[Podcast] How to Write about Difficult Topics in Memoirs

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Apr 22, 2024
How to Write about Difficult Topics in Memoirs

Writing a memoir is a deeply personal journey. It’s a journey that leads writers through the most profound, intimate, and traumatic moments of their lives.

For many, reliving past experiences is challenging. Painful memories and difficult topics can lead to procrastination or shelving your memoir entirely.

Memoirist and author of The Best I Can Do Cheryl Landes understands this struggle. Cheryl spent nearly twenty years writing her memoir, and she has a few hard-earned tips on how to write about difficult topics in memoirs.

What is Cheryl’s most recommended tip?

Support through an Accountability Partner

Between 2006 and 2020, Cheryl wrote six chapters of her memoir. Her inability to write more stemmed from the difficulty in reliving painful, and even traumatic, memories. Each time she tried to write, she stopped after a few sentences. For fourteen years, she made little progress on her memoir.

Because of the pandemic in 2020, mental health became a prominent talking point across the nation—even the globe. Cheryl knew her story could contribute to these new conversations. She told herself, “It’s time to start doing this.”

It was her passion for mental health that encouraged Cheryl to return to her memoir. But it was hiring an editor that helped her cross the finish line.

Book editors are useful for a number of reasons: they ensure your book meets professional standards; they identify areas where your writing needs to improve; they provide feedback on structure of the book; they help you tailor your book to the market. Book editors can also serve as accountability partners.

For Cheryl, she needed someone to help her meet her deadlines. Her book editor provided her with:

  • Encouragement that kept Cheryl invested in writing.
  • Feedback that helped her improve her writing.
  • Support when she reached a milestone.

Without an accountability partner, Cheryl admits she wouldn’t have finished writing her memoir.

If you’re struggling to write about difficult topics in your memoir, consider an accountability partner. An accountability partner should be someone with a certain amount of toughness, unafraid to hold you accountable to your deadlines. But that person also should be someone who will support your journey and celebrate your accomplishments. An accountability partner can come in many forms: book coach, editor, a writing group, or even a friend or family member. Reach out to someone you trust.

An accountability partner is only one way to overcome writing struggles. Another way to write about difficult topics in memoirs is to balance the dark with the light.

Writing a Memoir Is a Balancing Act

Too many new memoirists procrastinate or struggle to complete their memoir because they’re focusing on the dark moments. A memoir isn’t only a collection of the most horrific, painful memories one has endured, though. A memoir is a balancing act. It’s a mix of both dark and light. Despair and hope.

Much of Cheryl’s memoir chronicles the hardships she endured through a 20-year period: a husband who struggled with paranoia, homelessness, the loss of her cats. However, Cheryl sprinkled winsome stories throughout her memoir. Stories that offered glimpses of hope and relieved the tension.

In one chapter of her memoir, Cheryl shares a story of when she discovered a swan’s nest. At the time, she and her husband were living apart, but her husband would visit periodically. During one visit, she showed her husband the swan nest. For some time, the swan nest allowed her and her husband to reconnect. Their romance rekindled as the cygnets grew up. 

Lighthearted stories, like the one above, are crucial in memoirs that deal with difficult topics. Lighthearted, optimistic stories prevent the narrative from becoming too bleak.

Creating a balance between light and dark stories is also important for the following reasons:

Reflects the Complexity of Life: Portraying only the dark moments in a memoir can be overwhelming for readers. Moments of lightness, humor, or positivity create a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of the human experience.

Provides Relief and Contrast: Moments of lightness help break up intense or heavy scenes, giving the reader a moment to breathe and process information before moving on.

If you find yourself stuck in your memoir, consider taking a break and writing a lighthearted story. Writing a story that is positive, hopeful, or simply a favorite memory from your past provides an emotional reset. It gives you a break from the intense emotions associated with darker stories. This will help you recharge. And it may help you approach your writing with a fresh perspective.

To hear more tips on how to write about difficult topics in memoirs, listen to Cheryl’s podcast episode. You’ll come away with the inspiration and tools to recommit to your memoir.



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