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.


6 Responses to “Retelling/Reliving”

  1. Sally D Says:

    Thank you for this very helpful blog.

    I would like to add one more sign of reliving experiences: a heightened state of anxiety (often a low level anxiety that is more or less continuous).

    I’m especially thankful for the following comment you made, “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.” As soon as I read this my whole body relaxed. I felt I’d been given permission not to write.

    I had stopped writing difficult material for over a year. I felt both that I was ready and that I needed to write about the difficult material now. What I had not expected, was that once I began writing, I would feel compelled to continue to write, and have difficulty stopping. I’m working at finding a balance. One thing I do is not to write every day.

    I also find your comments about setting a timer to limit the amount of time you spend writing very helpful. It’s interesting that research shows that 20 minutes is a safe amount of time to write. I wonder why that is. I know that when I’m writing difficult material, I find I can only write for a short amount of time before I sense that if I continue writing it will be too much for me. Sometimes this is very frustrating, because I will be in the middle of some very productive writing. For the most part, I do stop when I get that sense that I have written for as long as I can handle for that day. I’ve never timed how long it is before I get that feeling. Next time I write I will take note of how long it takes before I get to that point. Then, if it’s longer than 20 minutes, I will start using a timer and stop at 20 minutes.

    Thank you,

  2. writingalife Says:

    The reserarcher who speaks of a twenty minute limit is James W. Pennebaker. His book, Opening Up, influenced my work.

    • Sally D Says:

      It’s interesting that when I keep my writing to 20 minutes a day I fall almost naturally into retailing, and do not suffer the anxiety of reliving. Though it is often frustrating as the 20 minutes are often up when I’m right in the middle of the thought.

      Thank you for pointing me towards James W. Pennebaker’s work. I didn’t see anything in the little bit of research I’ve done on his work that gives any indication of what is happening in the brain. I have been told, by a grief counselor, that memories of traumatic events are stored in a different part of the brain than normal memories. And that part of the cause of PTSD is this storage of traumatic memories in this ‘incorrect’ area of the brain. Apparently, the goal of healing from trauma is to shift those memories to the area of the brain where memories are usually stored. One of the ways to do this is through writing about them. Can you point me to some basic, i.e., easily understood, research on why 20 minutes a day is best, and also how (or perhaps where) traumatic memories are stored in the brain? I have a little bit of understanding of neurobiology and behavior. It is both a personal interest, related to my PTSD, and an intellectual interest of mine.

      Thank you.

  3. Stephanie Wong Says:

    This blog is interesting in a way which, i constantly find myself reliving a particular memory instead of retelling it. I have difficulty sometimes coming up with a memory thats worth beind retold. I can’t really remember much before the age of 16. If I come across a picture or a story from my parents , grandparents, aunt and uncles, it’ll spark a memory. But eventually i’ll end up retelling their story about the situation rather tahn my own. I’m not rushing to get this memoir style of writing done, but I do know that i need to stop reliving and just retell. I recount memories, rather than go off on tangents and describe the color, sounds, feel etc.
    I do agree with this part of the blog, “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.” I don’t believe i try to get back at people through my writing but i do try to vent through many of my processed journal entries. I need to break from this habit of following the academic rules of writing and just let my hand do free writing about memory without the recount factor. I know that if the narrator or the memoir piece is seen as angry , the reader will not take them as seriously s they would want them to. I’ve had a normal happy go lucky childhood, and when i read about how these people were molested as children, i feel like i couldn’t amount to ther work. Not saying that its good, but it has a more deep feeling and memory. One can rememebr clearly, because it’s been scarred onto them. I need to try and remember beofre the age of 16 and maybe i’ll need to take some Ginkoba for that!

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