By Diana Raab, PhD
One of the primary reasons someone decides to write a memoir is that they have a burning need to do so. They have a relevant story which they’re compelled to document and share. They might want to explore a trauma, a loss, or a memory that remains unresolved. Another reason to write a memoir is to study or examine a question, a person, or an unexplainable mystery. Strong emotions or feelings can inspire someone to capture a memory through the written word, which they may choose or not choose to share with the universe or keep as a family legacy.
It can be said that writers tend to be highly emotional people. In fact, at the core of being a good writer is a person who is easily touched, and cognizant of his or her emotional self. Writers feel the ebb and flow of their lives and the lives of those dear to them. They feel the joys, trials and tribulations, and ecstatic moments that happen to themselves and others. To some extent, they are driven by their emotional selves, to the situations and feelings that move them, to the moments that make their hearts race and the moments when they feel as if their hearts are going to stop.
On the continuum of feeling these emotions, there might also be a tendency to easily celebrate successes and dwell on failures. Self-doubt sometimes manifests in insecurity, which might stem from one’s personal history and/or fear of rejection. Is the story worth telling, and what if no one likes it? These emotions and those that accompany the sharing of stories may act as an adrenaline rush, spurring the creative impulse to further document the details of what is happening in writers’ lives.
Regardless of the inspiration for writing a memoir, it takes a great deal of courage and strength to write about one’s life experiences.
During my graduate work in creative writing, I couldn’t even count how many times I read or heard that the best writers most likely confronted obstacles during their childhoods that set them on their writing paths, and that you really can’t write a memoir unless you’ve navigated a chaotic or traumatic upbringing. Even one of my favorite writers, Anaïs Nin, was quoted as saying, “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” While this might be quite true, and many memoirs are written by those who have overcome obstacles, such trials are not always prerequisites to writing these works. The most important character trait for writing a poignant memoir is fearlessness. Writers must have the courage to dig deep into their own inner psyches. But this isn’t always easy. For a decade before he died, I helped John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas Steinbeck, write his memoir. Through my recommendations and those of his wife, he realized the importance of documenting his family’s story.
As a short-story writer, Thomas found the task of memoir writing to be quite daunting, not only from the aspect of navigating the blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, but also from the standpoint of trying to maintain a positive mental state during the writing process. There is no doubt that our pasts haunt us. As a matter of fact, Thomas admitted that on numerous occasions, he had to stop writing because he found that he was tapping into some very painful memories that he’d locked away for many years. He was afraid that he might have an emotional breakdown while reliving some difficult images and memories from his childhood.
There is definitely a risk involved in visiting the dark places of our lives. However, the rewards of visiting those places are huge and have the potential to lead to transformation and growth. In Thomas’s case, it was important for him to keep his legacy alive, so the incentive to complete his memoir was vibrant and compelling. The old saying “No pain no gain” holds true for both physical and psychological endeavors. There will be rewards at the end of the road, but memoirists need to give themselves the freedom to be vulnerable and to be open to their emotions, both good and bad.
In addition to the fear of tapping into the darkness of our lives up to the current moment, the past often leaves us with many unanswered questions. This is certainly what happened with poet Kim Stafford, son of William Stafford, who found that sometimes answers become clear in the course of the writing process. Memoir writing is also a way to arrive at some peace with the past, and Stafford admitted that this happened to him. While writing his memoir, he said, “I had this physical experience when I first opened my own book, where I had off-loaded some of the weight of my grief. But I realized it was a physical weight, like an extra fifty pounds, I off-loaded into this book.” He went on to tell me that after the book was released, he was walking with a lighter step and felt much more at peace with himself. Without peace, fear can be palpable, which can impact our physical and psychological well-being.
Seventeen years ago, when diagnosed with my first bout of cancer and living in Florida with my husband and three small children, my father-in-law heard the news and immediately phoned me from Canada. Without hesitation, his first words were: “Diana, have no fear.” He was a man of great wisdom, our family patriarch, and someone I deeply admired, so I took his words seriously. He was a Holocaust survivor, so I knew that he had come face-to-face with fear and uncertainty and the possibility of death. He knew what he was talking about.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that having no fear transcends so many realms of our lives, whether it is overcoming health obstacles, dealing with loneliness, loss, or even writing a memoir. There are many causes of fear, but basically it arises from sensing a potential for physical or emotional pain. Fear can also become apparent when we confront a new or unrecognizable life event. This can give us a feeling of uncertainty and of being unsure how to handle the situation. Fear of the unknown can certainly be daunting. It may be thought of as a survival mechanism as someone prepares to flee from what appears to be a dangerous situation. Psychologically, fear can be triggered by frightening images and events from the past. Physically, the muscles freeze, and people may feel paralyzed, especially if they don’t have the tools to cope with this emotion.
