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Can of Worms: Advice for Untangling Memories in the Personal Narrative Process

"A Can of Worms: Mixed Media Artwork by tj owens

A young author I’m coaching is writing an absolutely heartbreaking and riveting memoir. In it she recounts a harrowing childhood of severe physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect in rural Michigan. Her transformation from victim to survivor to heroine is nothing short of inspirational, and I’m deeply honored that she chose me to help her through this process. Recently, she was reflecting about how emotionally difficult it is to write some of the more tender “scenes” of her life.  She texted me the following: 

“That was an incredibly tense one to write... took me days because despite grounding exercises my brain fog kept coming up! I woke up this morning and found my zone. It felt good. Writing comes with all of the emotions but I’m noticing that it also comes with new ones. Me noticing abuse dynamics and just pure rage about how I was treated. Just so much emotion!”  

This, my friends, is why so many people don’t start writing their memoir to begin with: they fear that they are opening the proverbial can of emotional worms.  And this is also why people give up once the “worms” of grief, shame, loss, and anger keep coming and coming. 

How do you recount the pain in your writing without re-experiencing the emotions—and maybe even bringing up new, previously undiscovered pain points and uncomfortable revelations?  Well, in short: you don’t. You don’t because if you bypassed the pain, you’d be bypassing your truth.  And when it comes to memoir writing, the truth will set you free, free of the pain you’ve been holding onto for umpteen years. This is a cathartic process. You can write about it and finally put your past in a place where it’s more manageable: on a page, instead of in your heart. Not only that, if you just did a surface re-telling, without a truthful—and at times uncomfortable—reliving, your book would stay right there on the surface—and what a dull read that would be. 

You see, the more immersed you are in that raw, uncomfortable space in your memories, the more likely you are to write every vivid detail, and you are then able to transport your reader to that five year old innocent and confused self—or that 35 year old innocent and confused self. In my memoir writing workshop we do an exercise called “The 360”.  (I didn’t exactly invent it; it’s an adaptation of creativity guru, Lynda Barry’s, “X-page Exercise”.)  Basically, you get into a diffuse--or relaxed--state of mind and then pick out a scene from your life and transport yourself to that point in your life using all of your senses.  You ask yourself what time of day it is, what you can hear, what are you wearing, what you are standing on, who are you talking to, etc. You literally look, listen, taste, smell and feel all around you, on you, and even inside you. You will fully transport yourself to that space so that you can fully retell that moment in all of its complexities. Your writing comes alive because you are now remembering the moldy scent of your grandmother’s dishrag and the gurgled sound of her voice as she belittles you and swipes you across the face—while you are also churning up those feelings: worms and worms of feelings.  And that’s a good thing for your readers.

Think about all of the memoirs you love: Tara Westover’s Uneducated, Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. These are all stories that recount horrors barely imaginable to most of us—but they are also showing us their transformation: their grit, their strength, their brilliance in overcoming these obstacles. Memoirists must have the courage to touch their pain to tell us how they were in hell, show us in vivid detail how they made it out of hell, and give us just an inkling of hope that when we're in hell, we too might find a way out. 

You may say, “Okay, Michele, it’s good for my craft and it’s great for humanity to share my story, but what about me having to deal with all of these awful memories for months and months?” First of all, remember that your whole life probably isn’t an entire shit-show; there are usually bright spots, happy times, loving people, and powerful lessons. In fact, the aforementioned client demonstrates in her memoir that it is because of her parents’ neglect that she learned resourcefulness, imagination, and resiliency. Drilling down into the dynamics of your life can also reveal how your true strengths emerged. So that trip down memory lane will also be a path to empowerment! 

Secondly, you will rely on tools that you may already know, or that I can show you, such as: grounding, meditation, and somatic trauma release--which is the process of releasing pent up emotional energy through a variety of methods such as: shaking, tapping, stomping, breathwork, yoga, etc. As Harvard Trauma Specialist, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. famously says: “the body keeps the score”. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that our bodies very literally encode and store memories and experiences. So, it is essential when writing a memoir to understand how to settle your body before and during writing and know how to physically release any of those stored memories in order to stay present and safe in your adult body.  

Another tool I recommend is for my clients to keep a separate “meta-emotion journal” where they reflect on the feelings that come up and process them outside of the text of the memoir.  Ideally you have already faced down your demons before you started your memoir, but there always seems to be more shadow work to be done—and writing is another vehicle to get you through that alchemizing fire of transformation. I also recommend that clients keep a “process journal” in which they write about every facet of their particular writing process, such as: the conditions they notice are conducive to being creative (time of day, for instance), their reading notes of similar memoirs, style points for honing their craft, publishing and cross-promotion ideas, feedback from readers and friends, research issues and experiences, etc. Keeping one or both of these types of journals can actually be fodder for subsequent media interviews, help with future writing projects, assist publishers with fact-checking, or could actually be included in the memoir (as in the case of Tara Westover who mentions the process of interviewing her brothers for their recollections which differed significantly from hers).  

Lastly, you should know that you aren’t alone.  You have people like me who can gently shepherd you through the process and there are robust and thoughtful writers’ communities who can provide compassionate encouragement for this challenging journey. The point of memoir is to share, learn and grow as humans—not only from writing it and reading it—but through our vulnerability in sharing the unearthing process with others. Most of my students and clients believe that we write in a vacuum, but writing is not a solitary act; it is usually through reciprocal conversations with others—and always through the recursive act of revision—that we will write something of depth and value.

Brené Brown says it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”  I implore you as a writer to go there so that you can take us there—take us all the way there—and show us the way to the other side of the pain.  Take us to that place of redemption, revelation, and rejoicing! It is when you are brave enough to open that messy emotional can of worms that you can heal from it and alchemize into a physically separate entity in the form of text, rather than a living entity inside your life and body. And, it is through your humility and through your surrender that we all compassionately witness your powerful transformation—and we become healed as well.  

Learn more about our Memoir Writing Workshop and other events to unleash your creativity.

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