September 29, 2010
Any time we write memoir, or even (in my experience) biography or fiction, we might get to a point where we have to describe what I call “tough stuff.” Tough stuff in my writing might not be the tough stuff of yours. And you never know what will be tough stuff when you begin writing.
For example, I was flattened by writing an account of how my mother set the table for breakfast in the evening, turning the cereal bowls upside down, she said, so dust wouldn’t settle into them. I thought that sequence was going to be a walk in the park. It was the turning of the bowls upside down that did it because it unlocked, for me, the most difficult feelings I had about my mother, a woman who was deeply troubled, but who nonetheless soldiered on and tried to take care of her daughters though she was incapable of doing do.
But then I sailed through the writing of an account of how an “aunt” (she wasn’t really, but that’s what I called her) molested me when I was young. I believed that material would be impossible to write, but I suspect that I’d written it so many times in my head over the years that when I finally got to it, it just came out very quickly and I didn’t need to revise it much — I’d done the tough emotional work that prepared me to write about this long before I put words down on paper whereas I was still in the process of understanding what it was about my relationship with my mother that was so difficult.
So…don’t assume that what you think will be “tough stuff” will be “tough stuff.” You can only know when you begin to work on the material. Conversely, don’t assume that what you think will be a piece of cake will in fact be an easy run of language. Sometimes the little things (my mother’s setting the table) might be what trips us up as writers.
During the last few weeks, I’ve corresponded with several writers who’ve all been facing the same challenge, that when they begin to write certain material, they begin to “relive” what happened to them. Though they want to write about it, need to write about it, it sets them back emotionally, so much so, that it interferes with their writing, but even more important, it interferes with their well-being. In the interests of privacy, I won’t describe their subjects. Instead, I’ll invite us all to think about what subject might be for all of us, remembering, of course, that we won’t know until we try.
I’ve always advised writers who begin to “relive” rather than to “retell” their experiences to immediately stop working on the material. It’s essential, to me, to save the writer, to care for the writer. The work can always be written when we’re ready to write it. And I also believe that it’s dangerous to continue to “relive” as we write — to me, that’s what writers like Sylvia Plath did, and although her poems are certainly brilliant, I believe that writing them harmed her.
I believe that writing this kind of difficult material requires us to be in some kind of therapeutic alliance with a therapist, a counsellor, a trusted adviser. I myself have always been in therapy when writing difficult material. As I see it, therapy and writing work together in an important way. Therapy can’t do what writing can — help us get past reliving; but writing can do what therapy can’t — provide a permanent written account that retells what we’ve experienced.
So what’s the difference between retelling and reliving?
Reliving the experience as we write floods us with emotions that seem out of control or pushes us into a state where we’re “splitting” from our feelings — we become numb. We can feel dangerously detached; we can feel faint; we can feel nauseous; we can feel overwhelmed to the point that we become incapable of functioning; we can ruminate (think about the experience over and over again); we can cry uncontrollably (rather than just cry); we can bring inappropriate feelings into our “civilian” life, striking out at loved ones for small things or for no good reason at all, damaging important relationships; we can feel angry at the world.
Retelling the experience might be difficult — that is, it might be painful. (Writing tough stuff isn’t always easy, nor should it be). It might make us cry; it might make us angry; it might make us feel mournful. But when we retell, we understand the difference between what happened to us then and who we were then (in a difficult, perhaps even horrific situation) and where we are emotionally now (a person who’s different from the person who experienced that trauma). Retelling a difficult situation doesn’t mean that we’re unfeeling zombies, that we cruise through what we write without being affected by it. But it does mean that we understand that the writing is the writing, and that the past is the past.
Sometimes, though, we write difficult material as we’re living it. This is, to me, the most potentially perilous writing scenario for a memoirist. It isn’t that we shouldn’t do this. How else will we have narratives that tell the world what it’s like to be in the middle of something difficult? But it does mean that we need to make sure that we don’t use our writing to get back at the people we’re writing about; that we don’t use our writing to try to solve our real-world challenges. We need to solve our real-world challenges in the real world, not on the page, and with appropriate help. But it’s especially dangerous to tell our subjects — the ones who are causing us harm — that we’re writing about them while we’re writing about them. This does us no good. It potentially harms our work; it can harm us. Writing can in fact be used to get back at someone in our lives. Please don’t think I’m advising it, though many writers do it, do it well, and do it to help themselves (I wrote a book about it called Conceived with Malice about, among other people, D. H. Lawrence’s vengeful works, but he was among the angriest, most unhappy writers I’ve studied). But I do believe that we should never tell our subjects that they’re our subjects. It can cost us — can land us in a lawsuit; can forestall our work; can dramatically alter the shape of our lives. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t write this tough stuff, but we should always protect ourselves, and protect our work.
So what to do?
I’d suggest begin writing tough stuff slowly. Set a timer. Write for twenty minutes, no more. (This is the amount of time that researchers have determined is a safe amount of time). Assess how you’re feeling as you write. If you’re retelling, fine. If you’re reliving, stop, and try again another day. In the meantime, talk about your process in a process journal; talk about it with a writing buddy; talk about what you’re doing with a trusted adviser/therapist. You’ll be able to do it sooner or later. Perhaps not now. Perhaps not for a week, a month, a year, or several years. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other stuff to write about.