This is an article based on my graduating lecture from my MFA program in 2004. Please leave a comment and let me know if this was helpful to you.
Maintaining Emotional Balance While Searching for Emotional Truth
Nine years ago I began an MFA in writing program with a clear vision. I planned to transform the journal I’d written about caring for my grandmother into a publishable memoir. I’d rewrite each section with the incisive feedback of my instructors, fill in the back-story of the narrative with family scenes, learn all about craft, finish the memoir, and go on Oprah.
Oprah changing her book club format to the classics wasn’t the only wrinkle in my plan. I was completely unprepared for the barrage of emotions that assaulted me when I began writing about my family. My past had been mentally sorted into a box of familiar, used goods; all I’d have to do would be open the box, rearrange for dramatic effect, and close the lid. The plan was not to feel it all again, just write about it. My instructors, however, would send back my work with the notation: “Go deeper.” But where to go? Memoirist Kim Barnes told me that her mentor, author Bill Kittredge advised her, “If you push it and it hurts, you go there.” If the path to true writing is to follow those sore spots to wherever they lead, then writing becomes an uncharted, queasy journey. Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, asked one of his students, “Why are you afraid to write what you feel?” The student replied, “I’m not afraid to write what I feel. I’m afraid to feel what I feel.”Basic psychology tells us that when intense feelings of grief, anger or fear arise in childhood, we suppress them to whatever degree is necessary to cope in our respective families. Years later, if we call on our five senses to write a vivid scene (show, don’t tell), it can be a wake-up call to the emotions that have been hovering under the skin, waiting for a chance to surface. When I sat down at the keyboard, then, rather than enjoying the bliss I’d imagined, I felt as if I were sitting at my mother’s deathbed again, experiencing grief that I couldn’t express twenty years ago. When I wrote a scene as a young child, I trembled as I described my family fighting. The grief and fear, long ago stored in convenient frozen packets, had decided now was a good time for a thaw. At fifty years old I was living with my husband and two teenagers, but because of my writing, I was grappling with my family of origin as much as my current family. No matter how overwhelmed I was, I had to keep going and not fall apart
How then, does a writer cope with the onslaught of feelings, function in the world, and most importantly, keep writing? I decided to seek advice form the experts: writers whose work I admired, who‘d spent time in the emotional trenches, writing about childhood and family.
Kim Barnes’ first memoir, Into the Wilderness, tells of coming of age in a rural, fanatically religious family. In the sequel, Hungry for the World, she embarks on a self-destructive journey of separation from her family before finding her way back to center as an adult. I asked Barnes about her experience while writing Hungry for the World, especially the need to revisit a violent relationship with a man that she went through as a young adult. She said, “[When I was writing] I literally felt as if my safety and my family’s safety was being threatened. I armed myself, I loaded my gun … When I’d get up to make tea, I’d survey every room for weapons . . . the fireplace poker, the baseball bat, a coat hanger.” Since she was writing about a physical threat, she felt viscerally afraid that the man would come back for her. “I was reliving these events with the feelings I should have had at nineteen. I realized how close I was to being lost.”
A concurrent mindfulness that she was now a strong adult, and in fact, safe, albeit feeling terrified, allowed her to keep writing. “There was a kind of split awareness of ‘I’m ok, I’m here now. When you write about these traumatic events, it’s as thought you’re calling them back, but you are calling them from a position of strength.”
Barnes saw a therapist during the time she was writing, to help her through the process. “What it did was open me up to the ‘white space’ in my personal mythology. We get stuck in the story we tell ourselves; it becomes hermetically sealed. Talking to a therapist or to a friend that knows how to open up that narrative, to question it. Ie, ‘Have you ever thought that maybe that didn’t happen? Have you ever thought about why someone might have done that?’ This allows us room to move around and look for meaning other than what we call the meaning of memory.”
Fiction writer Sandra Scolfield’s first memoir, Occasions of Sin, centers around the period in her adolescence when her mother died. Scofield approached the project with care by deliberately separating the emotion from the writing process. She allowed herself an entire year to open boxes of her mother’s things each day and sift through the contents. She felt, “Not depressed, but horribly melancholy . . . every photograph made my guts ache.” During that year she didn’t do much else; she slept a lot, hung up photos, and generally created an environment in which she was “able to be with my mother and her death.” When she felt ready, she eased herself into writing. “I kept it very informal, didn’t work on the computer. If the weather was good, I worked outside. I worked in my bed. I gave myself all the time I needed.”