When writing memoirs, many writers feel vulnerable and more emotional, especially when writing about difficult past experiences. In this context, fear is sometimes triggered by those events or traumas that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whether the initial cause was from trauma or a particularly stressful life. Facing one’s demons is often a poignant risk of memoir writing. In general, fear becomes overwhelming when people feel as if they’ve lost control of their lives. So one way to deal with it is knowing what causes fear, and trying to remain in control of one’s life.
It’s not always easy to navigate through fear, but there are things that can help. For example, it’s important to be mindful of the triggers in your life that manifest in fear. Equally important is having something in your life that provides you with a sense of calm during times of stress. This diversion might be something that helps you get in touch with your inner life in a safe and productive way. Some people resort to pharmaceuticals or herbal preparations to help them navigate fear and increase self-awareness, but there are alternative methods (listed below) that can help you monitor your reactions and responses to different situations. Being self-aware holds the key to transformation and change. Through increased awareness, you can learn what works in your life and what does not. If you remain self-aware while writing a memoir, you’re able to identify certain issues and negative emotions that might come forth, affecting the quality of the writing process.
Being self-aware makes you more mindful of each moment and also stimulates the mind-body connection. It contributes in a positive way to well-being, offering the opportunity for positive change, which ultimately results in happiness. There are many ways to foster self-awareness, and you need to find what works best for you. Some of the most common ways to build self-awareness are through mindfulness training, yoga, journaling, psychotherapy, creative visualization, and meditation.
Creativity and State of Mind
Many studies and reports have shown that creative writers write best when in the midst of chaos, whether that means recalling a challenging childhood or dealing with present-day issues. The question as to whether creativity causes madness or if tormented individuals tend to be creative is a topic of great discussion and controversy. It seems to be a chicken-or-egg sort of situation. Some claim that creativity might be a result of some type of mental illness, and that a creative endeavor is born as a result of some anguished or tormented state. Others say that the act of creating actually creates mental illness. The thought behind this theory is that the irregular or long work hours and lifestyles of creative individuals result in a particular kind of anguish. One of my favorite writers, Gustave Flaubert, who wrote the classic novel Madame Bovary, adhered to a very strict writing schedule, and when he was really “on,” he would work up to 14 hours a day. He also said that you should “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
One more thing to consider is that writing is a solitary and isolating endeavor, and it also tends to be low-paying. Many writers engage in this practice because of their need to be heard. Sometimes to nurture the writing passion and also make ends meet, creative writers might need to secure one or more jobs, which require working irregular hours and juggling a number of responsibilities. Very few writers support themselves solely by writing. They often have to supplement their incomes with another type of work, which might or might not be in a related field. This sort of gear shifting and/or schedule balancing (late nights, early mornings) might result in psychological anguish and in some cases lead to drug, alcohol, gambling, sex, or love addictions. Others believe—and I fall into this camp—that writing involves the constant interplay of stability and instability, resulting in creativity.
Alice Flaherty, in her book, The Midnight Disease, claimed, “When depressed people do write, it is generally when the depression is agitated; that is, when it contains a mix of manic and depressed features.” It seems to depend upon individual writers and their preferred writing disciplines.
Those who have been identified as having histrionic personality disorder (HPD) are of particular interest to me, since Anaïs Nin was reported to have had this condition. HPD is characterized by excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behavior. Often, those with HPD tend to be quite seductive, individuals who are very social and who love being the center of attention. Nin’s 35,000-page diaries spanned more than 40 years. She used her journals and novels as a storehouse for her deepest and most psychological musings. Beneath her prolific and impactful literary life, however, was a woman haunted by the trauma of her father leaving the family for another woman when she was ten years old. This experience led the young Nin to write a letter to her father, explaining her sadness while trying to convince him to come back. Although she never sent that letter, it formed the origins of her lifelong passion for journaling and the springboard for her career as a writer. Nin’s psychological healing occurred between the covers of a journal. It is important to note that even the most prolific writers require a balance between social and solitary time. We cannot work as hermits; the art of seeing and observing others is inherent in being a writer and certainly nourishment for our souls.
