You’ve decided to write your memoir, anticipating the writing of mud pies, toilet papering the high school Principal’s yard on Halloween, that first kiss, a wedding day, births of kids, and so on. You will write about dad’s alcoholism, brother Billy dying in the war, or other sad memories.
Then there are secrets; dark secrets which might have impacted our lives forever. Secrets that our loved ones might not know exist. You often hear after someone publishes their memoir that it was “so cathartic.” There are others not so lucky. You need to consider how writing about dark times might affect you.
You might consider yourself a survivor. You’ve been able to move forward leaving such things behind. It could have been childhood sexual abuse or being raped as an adult. You might have had an abortion. You might have been in prison. You might have killed someone by accident or on purpose via self-defense. Someone might have tried to murder you. Any of these things could be tough to write about.
If you ever needed or took advantage of counseling after such dark times, consider some refresher sessions to see if your counselor thinks it would be good for you to relive your particular trauma or secret. Because that’s what you’ll be doing–more than once. After all, there’s the first draft, second, third, and editing. Readings. Questions at book signings. If you were sexually abused as a child you won’t be putting in minute details, but even generalized details can bring back past pain.
It has been found that people, through one trigger or another, can develop “Latent” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder twenty or thirty years after the event. My trigger was the empty nest. Memories had time to percolate in my new solitude as I wrote. I am one of those with many past traumas and dark secrets. Not one single friend or family member knows everything. It’s traumatic to me even to this day, even though decades have passed for most things. Reopening old wounds has unfortunately been diagnosed as Latent PTSD (or what I think of as Post Traumatic Memoir Disorder). For weeks at a time–sometimes months–I am forced to stop working on the memoir so I can breathe and reassess; complete the healing process once and for all.
So am I saying you shouldn’t write about those dark times? Of course not. But you do need to be aware that feeling “cathartic” might not happen until the end–if ever. And remember that most of those famous people declaring how cathartic it was usually only told their story to a ghost writer, so the famous person didn’t have to write, rewrite, edit, and relive it over and over.
Traumas and secrets pull in interested readers, but are at times a living hell for the writer. So if you decide it’s important to write it all, go into it with eyes wide open about possible emotional consequences not only for you but your loved ones if it’s new information to them.
Once you’ve finished, rejoice in your hard won accomplishment!
Karen Carver is currently working on her fiction and a memoir that is taking forever to complete because it’s once again stuffed in the darkness of the back of a drawer. Whether it will once again see the light of day is still a mystery to her…