Writing a Memoir about a Traumatic Experience

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.