The Dangers of Reliving in Our Work

March 11, 2011

Writing about difficult times, as we memoirists often do, is tricky for several reasons.  One, of course, is that in the writing we run the risk of “reliving” the experience, rather than “retelling” it.  If we recognize what this feels like, and if we steer clear of staying in the “reliving,” we can work through this important challenge.

“Reliving” is easy enough for us to recognize.  It’s when our writing overwhelms us.  It’s when the feelings we had at the time the event we’re writing about took place rush in and blindside us.  It’s when our writing cripples us emotionally for a day or more.  It’s when we somatize our feelings and start getting headaches, or throw up, or get anxiety responses.  One moment we’re writing; the next moment we’re sucked back into the vortex of “back then.”

This is dangerous, and when we recognize we’re reliving, I believe it’s important, no, that it’s essential, for us to stop the work, to talk to a trusted advisor (preferably a professional) rather than to use our work to “repeat” the difficult time that has come before.  And I believe that it’s important to stop the work – perhaps for years – until, with a professional’s help, we feel ready.  We all have so very much to write about; we don’t have to write about everything all at once; we don’t have to write the very hard stuff until we’re good and ready.  I, for example, was in my fifties the first time I wrote about an aunt’s abuse.  I wanted to write about it earlier, but something told me the time wasn’t write.  So instead I wrote about Virginia Woolf’s abuse and made, I think, a contribution with that writing.  As writers, we have long lives to live, and we have plenty to write about.  We don’t have to write about the tough stuff right away if we find ourselves “reliving.”

“Retelling” feels different.  When we “retell,” we may feel sadness, we may feel loss, we may feel regret, anger, rage – we may feel any one of a number of sensations or many of them.  But they don’t overtake us.  We may cry, but our crying does not disable us.  We may rage, but we don’t take it out on our families.  We’re clear that now is now and that then was then and that now is not then.  We don’t get sucked back into the vortex of the past.  We use language to express what came before.  We retell.

I believe it’s essential for us as writers to learn the difference.  In some cases, I believe that it’s essential to postpone the writing of a specific narrative if, every time we write, we begin to “relive.”  I believe in saving the writer for some kind of writing, any kind of writing.  Again, as writers, we have long lives to live if we take care of ourselves.  And I believe that a writer like Sylvia Plath wrote in a way that forced her to “relive,” and that this, perhaps, precipitated her suicide.

Writing doesn’t always help.  Writing can hurt.

I’ll tell you how this can get tricky.

With people who’ve survived trauma, as I have, as so many of us have, difficult feelings are familiar, wonderful feelings aren’t.  So we must guard ourselves against using our writing to “repeat” what happened to us.  Professionals call this “repetition compulsion.”  All this means is that we must guard against using our work to repeat the past, to repeat the pain of the past, to repeat the trauma of the past.  “Reliving” instead of “rewriting” repeatedly in our work is an important cue that we’re using our writing in a “repetition compulsion” kind of way.  I’ve watched writers do this.  One signal that we’re doing this is if we write the same material over and over again.  If we get stuck in one particular moment and can’t let it go.  If what we write is perfectly clear to us and completely incomprehensible to others.

Now I know that in early drafts of our work, not many of us include sufficient back story to make the work perfectly comprehensible to others.  The work of revision does that.  So what I mean is a cue that we’re using our writing in a “repetition compulsion” way is if our work makes not very much sense at all to someone else and that every time we rewrite the work, the work stays stuck in the same narrative and in the same incomprehensibility.  This is a sure sign that we need to abandon the work and get professional help at once.  We might have trouble understanding that the work isn’t working at all, that we’re really not writing art, but that we’re writing from the need to relive.  Here, it’s important to trust our readers.   This doesn’t often can.  But it sometimes can.  And I offer my observations here, not to scare us as memoirists, but in the interests of keeping us safe.

