Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]

Writing about buried thoughts in memoir and the personal essay

Memoir and personal essays are all about the self but sometimes something impedes our pursuit of the “I” character. Here we are, writing about our “selves” and there is a hesitation to explore deeper consciousness or personality, or interiority of thoughts. What stops us? Take for example, our reaction to passing a roadside accident. We may be horrified about what we see and at the same time burning with curiosity to see the mangled vehicles and the EMTs prying out a body with the Jaws of Life. Concentrating on that secret desire to watch, to see possibly something horrific, is the challenge for anyone who wants to explore and reflect on one’s personal response in a moment like this – or any moment in time. We bury these thoughts, wishes desires, quickly, and hesitate to return. BUT – sometimes we really want to write about how it felt to be in that situation. How do we go back and dredge up our true feelings? Carl Klaus speaks about “fixedness” in his book, The Made-up Self.” That resistance to drill deeper through our habitual thoughts down to a less-recognized (or less acceptable) self. The question is not to dig up and record macabre thoughts, it is how to think deeply on how we respond, what we truly think in any situation. In her essay Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf speaks about the importance of “scene making” to get at buried thoughts.   She differentiates between private (reflective) thoughts and public approaches to delve into memory. The private are the scenes which we remember but can’t make sense of – the public are the roads we try to build into memory by saying this happened, then this, then this. […]

Memoir and Family

I often hear people express a desire to write a memoir. “What aspect of your life do you want to write about?” I ask. My friend Susan replied, “I’d like to write about growing up with an alcoholic mother, but she’s still alive. She’d kill me.” “Really? What part of the story do you think she’d object to?” I asked. I was being a bit devilish or at least provoking, because sometimes it can be too early for the writer to approach certain subjects/life experiences – which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to write about them, it’s just that it may take many drafts, many re-entries into the subject, to find out what it is they want to say. But this is the purpose of memoir. In writing about what we remember we are reflecting about something significant that happened in our life and trying to do it as truthfully as possible. The fact that some members of our family may not agree with our understanding comes with the territory. My brother often reads my work and says, “Oh, no, Ruth, it wasn’t like that.”  But what about this nagging question as to whether we should write about certain subjects at all, ever? Judith Barrington writes in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art that memoirist Jill Kerr Conway said that she couldn’t have written The Road from Coorain while her mother was alive. “She would have struck me dead,” said Conway. But Annie Dillard simply left out any details that might have troubled her family in An American Childhood. Teresa Jordan said that it was extremely hard to start writing about her family when she wrote, Riding the White Horse Home. “The ranching world is a very […]
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