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Memoir And Dealing with Traumatic Memories

Memories and writing your memoir can be healing, revealing, and fun. But not always. Or at least initially. Writing your memoir may bring up traumatic memories and emotions, especially if more inner work is needed.

Memoir And Dealing with Traumatic Memories

Every experience creates a memory in the library of your soul. When you come to write a memoir and walk into that vast room, you may not know where or how to start.

Personally, I think that when you start the journey into a memoir, the most important thing is that you allow. What I mean by that is you allow yourself to wander through the library and trust the process of seeing and feeling your memories with new eyes, also following whatever connections come up for you.

Often I am confronted with something that triggers a memory. It seems initially disconnected from my memoir, personal story, book, or blog. And then, just like that, it starts to make sense. In that sense-making process, we can create a sense of freedom, enabling us to carry on planning or writing.

The important thing is when a memory is triggered, you allow, acknowledge, accept and follow it, after which you can make sense through reflection.

Let me give you an example.

Out of the blue, while driving, the DJ played Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs singing Wooly Bully. And that was it.

Suddenly I was transported back in time to my parents' parties. This song instantly takes me back, as does John. I’m only dancing. Even though I was never invited to my parents' drunken parties, It was wonderful to be transported back in time and see myself doing a version of the jive in my jammies. I loved to dance.

That memory moved to another many years later when I used to frequent a club on the RAF camp and dance the night away with my friends and young men. We were all underage, and it was delicious to just be there. But once the guys discovered who my dad was, they freaked. I’d never really understood why. Dad was, as far as I knew, a fireman. What was there to be scared off? Ha, that makes me laugh now.

This memory connected with another when someone commented on a photo of my dad and said, ‘Oh, your dad was a rock ape’. Neither Mum nor I knew he was or what they meant, and he isn’t around to ask. I recall pondering who was this mysterious man who scared my potential suitors away and who wasn’t just a fireman.

All of this left me pondering the mystery of who my dad was. His life was always shrouded in alcohol. He never talked about his past or present; his only future was his desire to win the lottery.

After all of this, I arrived at the point where I was wondering who I was. I think many of us wonder about this from time to time. I think this can be especially true for people writing about traumatic events.

Then a memory arose from a dream about a very traumatic time, around the period of the RAF club. One healing session and much reflection later, I decided that my memoir planning needed to change. I was writing the wrong book. I couldn’t face stories about penises (the ex-husband trigger story), pissheads or abuse. I needed to draw a line in the sand and let the past go.

Of course, the past is a part of me, as yours is. But I have the urge to write about discovering that raw, untamed, unfiltered part of myself that has been subdued by relationships, societal expectations, norms, and conditioning.

What would Sam and his Pharaohs think if they knew their song had triggered all this?

Memory is funny, and these meanderings were meant to bring me to this point of reckoning and realisation.

If you are stuck in the past or stuck with your story, pop on a classic and let your memory take you on a journey. Reflect on it. If you allow your mind to ramble, perhaps it will help to inform you of the story you want to tell.

This article will provide insights into the therapeutic benefits of memoir writing and offer practical steps to follow.

The Aftermath Of Traumatic Memories

In the aftermath of a traumatic event, we often grapple with the challenging question of how we can remember without becoming lost in the past. It’s been a struggle for me, and perhaps it is for you too.

I like the idea of creating a story list, or playing music and following the memories. After doing this, you will find themes, and then you can clarify what you want your story to be about and why. Then writing the right memoir or book. Which is easier said than done. It all sounds rather easy.

Recounting personal traumatic experiences can be a daunting task. Memoir writing provides an outlet to explore, analyse, and ultimately transform these memories into a powerful source of healing.

This is what my past writing has done for me. I, however, feel ready to take the trauma and transmute it into something more powerful – at least for me and my readers.

You may be in a different place and need to share your story of healing, resilience and overcoming challenges.

Expressive Writing

Prof. James Pennebaker very famously conducted research into expressive writing. Through research with his students, he discovered that those who undertook the brief trauma recall exercises demonstrated increased personal well-being. He instructed his students to write: -

For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. I'd like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts in your writing. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. All your writing will be completely confidential. Don't worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.

