Writing a Memoir about a Traumatic Experience

Bulletin board posted with types of trauma

Documenting trauma is a common motivation for writing a memoir. But to write this type of memoir, authors have to go through the event emotionally all over again. That’s a big hurdle. At Write My Memoirs, we want to help you conquer that challenge.

Roxane Gay, whose own memoir documents trauma, advises writers to be raw, honest and pretty explicit. She believes your depiction of your horrifying experience should fall short of traumatizing your reader but still provide enough graphic detail so that the reader may have to put down your book for an hour or even a day before finishing that part.

Be Gentle With Yourself When Writing About Trauma

Going over what happened to you is something you can’t force. Chances are that by the time you’re considering writing this memoir, months or years have already passed since the traumatic event occurred. You didn’t just sit down at your computer the next day. But maybe the time still isn’t right.

Ask yourself whether you’re ready to more or less relive the event. If you feel that you cannot handle it, there’s no harm in waiting longer, letting more time pass between the you that faced trauma and the you that is writing the book. It’s difficult to write about it.

More Tips on Trauma Documentation

One way to find out whether you’re up to the task is to start out by writing just 15 or 20 minutes a day. Keep that up for a week, and you’ll know whether telling your story is providing a sense of relief or compounding your anxiety.

Writing for Writer’s Digest, author Kelly Clink shares tips from her own experience writing about her brother’s death by suicide. She advises writers not to keep this writing goal to yourself. As you’re writing about a traumatic event, she says, it will help to alert your therapist, family members and friends that you’re in the process of sorting out this terrible event by writing about it.

Making Your Story Relatable

Clink and other experts make the distinction between a memoir you write as therapy and a memoir you write to sell. The former is for you, the latter for everyone else. If your goal is to get closure or work out your feelings of trauma, then include the content you need for your own wellbeing. If your goal is to help others, that’s a whole different book. In that case, you’re writing for them, not for you, and you should be more selective in your content as well as less indulgent in your writing voice. Of course, you can do both. Write the book for yourself, and use that as the foundation for crafting a different, more marketable memoir.

The way to write for others is to make your personal story relatable to a lot of people. Think about what they will want to take from your experience. That doesn’t mean you should make it a how-to guide on recovering from trauma. Tell the story as a dramatic, compelling, page-turning saga. Then it can be both a valuable book for your readers and a statement of your own triumph over, or acceptance of, your traumatic ordeal.

“Life and Times”: Your Memoir Will Document Both

Silhouette of person's head watching fireworks

Friends, this post was written just hours before the July 4 holiday of 2022 turned tragic. What a sad event to drive home the point that, through your memoir, you have an opportunity to add your personal documentation to a shared history.

 

After today’s fireworks, another Independence Day goes into the books. I mean that literally—Independence Day 2022 may find itself in a memoir someday. As you write your memoir and cover past decades, you may find yourself referring to holidays and current events.

Your Memoir Shapes History

Storytellers control how people remember historical events, as we’re reminded by futurist Erwin McManus’s quote that “whoever tells the best story shapes the culture” and the song in the Hamilton musical asking, “Who tells your story?” Your memoir will take its place among the chronicles of a certain time and place. When you write about your life in 1956 London or 1975 Los Angeles, your published memoir presents as valid a portrayal as any other work describing that place and time.

The pandemic is a perfect example. How could anyone whose childhood spanned the pandemic neglect to describe what life was like when businesses were shuttered, city subways empty, families unable to gather indoors? Perhaps their descendants will know that in 2020 a virus interrupted normal life, but through a memoir they’ll discover the impact on their dad or grandmother in a particular location. A memoir set in New York City will report conditions quite different from one set in rural Wyoming.

Volumes have been written about World War II, but each individual soldier has unique memories from the war. A soldier’s memoir will use the war as both a backdrop and a focal point, and in that way the memoir author will add details in color and texture to what the world knows about the war years.

Uneventful times, if there is such a thing, can slip under the radar. We’re taught in history class that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, but what do we remember from, say, summer 1959? Offhand, I have no idea. A memoir can provide the contrast between the volatile war that preceded the 1950s and the radical changes that came with the 1960s.

Include the World At Large in Your Memoir

No one memoir will be the defining saga, the last word, about a time and place. But writing about your life is important not only to give voice to your personal experiences but also to contribute to the body of work that memorializes your era.

When you write, pay attention to what was going on in the world and how it affected your decisions, other people’s actions and everything that happened to you. Do some research, pull up some headlines and ask older friends to recall the major news of the day for you. When you write in your Write My Memoirs account, click on the “Historic Events” bar to pull up significant news stories of past decades. It’s a cool writing tool!

