The 4 Psychological Obstacles to Writing a Memoir

If you intend to write a memoir, your journals are a gold mine and a treasure trove. But they also come with shadows, demons and difficulties.

This series of posts called “Journaling for Men” is designed to help everyone, and especially men who may be unfamiliar with journaling, learn how daily journaling can help them improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It brings together ideas from two of my recent books, Redesign Your Mind, in which I describe how you can upgrade and redesign “the room that is your mind,” and my most recent book The Great Book of Journaling, co-edited with Lynda Monk, in which we gathered contributions from scores of journal experts and enthusiasts.

Please enjoy this series. I hope that you’ll begin to include journaling as part of your daily self-awareness and self-care program.

Say that you want to mine your journals for material to include in your memoir. What will go into your decision-making process as you face your mountain of journals? In addition to the intellectual task of deciding on the best frame, theme, or script for your memoir, in addition to the burden of sorting, shifting, choosing, and transcribing, you have the following four psychological tasks to address. Each is vitally important.

  1. Are you genuinely willing to reveal yourself?

Many memoirists who believe that they are perfectly comfortable revealing their traumatic history, their secret desires, their shortcomings, their failures and their warts, really aren’t all that comfortable with any of that revealing. They honestly want to believe that they are, because they don’t want to be defeated in their aims by their fears and their worries. But, while they want to feel comfortable, they may not really feel comfortable.

There is no more important issue for the would-be memoirist or the stalled memoirist to get clarity on, since this is likely the main source of her blockage. This is also a tremendously important issue for the working memoirist, too, who may be managing to write but who may be haunted by this issue and unconsciously censoring or “toning down” her memoir because she doesn’t feel all that comfortable or safe revealing her truth.

If you have the intuition that this is an issue for you, how might you might go about resolving it? There isn’t an easy answer, because we are talking about legitimate fears and worries that must be accounted for and not just suppressed. The starting place must be to have this hard conversation with yourself.

 2. Are you willing to expose others?

While you may be comfortable enough revealing your own history, secrets, and foibles, it is a completely separate matter whether you are willing to reveal what you know about your parents, grandparents, siblings, lovers, friends, bosses, or anyone else, even including someone as secondary to your story as your town’s butcher, baker or candlestick maker.

What might you be worried about? Embarrassing them. Humiliating them. Wronging them. Misrepresenting them. Upsetting them. Falling out with them. Being confronted by them. Even being sued by them. It’s very hard to make true progress on your memoir if you are stewing about these matters, if they remain unresolved, or if they remain a secret impediment to your progress.

What might your “right” answer be? It might be to carefully take each “character” in turn and see if certain ones worry you more than others; and then make some decisions based on that updated understanding. Or it might be to “put in everything” and then carefully decide which bits are too inflammatory, too revealing, or seem intuitively better left out. Whatever plan you adopt, the main point is that this issue must get cleared up. If you are half-unconsciously harboring the belief that it is too dangerous to write your memoir, you will not write it.

3. Can you deal with the inevitable and continual decision-making process?

Even after you’ve gotten very clear about whether you’re willing to be revealing, both about yourself and others, that doesn’t mean that it will then be an easy matter to choose which incidents to put into your memoir, how many details to reveal, which themes to explore to the max, or what tone to adopt. Tons of decisions remain!

A writer who is actually writing her memoir goes ahead and makes these choices and decisions, confident not that these decisions are coming with any guarantees or that all of them will prove tenable but confident that there is nothing else to do but to make one choice and one decision after another. You really must embrace with your whole being that there is nothing else to do but to make decisions and only after the fact see if they were the right ones. Yes, you can certainly aid yourself by trying to make wise decisions right from the get-go. But as to whether they were really wise, that you will only know much further along in the process.

4. Can you deal with all those troubling thoughts and feelings?

Writing a memoir is provocative. It may well bring up troubling thoughts and painful feelings, it may trigger a real flooding of difficult emotions, and, in the extreme, it can endanger your mental and emotional wellbeing. How could it be otherwise? You are likely writing your memoir in part to speak about the painful events in your life, an activity which is naturally causing you to remember them. This is dangerous territory.

Since you don’t want to give up on writing your memoir because it brings up troubling thoughts and painful feelings (unless, of course, it does prove too difficult and dangerous an enterprise), you will need to think through what you mean to do when those troubling thoughts and painful feelings appear. You might want to read in the trauma literature, the post-traumatic disorder literature, or the addiction recovery literature, as those are places where a lot of thought has gone into how to heal the past and how to deal with the past in the present.

If you intend to write a memoir, your journals are a gold mine and a treasure trove. But they also come with shadows, demons and difficulties. Your hope may be that you will simply sit down with your journals, read them, and mine them easily and efficiently. But it is rather more likely that there will be more to the process than that and that certain inevitable practical and psychological challenges will arise, stalling you and even pressuring you to put your memoir aside. Get ready for those challenges! If you intend to make your voice heard, you must meet those challenges. Your journals are a wonderful raw resource; then the real work begins.


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