Once she began writing, the melancholy state shifted. “It didn’t take me long at all to realize how angry I was. The whole first draft was so adolescent. I was mad at my mother for leaving me. I was mad at myself for being a shitty daughter. All my life I had handled grief and anger by suppressing it . . .now I didn’t try to deal with it or escape it . . I just had to live it . . .be who I was for the period of time it took.” Like Barnes, she felt the emotions from a younger self with a simultaneous awareness that she could tolerate those feelings now. “I told myself, ‘I’m old enough now to understand this in a new way.’ ”
The intensity of Scofield’s feelings eased as she began to focus on craft. She made a “conscious decision to give each character a fully developed point of view.” When she wrote from her stepfather’s point of view, she saw, “what it was like to live with a mother-in-law who hated him, and to have his wife dying at such a young age.” When she was done, some of her anger toward him had melted. She concentrated on crafting the memoir until, “By being focused on the work and analytical and bringing everything I’d learned about writing to bear. . . by the time I’d finished the book, it was an object.”
The wisdom of focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing was echoed by many other writers. Kim Barnes summed it up with, “We take care of ourselves as writers by remaining in the craft. We go in deeply, plumbing the depths, but we go there with attention to craft. We go back to the basics, details, staying with the image, staying in the language. This helps us to stay both in our safe place and in our truest place.”
My own search for emotional balance led me to numerous works on writing and feelings. The advice therein, combined with the above interviews, led me to a survival strategy.
Create a container for the writing process. Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, said that author Albert Moravia was once so miserably in love that he wandered the streets of Rome hoping a car would run over him. “That was in the afternoon, of course,’ said Moravia. In the morning, I work.” Maintaining a disciplined writing practice has a particularly calming effect on emotional writing. You show up, you write in the same place, you leave at a certain time, no matter what you are feeling, just as you would with any other job.
A disciplined schedule also overrides the natural urge to procrastinate in order to avoid pain. It’s amazing how many closets one must clean at home before sitting down to write about the skeletons in the family closet. Alas, putting off tackling anything inevitably increases the inherent tension. Larry Sutin, author of A Postcard Memoir, maintains “Regular writing eases pain by counterbalancing it with a growing and potentially joyous commitment to a written work coming to life. When pain deflates writing commitment, writers must try not to give in to that. Try. Hard. Because the work is worth it.”
Confide in others: It’s simply comforting to have someone to talk with about what’s coming up; for solace and for perspective. Fellow writers are obviously a good choice to commiserate with. If you don’t know any writers, join a memoir group or read what writers have to say on the subject. Both Barnes and Scofield downloaded daily about their process with their husbands. Clearly, If the feelings arising are too intense to share with friends, then, like Kim Barnes, it could be a good time to use a therapist.
Write an “Emotional First Draft.” Before writing a difficult scene, spew it out first in longhand in the language of the child with absolutely no attention to craft. Then read it to a trusted friend, or just aloud to yourself. This allows the voice of the child to be heard before the issue of craft arises. The raw emotion from that piece can be extracted before rewriting with focus on language, metaphor, character and perspective. This fosters the sense of split awareness that both Barnes and Scofield alluded to. If you remind yourself that the adult is on board—at the keyboard, in this case—it’s easier to handle whatever feelings arise.
Write in the third person. I asked Kim Barnes about a particularly violent scene in Hungry for the World, the only section written in the third person. She originally wrote it that way to distance herself from the intense feelings, with the intention to rewrite it in the first person. Ultimately, the literary decision was to leave it in the third person to heighten the reader’s sense of the out-of-body distance required to survive the violence. Whether or not you decide to leave it that way, writing a first draft as if you are someone else is one more way to approach with caution and broaden perspective.
Get away from it all. I’m not the only writer who tends to ruminate on my writing whether I’m doing it or not. It’s crucial to schedule some time to deliberately not think about your writing. The following two escapes were the most helpful for me:
Meditation: I happened to take a course in Vipasana meditation just before I started the MFA program, not knowing how valuable it would be. Just as writing in the third person may afford literary distance, meditating is like spending some time being in the third person as you calmly observe your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Exercise: The benefits of not sitting all day at any sedentary job are obvious, but for emotional writing, it’s crucial to get out of the mind, into the body. Whether you go to a gym, play a game of tennis, or just get out and walk, exercise reduces mental anxiety as well as physical tension. Make yourself do it.
In an interview with Carolyn Walker, Robin Hemley spoke of writing Nola, a memoir about his sister who died as a result of schizophrenia. He said, “Sometimes I cried, though not all the time. I became more nervous, more emotionally raw. I think I came close to a breakdown of sorts. . . . but there was a real sense of peace that came to me in the completion of the book.”
When I began writing my memoir, I found that emotional rawness overwhelming, something I feared I couldn’t control. But I discovered that I could tolerate the feelings, shift my focus to craft, take a break, come back and face the emotions, keep writing, watch the pain shift into a new shape, and in the end revel in the sense that I was creating something unique from the anguish. Instead of letting the old pain sit and harden the chambers of the heart, we can bring it into a new light, treat ourselves with care in the process, and emerge with a narrative that rings with emotional truth.