Dare to Write the Hard Stuff

All memoir writers—and perhaps most creative writers—have material to which they give a wide berth. This is the dangerous stuff: the experience they fear to admit; that is too painful to touch; that they worry, if put into print, will infuriate another; that a family member has forbidden them to ever speak of. Some hate to put themselves or their families in a bad light, and/or they fear the taint of “bad blood.” And they think: other people don’t expose their own or their families’ hurts and flaws, why should they go out on a limb? But, in the writer, there is often an insistent pull to write the truth, and to expose the pain, however personally searing, myth-busting, potentially embarrassing, or humiliating, or tabooed.

This drive to expose the painful is the fount of much of the finest literature in the world. Just pluck the famous writers that might come immediately to mind and you will find this to be true: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Woolf… The working through of pain, of finding a way through the wilderness to home, is the driving line of many beloved stories. We all love that story: the story of trouble, struggle, and triumph—or at least greater understanding. We love to read of others’ emotional odysseys. It makes us feel accompanied, less weird, less alone. It gives us tips on how to think about life and keep forging ahead. It gives us courage.

So my advice is: go right to it. Find a quiet moment. Sit down in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee or tea, or a stiff drink, and write down that most feared and dreaded and impermissible experience—or series of experiences. Type those lines, one after another, onto the page or screen. Write in all the detail you can muster. What was the setting of that indelible moment? Paint the room or beach or jail cell. What did the place smell like? What was on the wall? What was your state of mind just before the incident occurred? What was the texture of the shirt you were wearing? What did the person say? Recreate the exact words—as close as you can get them. Describe the other person’s face, clothing, gestures, tone. Record all the visceral details of your experience. Write raw. Write headlong till you feel spent.

After you have the moment down, write for a bit about what you think of it all now. Write about how the moment haunts you, but also about far you’ve come. Write the thoughts that give you perspective and solace—and that protect you now. Honor them.

Now, congratulate yourself. Put the story away in a drawer. You can decide never to look at it again, or to burn it. Now that it’s been recorded, you may feel freer: to take that voyage to Antarctica or marry the man your mother hated, or just to feel a smidgeon happier with yourself. Or: you may have just set down the outline of the most important book you’ll write in your life.