I could identify with… I only really knew you as my sister, Gerarda’s university friend and who went overseas with C.U.S.O.
    Through Family Anonymous,,[a self help group for those who have a love one who is abusing drugs]], I have learn to love myself, accept myself and find serenity…
    my journalling has also been a tremendous aid in uncovering many of my hidden emotions…
    once again many thanks.

  • Thanks. I’m writing my Memoir and need to finish it. I’ve written 80,000 words. I’ve just woken from a sleep where a dream involved my husband who died 7 years ago. It was a beautiful dream which encouraged me with comfort in the midst of grief and loss. These feelings were real. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe. I’ll read again what you have said. sincerely, Barbara McKay

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