June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?
Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?
Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.
Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!
Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.
Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.
- Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
- Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
- Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”
Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:
First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…
Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’
Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I hear you.
- I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.
Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:
- This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
- I’m sorry you had to go through that.
Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.
Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.
Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:
- How’s your day-to-day life now?
- How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
- What’s the best part of your life right now?
- Do you have any plans for after we talk?
Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.
Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her Wednesday (tomorrow!) for Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A recording will be available to registered participants if you can’t make it live.
February 1, 2021 § 34 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.
December 11, 2019 § 32 Comments
By Emmy D. Wells
My son used to beat me up. Now he beats other people up.
He’s only fifteen, but he has a severe psychological disorder paired with an intellectual disability and has been locked up in a secure residential facility in another state since he was eleven.
That is essentially the entirety of the memoir I am getting ready to query. I hope I haven’t spoiled anything for you.
Sometimes I wonder how I was able to write an entire manuscript that can be summed up in three sentences. In fact, if I tried hard enough, I could probably get it to one or two. Does that mean I’m somehow cheating?
It has been a long, almost five-year road writing the book because… well… it is hard to write about getting knocked around.
Trauma is hard to talk about. It’s hard to think about. It’s hard to write about.
I am not cheating, though. Not really. I had to start at the beginning, before the bruises and broken furniture, the fights and the flying food. I told myself that my readers needed to know where it all began. I think I needed to know more. It was profoundly important for me to understand what happened to my son, to my family.
It is not unusual to hear about boyfriends or husbands, sometimes even wives or girlfriends, hitting or kicking their “loved ones”. I do not recall many times, though, where I have heard someone admit that their kid abused them.
Truthfully, it happens more than you probably realize.
I am also writing a psychological thriller and I have often wondered why it has taken me so long to write the memoir when, in less than six months, I have been able to whip out most of the entire first draft of a novel. I know better about what happened in my real-life story, after all.
It makes sense, though, when you think about it. I had to write in small little increments, little nibbles, morsels of time each day. The words had a bitter flavor and were sharp to the touch, painful and sour.
Still, getting the words on my screen gave me a sort of relief, like slicing through a festering, pus-filled abscess. The pressure releases and the pain lessens. Over time, the angry red turns to pink, and the yellow ooze dries up and washes away. Then the scar becomes thick and bumpy and ragged, but it’s closed and it only hurts when you push on it.
Writing pushes on my scar, makes it hurt. But I have become used to it and, over time, the pain has become normal, like that gnawing pain in your lower back at the start of each day or that old knee injury that you got in high school that just won’t go away.
My pain has become my friend. I’m not sure what I would do without it. It teaches me and informs me, tells me what to write. It prods me to type and type, make me feel better, a sort of analgesic relief.
I see my son once a month now and the scar opens a little each time.
Emmy D. Wells is a writer and blogger living in Hampden, Maine. Her life as a mother to four children, two of whom have severe psychological disorders, and wife to a disabled man in a wheelchair informs much of her work. When Emmy isn’t writing, you’ll find her curled up on the couch, buried under her three dogs, with her nose in a book. Find her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emmydwells2 Or Instagram: www.instagram.com/emmydwells
December 12, 2018 § 33 Comments
By Detra Damskov
I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.
After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen. She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.
Write about what you can’t write about.
I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy. Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything. My story needed to breathe so I could do the same. So that night, I exhaled and began. What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.
I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests. Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.
But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.
Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.” Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.
Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.
If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.
While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.
Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.
Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism. Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity. Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this. Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.
As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame. In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.
Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few. Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.
If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.
Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction. She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.
March 15, 2010 § 4 Comments
Katherine Gries’ gripping essay “Not Like You” can be found in the most recent Brevity, Issue 32. Here, she discusses the process of writing a short-short nonfiction essay:
Yes, he went to prison. He spent more than twenty years incarcerated for this and other crimes, his conviction based partly on more than twenty hand-written pages of details that I remembered from the three hours I spent with him.
I started writing this piece as a personal essay for a journalism class. With a much higher word count, it seemed to ramble, veering off into a lament of facts and statistics: I was 22 years old and this was the third time I had survived a stranger rape; every two minutes, an American woman is raped; more than seventy percent of rapists know their victims, so why was this happening to me? I didn’t want my decades-old emotions to clutter the story. I became tangled in too many details. I abandoned the draft and turned in something else.
When the “write an essay for Brevity” assignment came up in my memoir class, I had an “Ah-ha” moment. The short-short genre demands attention to pacing, and slashes anything extra—coincidentally, the way I felt when these scenes were taking place, or in any emergency. You breathe. You move. You do what is demanded. You survive. And the short-short genre reduced a particularly heinous situation to precisely what it has become: a few paragraphs—not a chapter—from my life.
My thanks to Laurie Lynn Drummond (University of Oregon) for her belief in and support of memoir.