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10/30/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

9 Tips for Dealing with the Emotions When Writing a Memoir

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Writing a memoir is much like going through your trunk of family treasures and keepsakes. At times the memories may be fuzzy, just like the ink on the pages of that 70-year-old journal your great-grandmother kept. Sometimes the memories may be painful, much like the ring your father gave you before he passed away. And sometimes the memories may be glorious, like the wedding dress you have stored safely, in hopes that your daughter may one day wear the family heirloom.

Due to the emotions that emerge in memoir writing, it is often necessary that the writer understand how to navigate and conquer the writing process, in spite of the added element of being taken for a ride on an emotional roller coaster each time one sits down to write. There are strategies writers can use to help ease the pain, slow the emotional twists and turns, and take the raw emotions and coat them with a little extra love and understanding, so as not to startle our readers.

As I work with memoir writers of all ages and backgrounds, we have collectively been creating a list of strategies which help us better cope with the emotional aspects of writing a memoir. I know the pain, and pleasure, first hand. In fact, when the hard parts of my own memoir became too much to write, I actually had to pack up and go to a little cabin in the woods to finish the chapters I had skipped. Being alone allowed me the space and time I needed to process the raw emotions and put them down in draft form. That little cabin held my pain, my rage, and soaked up my tears... ultimately allowing me 10 days later to emerge with a finished manuscript.

9 Tips for Dealing with the Emotions When Writing a Memoir

  1. Many writers are concerned about the pain they will bring to others -- especially when writing a memoir. I must say that this is a real issue we all face with this genre -- whether it is pain caused unintentionally, by sarcasm, just by telling the truth, or an invasion of privacy. I sincerely believe most of us do not set out to hurt others, but if you are a writer, of any type, there is always going to be someone who is hurt or who doesn't agree with you. My best advice is to write the truth, always, and know going in that if you can stand in your truth, and speak from a place of truth, this will bring you much comfort when the questions start pouring in from your readers.
  2. The memoir genre is unique in that you need to be able to provide emotional distance for your readers. That distance, at times, is closeness, and at times needs to be far away. I think this "distance piece" is what attracts readers and pulls them in. Raw emotions usually emerge first, and sometimes we can leave them as is -- and at other times we need to wrap them in love and understanding and softened tones, so that we don't offend our audiences. The key is that you just have to write -- and write a lot -- many drafts, many entries, many rewrites -- so that you can eventually find the right emotional distance and balance you desire in your story line.
  3. Fuzzy memories and gaps in memories are real obstacles for many memoir writers. We may spend much time thinking about how to make our memories sharper -- but there is really only one solution to getting the sharp memories back: We must write, consistently. A daily writing practice helps the memories resurface. And what if you happen to get super-stuck? Well, just skip that memory and continue writing the next part of your memoir. Most likely, later into the writing process, your mind will recall the details. And if not? Well, a great editor will help you patch up those gaps!
  4. I believe it is imperative that memoir writers balance the negative and the positive memories -- so that we can sustain our energy levels and complete the manuscript. At first, when writing my own memoir, I wasn't adhering to this "rule" at all. It took a toll on my writing and my stamina. I quickly learned to balance the writing each day -- some days were "negative" memory days, and they were always followed by "positive" memory days.
  5. All writers need a support system in place. This could be a family member or friend, writing coach, or a fellow writer who we can go to when the writing gets tough, or when we need a dose of encouragement. For memoir writers, especially, because we are often dealing with highly charged emotions, and then reliving them all over again in our writing, I think a support system is even more important. Having a solid support system in place is more valuable than you might realize.
  6. It's okay to cry, scream, yell, weep, and hit your pillow! Holding in the emotions as the memories emerge in your writing may do more harm than good. So, let them go. It's okay, I promise.
  7. Take time off, especially when you are feeling very fragile or vulnerable. While writing my memoir, I kept a list of enjoyable things I had always wanted to do. And then, when I needed a break, I took time away and rewarded myself with a special treat. Writing is hard work -- and you deserve time away so you can recharge.
  8. Keeping a journal will be a beneficial tool for you as you process emotions, or capture memories as they filter back into your consciousness. Journaling is therapeutic on so many levels, and I used mine quite frequently while writing my memoir. My journal, at times, became my own personal counselor.
  9. Whatever you do, don't stop writing. Your memoir is important, and you will impact more people than you could ever imagine, once your book is done. And besides, you set out to write a memoir, and you will feel proud when your project is complete!