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?


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.

Grief complicates the writing process, especially if the wound is fresh or the loss was traumatic. Not only do we have to navigate painful feelings surrounding the loss, but we also have to contend with brain fog and memories that go through a different encoding process.

Most experiences transit from short-term memory to verbal, long-term storage areas of the brain in an orderly fashion mediated by the hippocampus. When trauma occurs, stress hormones rush memories to nonverbal limbic centers of the brain, which is why we experience them so viscerally. Because trauma sends some parts of the brain into overdrive, other parts shut down or dissociate to mediate the pain. This is why traumatic memories are frequently choppy and disjointed. Hence the writing challenges described in your letter.

There But Not There, the following paragraphs contain strategies for further memory retrieval, but before you proceed, consider whether a deeper dive is beneficial. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the loss of choice. While I firmly believe in the healing power of writing about painful events, I also believe we must empower ourselves as writers. At every crossroads ask: Is this detail important? For example, does it matter whether a conversation occurred in the living room or kitchen? If it doesn’t, write something like, “We could’ve been standing in the kitchen or dining room.” If it matters, determine how much emotional effort the retrieval will require and how you’ll take care of yourself as you mine the gap between your memories and your memoir.

Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.

Early in the writing process, I recommend writers record their memories without input from others to ensure their stories are truly their own. You’re past that. Ask safe co-conspirators who love you, celebrate your work, and ideally don’t play a major role in your book to share what they remember about you and your behavior during that grief-laden period of your book. Ask them what your face looked like, how you sat, or what you did when asked difficult questions. If they have pictures of you from that time period, ask to see them.

It’s likely you’ve already researched your story’s key events. Now research items on the edge of that experience. Check the weather, the number-one song on the radio, or the number-one book on the NYTimes bestseller list. Touch the book, listen to the song, and if possible, re-experience that weather to see what you might have done on such a day. Read the newspaper for the days in question. Seeing what the world viewed as newsworthy may trigger additional memories. Even if it doesn’t, you may find yourself touching certain parts of your body or feeling a specific kind of pain. Record your results. Also, pay attention to body sensations and visceral experiences when writing, revising, or reading your work out loud. These visceral sensations are muscle memory in action.

If it feels emotionally safe to do so (remember the power of choices), walk or drive the same routes you would’ve taken or follow your old routine. Hold the newspaper containing your son’s obituary. Because you have a clear sense of your thoughts and feelings, focus on how your posture changes, how tightly you grip the newspaper, what happens to your jaw. Attend to any aches and pains. If you have any chronic illnesses or injuries, notice whether symptoms flare. This could be stored trauma revealing itself.

Debra Gwartney capitalizes on physical experiences in her memoir Live Through This. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts: “I turn back to press my fingers against a rib that tends to devil ache at moments like this. It’s a pain that reminds me, again, how sometimes the past simply refuses to be finished.”

Where does your body devil ache?

What pains remind you that your grief is unfinished?

Answering these questions and completing these exercises may be useful, but don’t let them become torture. Part of the truth you may need to tell is that not only is your dear and precious child lost, but some of your memories are lost too. Because memoir is a story of memory and memory is always fallible, admitting to lost memories, hedging about the details, or speculating to create a sense of narrative cohesion is perfectly acceptable, provided what you’re doing is clear. Check out these examples.

In Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, she writes this about the time her mother almost killed her. “I don’t remember talking. I must eventually have told Dr. Boudreaux there weren’t any marks on me. There weren’t. It took a long time to figure that out for certain, even longer to drive my memory from that single place in time out toward the rest of my life.”

In Caged Eyes, Lynn Hall’s brave memoir about surviving a sexual assault as an Air Force cadet, she writes about dissociating during a rape. “I left myself again . . . I have no memory of what happened next. I didn’t hear if he said anything else to me, and I didn’t feel where his fingers made contact with my skin.”


Lara Lillibridge does something similar in Girlish, her memoir about growing up in a bipolar home. When talking about possible sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, she writes “There was that time in the bathtub with Dad that got a little weird, when he asked Girl, ‘Where’s the penis?’ And maybe let her poke it. Maybe not. She wasn’t clear on what exactly happened, just that she felt squirmy inside and dirty and bad when she thought about that day.”

Write some speculative scenes to free yourself from the constraints of absolute fact so you can discover your story’s truth. Begin with one of the following phrases “I don’t remember,” “I don’t want to remember,” or “It could’ve happened like this.” See where the writing takes you. While you may not remember everything, have confidence that you will retrieve the details that lend universality to your work.

No matter how you proceed, be gentle with yourself as you continue this journey. As someone who’s also experienced a traumatic loss, I salute the work you’ve done and cheer you on as you complete your book.



Lisa Ellison

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