Writing this way encourages you to write from the heart about what hurts in a journal. Observing your thoughts and feelings and using reflective practices and tools can bring about change. Many trained counsellors use journaling and writing to heal as a part of their practice, as it is so powerful.

The beauty of this is that you only need a journal, pen and some quiet time. You may want some prompts, but otherwise, you put pen to paper and explore.

Understanding Trauma

I can’t claim to understand trauma. I’ve experienced and witnessed it, but I have never trained and would always recommend that you find a skilled person whose energy feels like a match for yours.

Traumatic experiences often shatter your assumptions about the world, thrusting you into disarray, confusion and chaos. As trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps The Score) explains, trauma rewires the brain, causing it to store traumatic memories as isolated sensory and emotional fragments rather than coherent narratives.

Often these fragments resurface in ways that cause intense emotional distress and further confusion, which is why working with someone trained and skilled is important. Especially if writing your memoir acts as a trigger.

The Healing Power of Memoir Writing

Memoir writing is actually helpful as it can help you to piece together these fragmented memories, creating a more cohesive story. I find I get patterns and pictures that are almost like a language to me. It’s how my brain pieces things together.

Then when writing, I process the fragments into a story. When doing this, I find that intrusive thoughts and flashbacks rarely pop up.

Try it for yourself. Take a story from your story list and write. You could find that this process helps you to better manage your emotional response to the stories.

As previously mentioned, Dr James Pennebaker, a pioneer in writing therapy, has found that writing about traumatic or stressful experiences can reduce symptoms of depression, increase psychological well-being, and even improve physical health. In his research, Pennebaker explains that writing promotes "affective regulation, " allowing individuals to better understand and control their emotions.

You will also find that memoir writing offers a unique opportunity to give meaning to the traumatic experience. In this way, you can take back control of your life story. I find that I can feel dispassionate about what has happened when I process in this way. However, please don’t ask me to read it aloud, or I may cry.

This perspective can help shift the focus from victimhood to resilience and growth—a concept known as post-traumatic growth.

Steps for Writing a Trauma Memoir

Where to begin? Writing a memoir about traumatic experiences is a personal journey; no universal method suits everyone. However, the following steps may provide a useful roadmap:

Prepare Mentally and Emotionally

You know that memoir writing requires revisiting painful memories. You may feel a rush of overwhelming emotions that take you aback for a while. I would recommend a support network—like a therapist, counsellor, or trusted friend—can be invaluable during this process. Please be mindful of overloading friends. Also, know it’s ok to stop writing this book if it becomes too much.

Start with Short Writing Exercises

This is why I recommend memoir journaling or using ‘normal’ journal prompts and seeing where they take you. If you have a story list, choose one of them and write a short scene.

Practice Self-care

This is so important. Do not skip this part. Establish a routine of self-care. This can include physical exercise, mindfulness meditation, or anything else that helps you feel calm and grounded. I go for a weekly sound bath that is incredible.

Create a Safe and Sacred Space

Dedicate a specific time and place for your writing. Make sure it is a comfortable, private space where you feel safe to express your thoughts and feelings. I love to have my crystals and the furries with me. All is well as long as they don’t fart or demand scratches or treats.

Write Without Judgement

When writing, do not judge yourself. Let your thoughts flow freely onto the page. Remember, the memoir is for you. It does not have to be perfect or need to be shared with anyone unless you choose to do so.

Structure Your Narrative

As you become more comfortable with writing, start to organise your memories chronologically. This will help you piece together the fragmented memories and create a coherent narrative. Once you have done this, you can place them inside a narrative arc differently.

Find the Larger Meaning

Consider how your traumatic experiences have shaped you. What have you learned? How have you grown? This perspective can help you find meaning and purpose from your traumatic experiences.

Get Professional Feedback

Budgets don’t always allow, but if you share your memoir, consider getting support or feedback from a professional editor or writing coach. They can provide valuable insights and help you refine your story and book.

And Finally

I have found that writing about the trauma in my life is liberating, and it’s helped me to process the hurt. As I have said previously unpublished all of my old memoirs, which contain the most traumatic episodes of my life. I am so glad that I wrote them, but I am moving onto a new chapter and writing a living memoir which I will share more about soon. I can attest to how powerful it is to write and share. Who knows who you will help besides yourself?

Your book will become a beacon of hope for others.

Start exploring your memoir with this mini-course.

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