Small details, big ideas; writing about difficult memories

As writers of nonfiction, the goal is to adhere to the facts as we excavate memory for stories and it is often the unpleasant, difficult events in our past that are most suited to story. But, how do we tell these tales – especially the sad and incomprehensible events – so that, as Robert Olmstead describes, “…our minds find a place where they can endure what is unendurable.” The objective is to keep the reader with us, not to drag them along sad and whimpering, feeling forsaken as the writer describes the awful things that have happened to him or her. What’s the solution? Olmstead suggests in Elements of the Writing Craft that writers can find ways to talk about something large and unbearable (death, murder, terminal illness, molestation) by talking about the pain of something inconsequential right along side. It is almost as if the smaller unimportant pain provides a respite, a seat cushion on a hard bench, from which the reader can watch the large, devastating event unfold. It offers the reader a perspective with scale by moving from small, less easily categorized details, to the large and ungainly. Here is Donald Hall at the funeral home describing his wife after her death from cancer in, The Best Day and the Worst Day: “…Dead Jane looked all right… She looked like Jane, sick Jane after fifteen months of wasting. John Singer Sargent once described portraiture as that form of painting in which there is always something a little wrong about the mouth. There was something a little wrong about Jane’s mouth. Marion Chadwick told me that mouths were the hardest part.” He doesn’t say what the mouth looked like but his choice of […]

Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]