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 thirty years later starting with a fictionalized play. Today, it has become a memoir. (He’s the guy wearing the headphones in the picture above.) But even a memoir that has simmered in the mind and on the page for many years does not pop out of the oven as if it was magically spun into a cake of gold overnight. Once the writing commences, starting with words, sentences and finally scenes recalled bit by bit, there is a wonderful and reciprocal process that takes place during the long discipline of continued writing. As the volume of writing increases, the need to structure the story and make sense of what happened begins to build. The eventual architecture emerges through planning, trial and error. Sven Birkerts in The Art of Time in Memoir, says that, it is the way the story is told that leads the reader through the healing process of the writer. The writer’s then and now stir to life the reader’s sense of past and present.  The writer’s bonus is that she discovers – “oh, so that’s what happened to me,” or, “that’s what was happening around me.” Next week, I’ll talk about the form and structure of four memoirs which focus on traumatic life experience. For now, take your pulse, make a few notes that start with “I remember…” and see what emerges. You’ll be okay. You’ll find the words.