Include details when you describe your childhood home, the transportation you took, your city’s downtown—and the July 4 fireworks you’d attend each year. Tell the reader about your first car or cell phone, or how you wrote chain letters or went sledding on a hill that’s now paved over for parking needs.

You’re trying to tell a small story—your life. But when you’re a memoir author, you’re also reporting first-hand on the events you’ve witnessed. Taken together, the memoirs written on that era form the historic narrative of its life and times. Don’t underestimate your contribution to that history.

Memoir Organization: The Chapter that Pushes “Pause”

Book open to a page

Structure is always a major decision for memoir authors. Should you simply go chronologically, starting from the beginning of your saga and following with chapters that document the incidents as they rolled out in your life?

Or, instead, should you view your life as a collection of topics and tackle each subject matter one at a time? For example, you might devote a chapter to your professional life. Within that chapter, you can go chronologically, but everything that’s important about your work will get covered. Maybe another chapter is about your extended family, your spirituality or your hobbies. Your life becomes a collection of aspects of who you are.

Only One Rule: There Are No Rules

There are no rules in writing a memoir. Let me say that again. I’m not talking only about structure. This is your life. You are the one who lived it, and you are the one who is writing about it. You get to decide what to include and how to present your life. There are no rules in memoir writing. So you can employ a chronological structure and still interrupt the time line with a chapter that is more topic-centered.

Let’s say your memoir’s core focus is the way you contracted, suffered from, and then rebounded from a rare illness. You want to explain what happened to you and perhaps help others who might have the same illness. You lay it out chronologically, starting from the time you were young and healthy, recalling the first signs of the illness, documenting the details of your treatment and finishing with your triumph and recovery.

Example of a “Pause” Chapter

During your ordeal, you picked up painting. This gave you a way to pass long hours, take your mind off your troubles, express yourself creatively, and bond with a local artist who sold paintings on the street. And, eventually after you conquered your medical problems, painting provided a side income that continues to benefit you in current time as you’re writing your memoir.

Although painting has become an important aspect of your life and your recovery, it still feels tangential to your medically focused memoir. So that’s one problem: should you include it at all? The second issue is that it develops over time. If you introduce incidents involving painting into every chapter in which they fit chronologically, you’ll be mentioning it a lot but only as a paragraph here and a paragraph there. You’ll always have to stop what you’re talking about to catch up on this development in your hobby.

An easier way to manage a topic like this is to devote one whole chapter to your painting. Insert the chapter into the chronology of when you set up that first easel in your basement studio. Then explain how the diversion helped you throughout your illness and your life. You can use a sort of future “would” tense: “I would discover that this creative outlet would fulfill me not only while I was sick but long afterward.” Then you can go into the details.

If It’s Good Enough for Springsteen…

I noticed that Bruce Springsteen uses this chapter-interrupt device in his memoir, Born to Run. He singles out one of his E Street Band members, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, for a separate chapter that pauses the general chronology of his memoir in order to tell everything about his colleague’s talents and the relationship that developed between them. He takes this narrative well past the point in time where the previous chapter leaves off while providing a bit of background of Clemons’s life before that point as well.

More Uses for the Interrupting Chapter Device

It’s a huge freedom! This single-chapter departure from your own structure takes the burden off you as a writer, permitting you to explain something in depth without having to revisit it in multiple chapters. You also can use it to preview how that one aspect of your life turns out, tease other pieces of your life you either haven’t yet introduced or haven’t yet resolved, or pay special homage to a person, institution, company or topic.

Admittedly, devoting a separate chapter to a topic is not as difficult than weaving it into your long memoir thread. But don’t feel as if you’re taking the easy way out. When something is easier for the memoir author to write, that means it’s probably easier for the reader to understand, keep track of and enjoy. And that’s the whole point, right?

It’s Poetry Month! Can You Write Your Memoir in Verse?

If you prefer to write poetry over prose but still want to write a memoir, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from writing your memoir in poetry. And you wouldn’t be the first by a long shot.

Like a series of stories, a series of poems can break down poem by poem to provide information about a point in time and, taken together, the series will build a full narrative. Poetry is the format, but the genre is still memoir. By the end of the book, the reader learns about a segment of, or significant event in, the author’s life.