Kay Redfield Jamison, in her book, Touched with Fire, addresses the idea that most artistic personalities are manic-depressive, and this feeds their creativity. She says that it is the interaction, tension, and transition between changing moods and times of emotional stability that feed creativity. She claims that a number of eminent writers have been plagued with depression, such as poets John Berryman, William Blake, Paul Celan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Victor Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Sara Teasdale, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, and Walt Whitman. Other writers who suffered from depression include Hans Christian Andersen, Honoré de Balzac, Samuel Clemens, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Isak Dinesen, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Maxim Gorky, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Charles Lamb, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, and Émile Zola.
Essentially, what happens is that sometimes a mild melancholic state may inspire a creative writer to reflect upon painful experiences. A sense of loss feeds creativity and gives power to artistic expression. By sharing painful experiences, writers transform their psychological pain into stories and/or poems that present universal truths and concepts that help their readers navigate their own journeys.
Consciousness and Creativity
In his book The Courage to Create, psychologist Rollo May wrote about creative breakthroughs and suggested that there’s a struggle that goes on within individuals that involves what they’re thinking consciously, and other insights or perspectives that want to erupt or be born. In effect, these insights are often accompanied by anxiety, guilt, joy, and gratification, all mixed into one. When these insights occur, people usually see everything as extremely vivid and clear. They become tuned in to their environments and emotions, and they are mindful and focused on everything around them, just as if they’d just put on a new pair of prescription glasses.
Sometimes people encounter creativity during altered states of consciousness or altered states of awareness. In this situation, writers alter their minds as a way to stimulate creativity. That alteration can be initiated through physiological, psychological, or pharmaceutical interventions. One method of transcendence is alcohol or drug usage. According to transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof, the deepest force behind alcoholism and addiction is an unrecognized and sometimes misguided craving for some sort of transcendence or stepping outside of the ordinary. An example of prominent writers who have been plagued by alcoholism include John Cheever, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In Writers on the Edge, the anthology I edited with writer James Brown, we mention in the book’s preface that those writers who are on the edge of addiction are typically searching for something beyond what readily meets the eye. Whether they have succumbed to addiction because of the nature of the writing life or have written to navigate through the addiction is unclear. There are many possible scenarios.
The Psychology of Flow
Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who has written a great deal about creativity and the sense of flow said in his book Creativity, “Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.” For creative writers, it is common to feel inspiration and flow one day and then wake up the next day to find that the words are not flowing. Just about every creative person has experienced this problem. At the same time, we just never know when inspiration strikes and what it is we can do to remain inspired. It is a phenomenon that has been studied for years. To minimize the difficulty of facing the blank page, novelist Ernest Hemingway made a point of finishing his work for the day midsentence so that it would be easier for him to pick up the following day. I have adapted this practice in my own writing process and find that it truly helps prevent me from becoming blocked.
When you are in the flow of your work, you will not feel time slipping away; you will go into a sort of trancelike state. It is a blissful state. It is a state of ecstasy. Those who have experienced it say that it is a high like no other. Even when you achieve this wonderful state, there will be times when you feel stuck and words do not flow easily. You might want to try the Proust approach, which involves engaging in stream-of-consciousness writing to release unconscious ideas and fresh ideas from your mind. This type of writing will be discussed later, but basically it helps you reconnect with your inner psyche and allows the thoughts and words to flow as they want to—in no particular pattern. It might feel as if you are simply “dumping on the page.” However, you never know where the dumping will lead, and if it never leads anywhere, that’s okay, too!
Finding Comfort in the Written Word
Undoubtedly, creativity is often born from our joys, tribulations, and sorrows. Life grants us opportunities to experience joy, ecstasy, pain, and grief, and any of these extreme emotions can be springboards for creativity. In fact, the mystics have specific terms for these times in life by saying that joyous moments are called via positive, and negative moments are via negative. These can be intense moments when individuals feel a strong sense of connectedness with their environments or another individual, possibly the person who inspired them.
