Writing A Memoir Can Be Dangerous Work. Protect Yourself!

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.
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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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