So it’s not just a book of poetry by one author. The poems must relate to the topic of the memoir and proceed in an order that makes sense to the reader. As with any memoir, the chapters—or poems—do not have to roll out in chronological order. You can start in the middle, then cover earlier parts, and finish by picking up from that first middle part with a conclusion. You can begin at the end and work backwards, or you can begin at the end and then go to the beginning and follow through full circle. If you’re skilled enough to make it work, your chapters can even jump around. These considerations are no different whether you’re writing in poetry, in prose, or in customary nonfiction reporting.

Currently Memoirs Written in Verse

If you’d like to pick up books of memoirs written as verse, we have some suggestions for you. For some reason, these poet/memoirists are all women. Five of these are listed on bookriot.com.


Inside Out & Back Again
by Thanhhà Lai
A Vietnamese girl has a tough time growing up as a refugee in Alabama.

Memoir: Poems by Honor Moore
by Honor Moore
Reviewing this memoir by the poet Honor Moore, The Village Voice reviewer wrote: “Moore’s poems speak of a strong faith in hard work and in the land of working alone. Her poems mark out both the experiences she describes and . . . the experience of making a book of poems.”

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
The Black girl experiences of the 1960s-1970s fold out through verse.

Poetry for Men: A memoir written across three continents
by The Expiring Mind
Even this one seems to be written by a woman—perhaps it is her message to men told through memoir and poetry.

How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson
One of the country’s celebrated poets uses her craft in 50 poems to describe her 1950s childhood.

The Favorite
by Lucinda Watson
Through 64 poems, the granddaughter of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr., paints a picture of complicated family relationships and growing up with privilege.

Under the Mesquite
by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Somewhat fictionalized, this poetic account tells of a child dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Pocket Poetry Day 2022: April 29

April 29 is Pocket Poetry Day. To celebrate poetry, post your poet on social media with the hashtage #PocketPoem. We’d love it if you’d hashtag #writemymemoirs as well!

The 2022 poster shown above was designed by eleventh grader Lara L. from Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, New York. Her poster won the 2022 National Poetry Month Poster Contest and features a line by 2021 Presidential Inaugural Poet and 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.

One More Time: Yes, Your Life Story Is Worthy of a Memoir

man kissing his reflection

There’s no greater incidence of imposter syndrome than among memoir authors. When your first book is a memoir, not only can you question whether you’re a “real author” but also whether your topic is important enough for a book. The question of worthiness comes up time and again. Is my life interesting enough to fill a memoir? Why would anyone want to read about me?

By definition, your life is unique. There’s only one you. We language nerds never use the term “more unique” or “less unique,” because “unique” means “one of a kind” without adding a descriptor. So I won’t say that some lives are less unique than others, but certainly some lives, while unique, have fewer dramatic moments or seem to follow more typical patterns. They’re kind of ordinary. So let’s look at both extremes.

Unusual Lives

The most common reason people give for writing a memoir is that they’ve lived through a difficult event or time and want to write it out for cathartic reasons or to help the next person facing the same crisis. This can be any life challenge—an abusive childhood, harsh poverty, a health condition, an escape from a dangerous political environment, anything.

The opposite exceptional life—privilege or fame—also motivates people to write a memoir. Simply chronicling how the person acquired wealth or became famous supplies the author with a story that people will read.

In both cases, the compelling plot drives the narrative. How did this start? What came next? The idea is to make it a page-turner. If you’ve had something significant and uncommon happen to you, or if you’ve chosen to take a road less traveled, I can assure you that your life is interesting enough to write about.

Ordinary Lives

Now let’s say you’ve had a life much like the lives of everyone else you know. You’d like to document the facts of your life, but you have a hard time picturing anyone except your family wanting to spend time reading about your picket-fence family life, your desk job with its periodic promotions, your golf hobby or your volunteer activities in your community.

First, at Write My Memoirs we often get requests for second and third printings from our self-publishing authors because of the person’s initial underestimate of how many friends and acquaintances will ask to read the memoir. People who know you even only through social media can be curious to read about your life.

Second, let me ask you something. What are your favorite TV shows? Maybe “Stranger Things” or “Law & Order” is on your list, but many of the most popular shows, both comedies and dramas, center on ordinary people like you and a family or professional life like yours. The incidents may be exaggerated, but from “Family Ties” and “Family Matters” to “Friends,” “Modern Family,” “This Is Us” and both versions of the “The Wonder Years,” the shows are relatable to viewers specifically because they ring true; you recognize your own life in the lives of the characters.

For the memoir of a more ordinary life, the plot isn’t what drives the page-turning. It’s the way the life is presented. Humor can entertain, warmth in telling your story can engage readers and, most important, being candid and honest makes readers trust you and enjoy what you have to tell.