Writers often do so during periods of extreme emotions, and more commonly, during difficult periods. Solemn or tenuous times can be triggers for creativity and an effective way to turn negatives into positives. When we encounter difficult times, we make our hearts and emotions more vulnerable and open up to additional insights and creative thoughts. In fact, I have a writing colleague who practices this and whose favorite motto is: “Direct the rage to the page.”
The idea of turning negatives into positives has always been a fascinating area of inquiry for me. Perhaps this originates from my being raised by a narcissistic and depressed mother who slept for hours on end in a fetal position on the sofa. She was not an advocate of either psychotherapy or drug intervention of any kind. I vowed to grow up differently, have a positive attitude, and not make my loved ones feel miserable and sorry for me. In a sense, my mother’s issues were a gift for me in that being raised in that environment drove me toward a literary career. My mother performed a wonderful service by giving me a journal to help me cope with my grandmother’s suicide when I was just ten years old. That was my first exposure to turning turn a negative into a positive. Also, that journal probably set the foundation for my life as a writer. I have met and read about many writers who will actually admit that their chaotic childhoods led them to the writing path, and I tend to agree with this. Author Flannery O’Connor (1969) poignantly stated:
Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make much out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged into it (p. 84).
If we take a few moments to review most of the memoirs in today’s market, many are solemn or address challenges. From a transpersonal perspective, in addition to being a source of inspiration, examining and revisiting painful events from childhood can be a cathartic and healing exercise, if done in conjunction with psychotherapy. A number of therapists recommend journal keeping as a way to empower individuals to deal with these issues. Journaling is a transpersonal practice I have incorporated in my life for more than 45 years, and many of my musings have inspired me to create published works.
Writing about Loss
Many memoirs deal with some sort of loss, whether that of a loved one, loss of health, or a loss of one’s culture. This was the basis of my doctoral studies. Readers who have encountered loss often gravitate to this topic because it empowers them and helps them navigate and deal with their own lives.
Reading about how others have coped with difficulties offers ideas on how we can navigate turbulent times. One of the many advantages of memoir writing is that readers learn from other people’s experiences, especially if the story resonates with them. For example, in my memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, I heard from many readers who had experienced a similar loss in their own lives. My memoir opens with the scene of my grandmother’s suicide, and how as a ten-year-old I found my grandmother dead in her bedroom, which was next to mine. Through the writing process, I realized that as children we take a great deal in stride, and that it took writing my first memoir to help me understand the profound, long-lasting pain of that particular experience. This scenario shares both a personal story and universal truths. Because I wrote about my grandmother’s life more than 40 years after her suicide, many of the details of her life were idealized. Her death had a huge impact on me, and thus, I painted her psyche to be larger and more powerful than it was in reality. This is where the imagination and memory come into play in memoir writing. However, during the writing process, I did suffer from a few bouts of depression while I relived the experience of my grandmother’s suicide, although I never felt responsible for it.
Memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote about the loss of her Chinese heritage and the ghosts of her past, received many messages from readers saying that they loved her book The Woman Warrior because much of her story resonated with them. People wrote to her from all over the world, saying, “Oh, this is the story of my life.” Kingston recalled, “This is how I changed their lives. And from so many writers who say that it helps them write and tell their stories.”
Writing about loss at a later stage of life might be motivated by inadequate childhood grieving, and this phenomenon connects with my own story. For example, there was no formal closure for me after my grandmother’s death. It was the 1960s, and many secrets were kept from children as a way to protect them from emotional harm. My parents didn’t allow me to attend my grandmother’s funeral. In fact, she was simply taken down the stairs by the paramedics, never to return. This was a clear case of unresolved trauma that left residual feelings of loss, accompanied by intermittent depression throughout my life. Other writers who, as adults, wrote about loved ones lost during childhood include Emily Brontë, J. M. Barrie, Isak Dinesen, and Jack Kerouac.
Detachment and Disassociation
Writers write not only to express themselves, but also to disassociate and come to terms with past experiences. Disassociation is a psychological term that involves being disconnected from something someone was associated with. Typically, it refers to a disconnection from some experience, which has left the realm of the person’s conscious awareness. There are different forms of disassociation; from a more basic perspective, people who miss their exit on the freeway or forget where they left their reading glasses can disassociate. They make these mistakes or forget unconsciously. At the other end of the spectrum, when people disassociate from past experiences, this can affect their entire personalities and is sometimes connected to dissociative identity disorder. Often, this latter type of disassociation is connected to a trauma, PTSD, or a form of anxiety. Basically, the person becomes detached from reality. Anaïs Nin, for example, disassociated from her past in the sense that she re-created her own reality and memories of it. Other writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, survivors of the Holocaust, have used disassociation to re-create the stories of their Holocaust experiences, which in the end were enhanced by the writing process.
