Writing about something difficult is, well, difficult—at first. You can’t process something emotionally charged all at once any more than you can write anything from start to finish in one fell swoop. I recommend you JustWrite before you start drafting. Think of this writing as a kind of warm-up that will help you discover what you want to say.
Here are five ways about how to get started and keep going.
1) Choose one emotionally charged memory and begin to write.
Try writing in the form of a notebook or journal entry, something private where you feel free to express yourself.
What do you remember? You may find yourself starting with a matter-of-fact account of what happened. Maybe that’s a safe way for you to start. If you sense that you are not writing about what you really want to write about, try writing a letter you do not plan to send. Maybe that would help you open up. Keep writing. Trust writing to take you to where you need to go. JustWrite!
2) Find what is the underlying story beneath the obvious facts—the emotional truth
Tapping into your feelings can be hard. They may be buried deep. What feelings come up? Maybe just one will come up at first. Pause. Maybe another will follow. Take your time. And then notice. Is there an emotion that dominates, like shame or fear or sorrow? What do you want to look into more deeply? JustWrite!
3) Find your voice—the “I” of your story.
Voice is the heart of memoir. There are two kinds of voices. There’s the “in-the-moment” voice and the “looking back” voice. It takes time to write your way into the right voice. Take your time. Your voice will evolve as you JustWrite!
Experiment: try using your “in-the-moment” voice. Aim for the immediacy of the moment. Try to capture who you were at the time. Include details, especially sensory details.
When I was first writing about domestic abuse, I opened with a factual statement that didn’t allow readers to really feel what it was like to be “Against the Wall”:
She saw him coming down the hallway as she tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go except against the wall.
I couldn’t even use the first-person point of view at first. I used third-person “she” until “I” had the courage to claim the story as my own. Then “I” let it rip. I also switched from past to present tense and included details to bring readers close up. Here’s my Much Revised Version:
I see him coming down the hallway like a bowling ball down an alley, intent on knocking all the pins down, an intention I can see and feel in his obsidian eyes that high beam me in the night as I try to back away, but there is nowhere to go except to splay myself against the wall where he pin-points me with these words: You will not escape me. I will follow you wherever you go.
Now try writing with your “looking back” voice.
JustWrite. You can begin with “Looking back, I…”
As you continue to write, you may decide you want to go back and forth using two voices: one in the moment so readers experience what you experienced and one reflecting and looking back.
In my memoir I’m So Glad You’re Here, I shifted back and forth as the story opened up. I began in the present moment from my point of view, age eighteen:
I WAS EIGHTEEN and home from college on Thanksgiving break. It was Thanksgiving Day. It was my mother’s birthday. John F. Kennedy had just been shot. And my father was being carried out on a stretcher: his arms strapped to his side, his elbows locked; his body bound in a straitjacket, then sunk in a stretcher like a furrow in a field; his eyes, the only part of his body not restrained. They couldn’t restrain his eyes: two black dots flickering in the light, darting wildly back and forth.
My mother paused in the doorframe, flinging a kerchief over her head, tying a knot under her chin, then turning to ask me would-I-watch-the-turkey….
I was traumatized witnessing my father’s breakdown, then left alone to watch the turkey in the oven, a turkey no one would eat this day.
Much later I use my “looking back” voice of reflection:
I never asked my mother what that day was like for her. What was she thinking when she paused in the kitchen doorway and turned around to ask me to watch the turkey? Why didn’t she walk over and turn off the oven, make a phone call, and send me somewhere else? Why did she leave me alone? I wasn’t the only one in shock. She was in shock.
Later when you are actually writing your first draft, you will need to strike the right balance between voice and description, but now allow yourself to experiment with voice. Focus on one thing at a time.
4) Work Your Way Through to the End
Readers like to see the “I” struggle and show vulnerability. Dive deeper. Keep going until you come to some insight, resolution, or realization.
For example, while I considered my mother’s point of view toward the end, I did not want to marginalize my feeling abandoned. Looking back decades later I wrote:
I realize that part of the reason—maybe the reason—for my quest to reconnect with my mother when my father was dying was the abandonment I’d felt as a young adult. I wanted the mother of my childhood—that mother, not the non-present mother of the Turkey Day trauma that felt like a family funeral.
Trust yourself to write it out and work your way through.
5) Give it a “Working” Title
Zoom into what you’ve been writing and scribble a title. Leave it for now or cross it out and scribble another one that seems better as you pay more attention. I initially called my memoir The Family Funeral but later changed it to I’m So Glad You’re Here, my mother’s words, because much of the memoir was about my relationship with my mother and I also wanted to honor her—and her story.
Now that you’ve done some “before drafts” work, you are ready to write a first draft. Try writing a strong first sentence that will invite readers to want more. Once you start drafting, you can also JustWrite between drafts to help you revise.
Harness your courage and write from your heart!
Pamela Gay is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) award in creative nonfiction and an Independent eBook Award for her memoir Homecoming, which combined text, image, and sound. An installation based on this memoir and sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) included artifacts. Gay’s writing has been published in Brevity, Iowa Review, Paterson Literary Review, Midway Journal, Monkeybicycle, Grey Sparrow, Vestal Review, and other literary journals, as well as two anthologies. Gay is a professor emerita at Binghamton University, State University of New York, where she taught courses in flash memoir and flash fiction. She lives in Upstate New York. Her memoir i’m so glad you’re here is coming May 26. See more on her website.