Trauma and pain are often the wellspring of memoir, significantly shaping our personal journey. For readers, the great gift of memoir is opening your book and realizing, I’m not the only one who felt that way.
For most writers, painful episodes are easier to remember than pleasant ones. This is actually a good thing—just as the newspaper doesn’t announce “School Bus Doesn’t Drive Off Bridge; Kids Got There Safely,” our default state is “reasonably OK.” Bad experiences stick out in part because they are usually uncommon.
But what about the good stuff?
Your memoir needs a clear sense of “normal” (as you experienced it), because constant “bad things” aren’t particularly dramatic on the page. Trauma after trauma fades into generic unpleasantness; any one incident loses impact if it’s part of a litany of despair. If your memoir is delightfully non-traumatic, showing “normal” establishes the setting, and shows the reader the support you had to pursue your goal.
“Normal” is world-building for nonfiction.
If you remember negative events most strongly, write those down, in all their messy ickiness. Not just how you felt, or how awful that person was. Write what you physically experienced—not just actions you took or that were taken against you, but what you smelled when you fought with your dad in the kitchen. The temperature of the diner, the slight greasiness of the table, and the taste of the cheese fries when you said, “I want a divorce.” The music throbbing from someone else’s car at a stoplight when you realized you had to leave home.
Expanding outward into our senses, beyond the action and emotion of the scene, helps us recall details that may have blurred into the general trauma of the experience. Sharing those sensory details on the page helps the reader feel the pain with us, rather than watching our pain and feeling pity. “Sucks that happened to you!” doesn’t help them understand your experience, or change their own life after sharing your journey. Let the reader see through your eyes. Bring them into your bad times.
But you also need the good times.
Show the reader the days you enjoyed hanging out with your abuser, and they’ll be shocked with you when the abuser shows another face. Loving actions from a parent lull the reader into thinking, Maybe this time will be different, just as you did.
As the writer, honestly portraying the good times also allows ourselves grace for not leaving the situation earlier, not standing up for ourselves. We can remember why we justified that other person’s actions or tolerated a terrible relationship. Humans are mammals, and mammals respond strongly to unpredictable rewards. Give a dolphin the treat every time, and the trick gets sloppier and sloppier. They’ll do the minimum. Random treats make mammals do their best and keep trying. Slot machines pay out just enough for gamblers to keep feeding in quarters. Your terrible boyfriend apologized just enough to keep you coming back. Your mom gave just enough love to keep you desperate to please her.
To call up the everyday, turn to your sensory experience again.
Make a playlist of your favorite songs at the time—and also songs you didn’t like, but they sure popped up on the radio a lot. Try driving your old neighborhood with a 50-song playlist on shuffle. Surprisingly, your ears can bring up old memories. Search YouTube for your favorite Saturday-morning shows (Bugs Bunny as Brünhilde, anyone?) or the after-school shows you watched before the adults came home. Watch them sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes too close to the screen and recall what was happening around you—your big sister wiping off her eye makeup before Dad saw it? Mom wrapping birthday presents and asking for your finger to hold the ribbon knot while she made a bow?
Buy a childhood treat—a candy bar, ice cream from the truck, Girl Scout cookies—and eat it slowly. Freewrite as you go—Dinty W. Moore teaches a wonderful exercise in which writers write for five minutes about how the treat looks, five minutes about how it smells, feels, sounds we remember, and finally the taste. I’ve done this exercise several times, and every time it shakes loose “everyday” memories, and sometimes more significant ones, too.
See if you can visit your old school. My high school let me speak to an English class about being a writer. Wandering the hallways with a student guide brought back flood days—in Florida, our outdoor-plan school got several inches of standing water after heavy rain. Cheerleaders piggy-backed on football players, dorks like me rolled up our jeans, and…oh, yes…that day when we hall-passed out of Social Studies and talked about what we wanted to be, in the girls’ bathroom, until the bell rang and we all had to run back to get our books…
After a hard week in the typing trenches, strolling the nice parts of Memory Lane can reignite the desire to write, and refresh our human spirit, reminding ourselves, there was a reason I stayed.
Share those reasons with the reader. Showing what you aspired to, the dream life you prepared for, the moments of kindness from your antagonist, brings the reader more fully into your life. Drama is heightened when we don’t see another bad thing coming—or when we see misfortune down the road but are still rooting for the protagonist to take another path. Show why you made the wrong choice, the one that didn’t get you to the end of the book.
Show the good times.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, join us Oct. 19–Nov. 2, 2022 for the three-part webinar series Memoir Bootcamp.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.