This post is one of 26 I am writing for the A-Z Challenge on the subject of writing a memoir. I’m not an expert in writing memoirs, but I’m exploring the topic with thoughts about writing one, and am happy to share the fruits of my exploration.
I’ve already made one whole attempt at writing a memoir and a start at another. Each time I brought another chapter, another set of scenes, to my writing group, they said, “But how did you feel?” And I was stumped. Because when these things were going on, I didn’t have any great thoughts. Generally, I felt sad but was sure I deserved what others did to me, that I was somehow to blame for it all. But each scene? They were just things I thought I had to suffer in silence. I didn’t really know what my feelings were.
This is probably the main factor that’s holding me back from trying again. How do I write about feelings that weren’t apparent to me at the time? How can I keep the reader’s attention without feelings?
Sorry, I don’t have any answers today. Maybe you do….
As always, or even more so, I’m looking forward to reading your comments. But please remember the comments button is at the top. If you comment on the wrong post, I have to go through a long procedure to move the comment, and I’d rather not. Thank you.
18 replies on “A-Z Challenge: F is for…”
I well remember an essay course I took and each time the instructor would put at the end of the essay” But how did you feel?” When I took the time and effort and when I had the guts to add my true feelings, the essay truly became alive.
But if,as you say, you don’t know what your feelings were then ‘sad’, ‘confused’ or even ’emotionless’ are still appropriate adjectives.
Thanks, Ann. I think at the end of this challenge I’ll make a list of all the helpful advice I’ve received.
I am really enjoying your exploration of the dynamics of memoir writing (and reading). Though I am sure I have very different experiences, and a very different style of working, than you, I think that the writing itself does generate feelings, and it is the job of the writer to analyze them and incorporate (some of) them in the story. They can be as tuned up or down as you choose, but they do influence the reader’s ability to identify with you. I think that the first use of a memoir would be for the writer’s benefit, and only later (or, if the writer chooses so) for the reader’s benefit. My experience is that when I write about something difficult in the past, there can be two results: either I become depressed and stuck (cause I haven’t really worked through this thing yet) – in which case I wouldn’t let anybody else read it – or I write myself to a better place.
Glad you’re enjoying it. I think you’re right. Even thinking about incidents from the past generates feelings. But they’re feelings I have now; not feelings from the past.
Feelings are difficult and more so in the first person. I struggled for years trying to write a first person memoir. Only when I abandoned the form and turned to the third person novel, was I able to give feeling that was real to my characters. Being at one remove from ones self seemed to liberate from the constraints of revelation.
It takes a very special effort to re-live traumatic or painful episodes as other than descriptive pictures of events. Feeling hides from recall for good reason, it can be harmful.
I understand that, but I’m not sure it’s true in my case.
This is a difficult one if you can’t remember how you felt. I suppose I was lucky in that, for at least some crucial parts of my memoir, I had detailed diaries in which I had recorded my thoughts and feelings at the time, so I could check these (though painful to read) alongside my memories of how I had felt. Is there anything that might remind you of how you felt? – maybe certain smells, tastes, colours? Or if you can think about how you thought and then the feelings that were attached to the thoughts might come back. I suppose if all else fails, you could describe the incident and then say you can’t remember how you felt about it at the time, but now when you think about it, you feel… Something like that. I don’t know if this is any help. I’m just thinking out of the top of my head. I’m really loving your memoir writing posts. Each one raises issues that are so interesting to me.
Thanks, Jean. I’m glad you like the posts. I don’t think I don’t remember how I felt. It was more that I blocked out the feelings, so I couldn’t have said at the time how I felt. I can look back now and feel sorry for the girl who was me, but the girl simply accepted that the way things were was how they had to be.
I think I can understand what you mean. At times I used to go into a state of emotional numbness, blocking out my feelings and just accepting the way things were as how they had to be. If you say in your memoir that you blocked out your feelings at the time, as you have explained it here, I think readers will understand and relate to this.
I think the fact that you felt you had to suppress and block out your feelings speaks volumes in itself, if you can get that feeling across to your readers.
Another good point. Thanks, Gill.
Extracting feelings can be a tricky task. I’ve found that the best way to recall the feelings or emotions from a particular time, free writing worked well. No standards of what to expect when I wrote, simply me, a pen, a piece of paper, or three, and the release of the scene in all its horrible grammatical glory.
Thanks, Angela. I’ll try that.
Mining your memories, very cool! Just visiting today from the A-Z Challenge Juliet atCity Muse Country Muse Come visit us and sign up to follow if you like what you see!
Thanks for popping in 🙂
all your posts offer such great advice on memoir writing!
i will be back when i’m ready to write my mom’s with her
ps, how is a biography different from a memoir? isnt memoir more story style?
I think the difference is that biography covers a whole life while memoir focuses on a particular aspect of the life or a particular time period within the life. I’m glad you like the advice.
Different stories need a slightly different voice and it should match. That’s true.