My experience, too, for what it’s worth, from all the years I’ve taught and advised writers, is that substance abuse and “reliving” and “repetition compulsions” in the work often go hand in hand.  People often use substance abuse as a means of alleviating pain, as a form of self-medication.  But self-medicating doesn’t help; it exacerbates our problems.  I’ve learned that writers who abuse substances often can’t get clear about their work; they can’t let go of dangerous narratives; they can’t judge that their substance abuse is harming them.  And I’ve observed them get into vicious cycles: they write and “relive”; the “reliving” brings a great deal of pain; they abuse substances to self-medicate but it leads to them “reliving” in the work again rather than to getting professional help and it leads to the incapacity to make judgments about the fact that they need professional help, that they need to get clean, that they need to stop using their writing in this deleterious way.

Substance abuse is a serious problem with creative people.  Not to talk about it is to sweep this serious problem under the rug, and this, I don’t want to do.

Why this is so is complex, and I don’t want to simplify, for people have written entire books about his.  But a few simple observations are in order here.

Many if not most creative people have experienced more trauma than “civilians,” as my husband calls people not in the arts.  Because many of us have experienced trauma, we are vulnerable to using substances that quell the symptoms of our trauma (anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, you name it) but that do not treat the cause, and, in fact, exacerbate our problems.  The culture of the arts is riddled with substance abuse.  Go to an opening, go to a reading, go to a jazz club.  There’s booze; there’re often drugs.  Dealers and pushers find people in the arts.  They know who their clients are likely to be.  And we know from the lives of famous people (take Judy Garland, for example) that people around artists don’t often care about their well-being; in fact, in Garland’s case, her “handlers” pushed drugs on her so she could perform longer, work harder, produce more.

The life of creative people, of prolific and famous artists is very hard.  Make no mistake about it.  Jazz musicians on tour, staying in one hotel after another.  Writers facing their first big “hit,” a target for predatory journalists.  Writers facing the blank page with terror.  Painters not knowing whether their work will continue to sell (financial insecurity abounds in the arts; today’s sensation has his books on tomorrow’s remainder tables, and that feels awful).  It’s no wonder insecurity abounds in the arts.  It’s no wonder creative people look to substances for help.

But there’s another way, of course.  The path I’ve chosen – the process of living a quiet, simple, almost monk-like life, devoted to the process of trying to find serenity, devoted to the process of doing the work, devoted to the process of finding joy in the simple things of life – a walk, a good meal, a visit with my grandkids, the process of staying sober.  It’s a process I describe in Writing as a Way of Healing and that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way. I always urge writers I know, writers I work with, to think about using our art, not to harm us, but in the service of our well-being.




9 Responses to “The Dangers of Reliving in Our Work”

  1. Darcy Says:

    Greetings, and thank you for today’s post. You describe a solution to fear, self-destruction, depression, and chemical abuse by “living a quiet, simple, almost monk-like life, devoted to the process of trying to find serenity, devoted to the process of doing the work, devoted to the process of finding joy in the simple things of life – a walk, a good meal, a visit with my grandkids, the process of staying sober.” I am grateful for what you shared today. In Manhattan, I am in a support group for writers, musicians, artists, and anyone who wants to create without using substances. Despite many years living as you describe, when I walked into that group four years ago, for the first time, I felt “permission” to write about traumatic events without feeling I had revealed family secrets and would be immolated as a result. There, we talk about how to create in a safe way today. As I write finally free of the “crippling obsession,” in this case no longer alcohol but fear of tearing off the skin of secrets, your post heals and encourages. Thanks again.

  2. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    Good advice to writers–and to perfectionists. Biographies seem to indicate that Sylvia Plath suffered from a perfectionism that contributed to her suicide. This is another thing writers have to beware of–in addition to substances and reliving–Sylvia Plath wanted to be the perfect writer, wife, and mother. When she couldn’t achieve her ideal, disaster resulted. This is the theme of the movie Black Swan. Perfectionism can be a serious enemy to artistic movement and transcendence.

  3. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    “The process of finding joy in the simple things of life” is my life motto. Many people can get caught up in the worries and grand matrial things in life. Appreciating the simple things, which matter the most in the end, can lead to less stress and an better temperment. This way of life is also vital when writing about painful pasts. In my early life as a writer, I decided to wait to write about painful memories until I was ready to deal with them or had overcome the situations & emotions they caused. This helped me to avoid reliving certain memories but in a way it also helped me finish healing from those events. Finding your ‘center’ or peace and joy, your ‘happy place’ so to speak helps you grow stronger not only in your writing but in your life. Writing is not just for healing. It is a means of expression, an art form. It is supposed to be fun and illuminating not damaging to your spirit. Your post is very insightful for a writer at any stage. It serves as a reminder to create the vital distance between self and narrator.

