I had forgotten that writing memoir can be a full-body experience.
My first book-length memoir was published a couple of years ago. I had worked on it on and off for two decades, reliving and processing what I had learned from the two years I spent in Japan (The Same Moon, Camphor Press, 2020).
Once the book came out, I relived it in new ways, responding to questions and observations from media interviewers and book clubs, not to mention family and friends.
Yet because I had drafted most of the manuscript years before publication, I had achieved a sense of detachment I didn’t even recognize at the time.
Fast-forward to this past January. I embarked on writing a new memoir, this time with parameters: I would start on the first of the year and produce a rough draft of sorts by March 1. (Yes, that’s right — I spent two decades writing memoir No. 1 and scheduled two months to draft memoir No. 2.)
When Jan. 1 arrived, I immersed myself in memories … and soon felt blind-sided by my own reaction.
Many of the events I was writing about had taken place a decade or more ago and, of course, I know what happened next and next and next. But revisiting them brought back many of the emotions I had felt at the time with an intensity I hadn’t anticipated.
My heart raced, my breathing got ragged, tears came. Although the words were flowing, I began forcing myself to take breaks, pushing my chair back from the desk and walking away. I soon developed a strategy for breaking the spell of the past: going to the kitchen, and opening a bag of tortilla chips and container of hummus.
Standing at the counter, staring into space, fingers salty, crumbs dropping around my feet (quickly gobbled up by my trusty dog, Leo), I would remember that, yes, you went through that experience, but it is past. We are here now, and we are OK. My heartrate would slow, and my breathing would deepen.
I suspect this strategy worked because it required the full spectrum of my senses — taste, smell, sound, sight, touch. It quickly pulled me back to the present, physically and emotionally.
Soon I returned to my desk, ready to take another crack at capturing the past, reliving it, making sense of it and, frankly, letting it go.
This anecdote might sound unrelated, but stick with me: When my beloved cat Alex died in 2006, my husband, Jon, and I buried him in the back yard and planted a blueberry bush over his grave. Soon afterward, we found ourselves contemplating a move.
“How can I leave Alex?” I asked Tom, my friend and PR mentor. (I knew it sounded a bit crazy to consider scuttling a move because of a buried cat.)
Tom thought for a moment and then told me about a special cat he had buried in his previous back yard. He too had felt some pangs about leaving her behind.
“But the thing is,” he told me, “if I ever need her, I know exactly where to find her.”
That, I believe, is similar to the healing power that comes from writing memoir.
I carry many memories and feelings around in my head and my heart, sometimes without even realizing it. It’s only when they drift out and appear on my laptop screen — like the anecdote of Tom and our cats — that I find a sense of release.
Despite the emotional cost of digging around in the past, I knew from experience that it would be worth it to keep going on my new project. So I wrote my way through January and February, and by the first week of March, I had a file containing 40,000 relatively coherent words, another file filled with scenes and a fairly solid outline.
Those memories moved from my mind and heart to a document, and already I feel lighter for not needing to carry them with me everywhere, every day. I no longer need to keep cycling them through my mind so as not to forget them or the lessons they taught me.
Like Tom’s and my cats, when I need those memories in the future, I know where to find them.
Writing prompt: letting go
First, a commonsense precaution: If you are working with a very challenging or triggering memory, please make sure you have a family member, friend or therapist available to support you.
Do you have a memory that regularly pops into your mind? What would happen if you wrote it down?
Explore the memory through your senses. What do you:
Did you learn something from that moment in time, or your memory of it?
What is the lesson?
I’ll help you. Check out my coaching & classes.