‘Can I Still Write My Memoir If It Exhausts Me?’

This book is a ghost of memoirs past.

‘Can I Still Write My Memoir If It Exhausts Me?’
[Photo by Yanyi: You look over a meadow of white anemones at the height of bloom. There's a few tree stumps in front of you, then a verdant treeline, a blue, partly cloudy sky, and the outline of a blue mountain.]
Dear Yanyi,

I studied creative writing in undergrad and graduated in 2015 with 15,000 words of a memoir that I continue to be proud of. The book focuses on the loss and grief in my childhood, through the lens of the suburban neighborhood I grew up in. It’s written as a collage, where multiple important people in my life are shared with the reader through everything from script-like conversations to short scenes, before many of those important people pass away. It is also still far from being a completed manuscript.

Truthfully, the reason this collage style works so well for my memoir is because my experiences with grief and other trauma left my memories holey, at best, and the text is a reproduction of how my brain recalls the first 16 years of my life.

The problem that I’ve been running up against for the last seven years is the fact that continuing to write this memoir is so emotionally challenging for me that I’m unable to squeeze in an hour of work here or there because that hour then requires multiple hours of emotional recovery. I wouldn’t be surprised if this prompted the idea of attending therapy, which is something I’ve been on a journey with for the last few years already. It has helped me off the page, but this particular problem continues to keep me from deep-diving into this work that I believe in wholeheartedly.

The Midwestern-American-raised part of my brain keeps trying to say “power through” or “you’re being lazy,” and other such unhelpful and self-sacrificing catchphrases. I have had extensive positive feedback from a variety of professors and other writers over the years, and received a prize for an excerpt from the text, and I think part of this inner dialogue stems from the intrinsic “you should’ve been done writing this already” subliminal messaging I glean from those same professors and writers now.

I think that part of the answer is simply Sit Down And Write, which makes sense. I'm not naive enough to think that finishing this memoir will be a painless process. Perhaps, though, I’m naive enough to believe that revising a few pages or drafting a scene of neighborhood night tag shouldn’t leave me emotionally hollow?

Thank you so much for your time.

Sincerely,
Healing-ish (she/her)

Kansas City, Missouri

Dear H,

Thank you for your letter. It sounds as though this book has become a tremendous occasion for you to cope and reflect on a formative period of your life. It’s also clear that something about it is stuck, and it has been for at least the past seven years.

This inner conflict you’ve shared with me isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of change. If you can pinpoint a time in your life when you would have just kept going without a second thought, then it’s change that’s already happened.

In the past, perhaps you wouldn’t have listened to that emotional exhaustion and paused your writing. Perhaps you would have dismissed therapy as not for you. You would have powered through the book. But what would that book have been?

You didn’t choose that book. You chose no book, which is, from your letter, where you’re feeling some doubt now. But are you just someone with no book? I don’t think so. I think you gave up not the book, but one version of this book. And, in return, you chose much, much more than nothing. You chose to preserve yourself.

No major lesson in life is learned only once. The world will test how much you want to change. Time and again, things loop around. There’s a prickly occasion for encounter; for the same old arguments to reanimate. And for you, H, that occasion is this 15,000 word manuscript you’ve got in your (proverbial) drawer.