Writing The Dark Past (11.29.10)

Writers of memoir are constantly under pressure to bowdlerize the past. The denials of family or friends, or the fear of traumatic memories tend to keep the truth from the page. One of my students put the dilemma of the memoir writer eloquently when he said he spent a lot of time making sure he didn’t uncork the wrong bottle.

My advice to him was straight out of the existential therapist’s handbook: “You’re not in a position to choose which bottle has been opened for you.” Then I paraphrased Donald Rumsfeld: “Writing is choosing how to deal with the past you have rather than the past you wish you had.”

Often enough, a memory will present itself to you, only to be turned away because you’re not sure you can face it or do it justice. Do that often enough and your memories will stop offering themselves. No memories, no memoir.

Writers often face what looks like a bleak choice: either resurrect unpleasant memory, or focus on happier times and risk writing stories that are superficial and contrived and short on meaning.

In a memoir, it’s hard to hit the depth of emotion and wisdom you want to convey without including seminal events. Some of those seminal events are going to be dark and disturbing or full of shame and embarrassment.

So—and I don’t mean this to be as callous as it sounds—deal with it. And the way you deal with it is scene by scene, story by story, until you’ve got it finished on the page. Finish it well enough, and it can’t hurt you anymore.

The wrong choices in this matter, and every memoir writer will make them now and then, are lying by omission and outright lying. Telling the whole truth is an exercise for the second and subsequent drafts.

You can make this process better for yourself and your reader by choosing a narrator who is kind and courageous and able to use dark humor. That narrator will recognize tragedy when it comes up, and won’t shy away from articulating it. That narrator will also deliberately look into dark and scary corners with a sense of how small human beings are in the grand scheme of things, and because of that sense of proportion, those corners won’t be so dark or so scary. Finally, that narrator will bring irony, humor, and a sense of play into some of the grimmest memories he or she is recounting.

That narrator is also a creation of the second and subsequent drafts.

Easier said than done. Our fears don’t always cooperate with our intentions, in writing or anywhere else. That ideal narrator, who might be described as the confident and secure person you are on your best-days-plus, doesn’t always show up. Those lucky moments when a newspaper article or a photo or a couple of lines of dialogue spark a key memory don’t always happen. During not-so-lucky moments, you have to put a couple of characters in a long-ago-demolished room and let them have at it. You write until a story pushes itself into your typing.

When you write about something more important than your fears, the story will come. It won’t always come easily or happily, but once it’s on the page, it will have the capacity to deepen the experience of your reader. When you are consistently able to deepen the experience of your reader—I don’t care what anyone else says—you’ll be a writer.

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