Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?

Sincerely,

There But Not There Too

 …..

 

Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

Photo credit: icmaonline on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

On New Year’s Resolutions

On New Year’s Resolutions

A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.

On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.

Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.

As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.

So, what is in my control?

The work and only the work.

I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)

But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:

  • A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
  • A schedule for completing these tasks
  • A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
  • One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
  • A self-care plan
  • A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
  • A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
  • A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
  • A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.

At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.

What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?

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