“Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” –Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
I remember sitting at the desk in my hotel room in Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon a few years ago, putting some time into working on my memoir but making zero progress. I was trying to write a particular scene from one of my shifts as a hospital chaplain. The scene required my giving some description of the injuries suffered by a two-year-old girl from a beating at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. I had been the chaplain on-call at the hospital the night the little girl was life-flighted to the hospital.
Each thought of what I had to describe sickened me; there weren’t many parts of the little girl’s body that had been spared the red, blue, and black marks of bruising.
After twenty minutes spent agonizing over the scene—unable to put myself back in that time and place, let alone find the right words—I got up and walked away from the desk. I couldn’t write the scene, I decided. Not then. Seven years had passed, and I still wasn’t ready to write the scene.
I castigated myself. What do you mean you’re not ready? It’s been seven years! How will you ever get this book written if you can’t write about the really tough stuff? “Time,” I told myself. “I just need more time.”
How easy it is to beat ourselves up as soon as we realize we’re not ready to write about a difficult event in our lives. Because we’re writers, right? That’s what we do. I may slobber on every page and have a breakdown in the process, but doggone it, I have to keep writing!
No. No you don’t.
That afternoon was a turning point for me. Not that all of a sudden I let up on myself and was copacetic with every occasion when I found it hard to write a difficult scene. But giving myself permission to step away from it became less and less of an internal struggle.
Listen to Yourself
What I’ve come to learn is this: Part of our obligation to ourselves when we write memoir, especially the kind that involves trauma, is to sometimes get up and walk away from it, at least for a little while. Sometimes we just need greater separation in time from what had happened to us. In the instance above, I was already seven years out; my mind and body were telling me that I still wasn’t quite ready.
The timing of when to open a wound is completely and always up to the writer. You get to say when you will write about the really tough stuff. You are the only arbiter. And choosing the right time is key if you’re going to stay emotionally healthy as you write and, ultimately, finish writing your book. Deciding when to step away is a personal decision; we have to look within and answer honestly.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr poses the most important question that has to be addressed: “Can you be in that place without falling apart?” (p. 32) She then provides the following vivid description of someone who’s probably not ready to write:
“If you’re sobbing with shoulders shaking and big tusks of snot coming out of your face, the answer may be no. Call a pal, book a massage, go for a walk. You’re not ready to occupy this space for years on end. Yet.”
What I love most about this quote from Mary Karr is the final word: “Yet.”
I love that she gives writers this gift of hope. I’m sure it’s knowledge hewn from writing about her own life and traumatic experiences in the best-selling memoirs: The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. Doesn’t this one word—Yet—feel like encouragement you can rest your own doubt and fear on?
Be gentle with yourself
The scene I was trying to write while in the hotel room in Philadelphia—it occupied my mind for a piece of most every day for seven years, since April 7th, 2008. I was haunted by the sights and sounds from the beating of that little girl, at least the way I imagined it based on police reports and what I saw of her with my own eyes.
Many of you, my fellow writers, likewise have memories and images that can throw you into an emotional pit and bring your writing to a halt. And I’d like to encourage you, friends, when that happens, to be kind to yourself, have compassion for yourself, and give yourself permission to get up and walk away from it for as long as you need. This is not a sign of weakness. It takes emotional strength to acknowledge—not deny—what your heart and mind are telling you. It takes courage to honor that. You don’t have to languish in details that cannot—yet—be written.
Take the Time You Need to tell the Story Only You Can Tell
There’s much to be gained by coming back to a difficult passage in your story on another day. The story will wait for you; it’s going nowhere. Your story wants to be told … and only you can tell it!
You most likely won’t get up one day and feel that the entire weight of the traumatic event has been lifted. It may be a slow journey back to it. However, there will come a day when you decide to give it another try (already a victory!). Through some tears, perhaps, you’ll draft a few sentences … maybe even a paragraph. That may be enough for that day.
Each day forward … or every other day … or whenever you find you can … you will go back to your desk or to your favorite table at the coffee shop and you’ll write some more. You will slowly keep advancing the needle in your own healing. You will have arrived on the other side of Mary Karr’s “yet.”
I hope you will celebrate yourself!
And by the way …
I did go back to that scene and now have it written. Besides giving myself the time I needed, I was also helped by the empathy and support freely given by the writing communities of which I’m a part. There’s no more empathetic tribe out there than our fellow writers in the diyMFA community.
If anyone out there is having difficulty writing through a tough spot, and if it would help to share what it is, please feel free to share it here. This column and the comments made in response are not intended in any way to provide counseling or therapy. But sometimes a little support, or just sharing what has us stuck, can go a long way in getting us back on track.
Wishing you well, always, in your writing!
Tess Enterline is a creative nonfiction writer, currently working on her first memoir. She’s also a wife, mom, former hospital chaplain, dog lover, and fountain pen/stationery enthusiast (i.e., addict). You can visit her on her website at www.tessenterline.com.