Writing is the Key Ingredient

So if you’re looking for a recipe for a great memoir, it isn’t really the story. The key ingredient is the writing. Use strong verbs. Paint visual pictures so the reader is right there with you. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t leave holes that readers can’t fill in by themselves. Develop your own writing style, and be consistent with it.

You’ve lived the life you’ve lived. No one else has lived it. Telling what that life was about from your point of view will make a fine memoir. You just have to sit down and write it!

Writing Tips: How to Develop Empathy in Your Memoir

Empathy Sign

You probably want people who read your memoir to root for you. Even if the main topic of your memoir does not address something like overcoming hardship, facing tragedy or triumphing over opposition, you most likely want to encourage empathy for yourself. Unless you’re unusually self-critical, telling your story from your point of view will naturally point readers in that direction.

But there also are writing devices you can use. Here are three.

1. Writing Tone: Be Intimate, Raw, Honest, Humble, Authentic

Eliciting empathy from readers is really no different from trying to make new friends. Why do people want to spend time with someone?

You earn empathy from readers not only by the story you tell but also by the way you tell it. Write intimately, as if you’re sitting with just one person and “spilling your guts” to a degree.

Like new friends, readers like nice people. Show your heart! If your journey takes you from being not very nice to becoming a much better person, start your memoir at a more recent period and then jump backwards. That way you’ll let readers know that sticking with your story will pay off, because eventually they’ll like you.

Readers sense authenticity; if they feel phoniness, they’ll doubt your story. If they think you’re outright lying at all? You’re toast.

If readers hear arrogance in your writer’s voice, they’ll turn against you. If you blame others or just bad luck for what you’ve done, they’ll abandon you. Readers will be turned off by a flippant attitude that treats your sins as if they’re less significant than the sins of others. So take accountability for mistakes you’ve made and your own contribution to your troubles.

Expressing true contrition and raw honesty will keep readers on your side. Your tone must demonstrate that you don’t think you’re always right or better than other people.

Writing at the average reader’s level is a good way to get them to relate to your storytelling. If you write down to them, that condescending attitude will probably not sit well with readers. At the other end, writing in highly scholarly language can be tough to slog through and also indicate that you’re not easily relatable to ordinary people.

2. Writing Content: Give Evidence for Empathy

Be careful if your memoir positions you against the world, because the world might just win in your readers’ minds. To encourage empathy, show empathy. Roll out incidents that demonstrate how you empathized with other people.

Include, as well, episodes that show people empathizing with you. Give some play to other people who agreed with you, friends who had your back, relatives who came to the rescue. Explain your reasons behind your actions. Include any “aha” moments you had so that readers can take that ride along with you.

3. Writing Quality: No Sloppiness

Smart readers like smart writing—your memoir must be well-written. Readers do not have to be English professors to spot typos, bad grammar, repetition, hard-to-follow narratives and other errors that indicate poor writing. Even just unsophisticated writing can undermine a good story, because readers might not be able to follow your thoughts.

While you don’t have to be a professional writer, you should have a professional editor look over your work. Little things like paragraph transitions make a big difference in keeping the story flowing and the reader turning pages.

If your writing is poor, readers may feel sorry for you—but sympathy is not empathy. You don’t want readers to pity you; you want them to respect you for the way you handled tough situations and your good times, too. Ultimately, you want readers to enjoy your book—through your challenges, your decisions and your survival. Put them right by your side, and they’ll get it.

Memoirs of Summer 2020 Have a Familiar Ring

Cover of Loni Love memoir

What do Jessica Simpson, Madeleine Albright, Ihlan Omar, Colin Jost and a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of have in common? They’re all authors of memoirs published this summer. Coming out of one of the strangest summers we’ve ever experienced, what’s different about these memoirs compared with previous ones?

Nothing.

People write about themselves for many reasons, but by the time you publish a memoir it’s because you think someone may be interested in reading about how you solved a problem, came out the other side of a challenge, managed a particular situation or just plain lived as you. That’s as true in summer 2020 as in any other time.

For celebrity authors, the book will sell well if there’s a big reveal. Hey, Jessica Simpson, what was it like to date John Mayer? André Leon Talley, what’s it like to be a Black, gay fashion editor at Vogue?

No matter how fascinating the life, for a memoir to be a good read it still must be written well. As a comedian, Loni Love has an easy time making I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To entertaining. TV and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld knows how to stage a scene, so it’s not much of a leap to exercise a flair for description while writing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. It’s right in journalist Eilene Zimmerman’s wheelhouse to report on her husband’s addiction in Smacked.