  4. I am in the process of writing my memoir and I, myself, have just experienced what I thought was “reliving” an event that I am writing about. I immediately recognized this and just allowed myself to take a short break. After a break, consisting for about an hour or two, I believe I fell into the category of “retelling”, fortunately. I was angry at some things, specifically about my father, but as you say I was not “sucked back into the vortex of the past”. I was able to retell my story in a way that did not evoke depression or serious anger. I take this post as good advice and it reminds me that I am retelling my story and not falling victim to reliving my past.

  5. ashley Leavitt Says:

    A series of unfortunate events lead me to sever a long-term close friendship. I internalized the loss with feelings of trepidation and anxiety, mingled with confusion, guilt, rage, betrayal, and longing. I felt there were so many things left unsaid –good and bad. I still had so many unanswered questions, and unresolved hurt. In an attempt to ease my grief, I set out to write a ghost letter, which I thought I could later splice into my current memoir. In fact, I wrote a series of ghost letters. Sometimes, I only got as far as two sentences. Other times, I furiously pounded out several pages. My writing became a magic hat of sorts, where I convinced myself that I could vanish all my feeling and retrieve them with deft hands in a stream of calculated wit like a steamer of colorful silk scarves. Instead, they emerged from the mute black-hole like dismembered mangled rabbit parts. Certainly not the white glove presentation I had hoped to dazzle my audience with –not even close. I started in spurts and ended in fits. I often cried, hit the back-space button, or just stared dumbly at my computer monitor feeling as though a small bird were pined to my chest. My writing was mostly rubbish, the lot of it. It made me feel like rubbish too. Neither was neither productive to my writing or myself. So, I resigned my pen until I could resign my pain. It took me a year to write a comprehensible, meaningful, intelligent, and mature letter – a letter that has found a seamless slot in my life i.e. memoir. It took me a year to see that a year was my necessary prescription to writing out anguish and writing on the value the subject now has for me.

    • When we use our work to try to solve problems in our life, I think we get ourselves into trouble. Our work is our work. Our lives are our lives. When a friendship ends, it’s often tragic. But embedding a letter into a work in progress to deal with the pain isn’t, I think, the solution. Better to deal with these events in real life, and to use our writing to create a work of art. Still, many writers do try to solve problems in their work and D. H. Lawrence, for example, was notorious for “telling people off” in his novels. He made a lot of enemies. He was often angry. So as you wisely learned, this kind of thing can be dangerous.

  6. Danielle Says:

    I find that every time I try to write about a past relationship in which I was quite intimate with someone for nearly seven years, something about the writing feels hollow, only half true. It’s as if my brain is afraid of what my eyes will see on the page after it’s all written. I suppose in reality I’m actually afraid of reliving those moments, both good and bad.

  7. Marianne Says:

    This post describes my feeling exactly. I began the “memoir” class excited. I wanted to write about an experience that devastated me, it still does. My second small memoir piece was on that topic. After going back and reading it I realized that it was too painful, I could not write about it, legibly. After which, I changed my approach. I now concentrate on things I can discuss, events that I can “step back” from safely. I hope one day that I can write about what is painful, if for no other reason, than to heal.

  8. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    This blog appealed to me the most because of the content. I promised myself my memoir would not be about me being a victim of a violent crime. Writing about this incident would cause me to relive this account.I would dodge writing more than I do now.I guess I am not ready to give away this untold story to sheets of paper. The memoir would have not felt completed, but maybe I would have been proud that I wrote about the experience. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I have learned the true meaning of these words this year. I try concealing it because I am not ready to let go.Talk therapy is forcing me to relive. Pushing me. I discovered myself angry and bitter. This is someone I am not proud of. I am lost with self as well as with my writing.

    Thank You Louise.

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