While detachment from the past might be a necessary way to write about lived experiences to offer universal truths, part of being a writer is practicing the art of detachment, a Buddhist and transpersonal characteristic. In addition to detachment, the writer is driven to deep reflection about the fundamental issues of human existence. This is an important hallmark of creative individuals who tackle universal questions and struggle to provide answers for their readers.
Maxine Hong Kingston says that when you write a story, there is a resolution, recognition, reconciliation, and realization about the story being told. “There are a lot of wonderful things that happen through art and story,” she has said.
Memoir Writing as a Spiritual Practice
Memoir writing can be considered a spiritual practice because memoirs inspire us to dig deeper into the essence and emotions of our lives. Spirituality may be seen as the search for truth in one’s life in the interest of being happy. Writing as a spiritual practice can connect us to what seems most right for us, both personally and professionally. It can help us pinpoint our mission and reason for being by encouraging us to reflect on our feelings. Writing also helps us create a more profound sense of harmony and peace of mind.
Sometimes starting to write about pivotal or life-changing experiences can also confirm our identity. When I look back at my own life experiences and reflect on those that have truly transformed me, challenged me, or made me feel more aware or more alive, I must say that these were pivotal events involving the deaths of loved ones, the forming or evolution of relationships, becoming a parent, sexual encounters, and meaningful conversations with others. They have all been subjects of exploration in my journal writing, which has led to some form of change or transformation.
Transformation may be defined as a dramatic change in our physical or psychological well-being. Basically, the path of personal transformation is a process of becoming aware of, facing, and becoming responsible for our thoughts and feelings. When thinking of writing in this way, we can say that it can be considered a spiritual practice.
Most writers like myself will confess that they write because they have to write, not necessarily because they want to write. We write out of necessity because it either makes us feel better or we want to share our stories with the world.
The Writing Journey
The writing journey begins with the decision to write a memoir. Then we visit the closet of our memories, the people who inhabited it, and the life experiences that molded us into who we are today. We journal to tap into the creative mode and to engage in stream-of-consciousness writing. We write freely. We write to remember. We are brave.
Fear and negativity sometimes show their faces and we lose confidence in the project. We doubt our memories, we doubt our story. We read other memoirs and start comparing, thinking we don’t write well enough or that our stories are not exciting enough. Sometimes it’s a good idea to put our writings aside for a week, month, or year—whatever it takes for us to gain a new perspective.
Also, writing can become tedious at times. We get bored with the story. We just want it done and out the door. We feel a sense of loss of control of the story. That’s the time to put it away and return to it with a new eye or perspective after we have worked on something else.
Tips for Writing a Memoir
- Be kind to yourself.
- Be patient with the journey.
- Think about the journey, not the destination,
- Trust your creative instinct and muse,
- Listen to your inner voice,
- Allow your unconscious to speak through journaling.
- Be tenacious.
- Join writing groups.
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Flaherty, A. W. (2005). The Midnight Disease. New York, NY: Mariner Books.
Jamison, K. R. (1996). Touched by Fire. New York, NY: Free Press.
Kingston, M. (1989). The Woman Warrior. New York, NY: Vintage International.
May, R. (1975). The Courage to Create. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
O’Connor, F. (1969). Mystery and Manners. New York, NY: FSG Classic.
Raab, D. (2007). Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal. New York,
NY: Beaufort Books.
Raab, D. and J. Brown. (2012). Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency. Ann Arbor, MI: Modern History Press.
About Diana Raab, PhD
Diana Raab, PhD is an award-winning poet, memoirist, blogger, speaker, and author of 10 books and over 1000 articles and poems. She’s also editor of two anthologies, “Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency,” and “Writers and Their Notebooks.” Raab’s two memoirs are “Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal,” and “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.” She’s blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, and PsychCentral and is frequently a guest blogger for various other sites. Her two latest books are, “Writing for Bliss: A Seven- Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life,” and “Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal” Visit: http://www.dianaraab.com.