Google “memoirs summer 2020,” and you’ll pull up a long list of autobiographical tales that all sound tempting to take a look at. Many of the authors are first-timers, and one summer you may find yourself on one of those lists. Meanwhile, keep writing! And keep reading. These memoirs will inspire you to craft your story as candidly and compellingly as you can.

Music Triggers Memoir Stories

piano

Every now and then when you hear a song, does it take you back to a particular memory? I think we all have that experience. One of the biggest summer songs some years back was Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which recounts the singer’s fun summer years ago when he met a girl and blasted songs on a Michigan lake beach. At the end, it includes this lyric: “Sometimes I’ll hear that song, and I’ll start to sing along, and think man I’d love to see that girl again.” It’s hearing the music that revives the emotion.

As we write our memoirs, we pay a lot of attention to the sense of sight, making sure to convey a scene just as we witnessed it. In some scenes, we also remember other senses. How did the meal taste? What were the aromas in the house at the time? Don’t forget the sense of hearing! As you write about an era of your life, listen to the music you were hearing at the time. This may trigger unique memories, and you can include some references in your memoir if you think it will help the reader to connect.

Music has always played a huge role in my life, so I really relate to someone who includes special songs when writing a memoir. From some pre-Beatles tunes right through to today’s top 40, songs provide a sort of déjà vu for me. Coloring your life story with details like that will make it interesting not only to read, but to write as well.

Image: ©Vladyslav Makarov

Happy U.S. Thanksgiving from Write My Memoirs!

Write My Memoirs Thanksgiving

Many of our members here on Write My Memoirs do not live in the United States, so they do not celebrate Thanksgiving. But the Thanksgiving sentiment is something that applies to memoirs no matter what your nationality. Thanksgiving brings up all sorts of memories.

  • For Americans who were alive in 1963, the memory of that Thanksgiving can be painful, because President Kennedy was murdered six days earlier. All Americans remember where they were when JFK was shot. I was in fifth grade, and we were sent home early. Walking home in the middle of the day, I was surrounded by an eerie silence. This is something that could go into a memoir. Even if you’re not American and weren’t living in the United States at the time, I’m sure the news reached you and touched you in some way.
  • Thanksgiving brings to mind family traditions in general. What are yours? Do you cook Thanksgiving dinner? Attend a family get-together? Is your autumn all about football, or raking leaves or getting away from the cold? Certainly Thanksgiving or any family celebration can be a focal point of a memoir.
  • The end of the year signals loss for many people. Those memories are punctuated by the contrast of holiday celebration. My own mother died on this date, November 25, and we held her funeral the day before Thanksgiving. The following day, it took until afternoon for any of us to realize it was Thanksgiving. We bought some deli turkey, ate sandwiches and cried and reminisced about Mom. Perhaps you have a November story to tell in your memoir.

Starting a memoir now is a great idea, because it’s a jumpstart on the New Year. A lot of times we start some goal on January 1 only to abandon it by February. Starting now gives you that necessary six weeks to get in the habit of writing so that you don’t disappoint yourself in 2020!

Happy Thanksgiving, memoir authors!

Lizzo Reflects a Common Memoir Theme: Life Happens, and You Fix It

There’s a song out right now, “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo, that has the lyric:
“Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me.
Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me.”

That way of thinking proves to be a catalyst for many memoir authors. Your problems happen to you through no fault of your own, but you manage to turn them around or triumph over them. You change the direction of your destiny through sheer will and hard work.

As a child you suffered neglect, poverty, family dysfunction, maybe abuse—and look at you now. You mended your broken parts and became a whole adult. Or you fell into a downward spiral of addiction until you kicked it for good.

Maybe the redemption wasn’t as dramatic. You were a clumsy kid who became an accomplished athlete. Or you left Wall Street to run a small farm and love it. Or you took a chance on surgery that cured a debilitating medical condition. It can even be what Lizzo says: you figured out what you were doing wrong in romance, and now you have a great relationship.

We’re driven to share our win against the odds or the formula we devised all on our own for repairing our situation. It’s not about bragging, just documenting. We write it all out to add weight to the fact that it happened. The writing provides a bit of therapy—or at least closure. It’s letting out a breath we’ve held for so long. Phew. We did it, and now we wrote about it. And we hope that sharing our story will help others facing a similar set of circumstances.

If you’re looking in the mirror and seeing someone you’re relieved to finally be, no wonder you want describe who you are now and how you got from then to now.

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Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for that extra commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. SCHEDULE A CALL TODAY if you’d like to talk about what’s right for you. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!