Memoir Writing Tip: Writing About Emotions

by Matilda Butler on April 9, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #41 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Writers: Understanding Emotional Attachment

In our soon to be released book, Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, Kendra and I devote an entire chapter to understanding emotions and how to write about them. This is an important element of writing and one that we often ignore.

There continue to be new books that, while not oriented to writers, offer writers insight into emotional states. Kendra and I will use our blog posts to expand on our emotion chapter when we find new and relevant information. This article is just the first of these.

Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University, published the results of his studies on attachment style in his book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love. As memoir writers, we want a takeaway that helps us write better rather than find love. (Well, maybe we want that too but that’s not the point of this blog.)

The first point I want to make, and one I will return to often, is:

Not everyone in our memoir is like us.

That sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. And, this is more important that you might surmise. We can only write about people in our memoir when we can stand back and try to understand who they are, why they do what they do, how they talk, etc. Let me give you an example. To this day, I often think my partner looks at the world the same way I do. We’ve been married for 42 years and you’d think I would understand him pretty well. But before you know it, I’m caught by a next false assumption. We have just finished a month-long writing retreat. We were in a lovely location, got a lot of work done, and enjoyed almost daily walks. Perfect, huh? I was pleased and thought he was too. And there I go with one of my assumptions that he thought the same way I did. In a recent conversation with family, he said, “A month was just too long to be gone from home. Next winter, we’ll go for two weeks, return home for a while, and then go for another two weeks.”

So much for my assumptions.

Let’s return to emotional attachments. Some people easily make emotional connections and express these feelings physically. For instance, I’m a hugger. Even when I meet someone for the first time who is a distant family member or the close friend of a friend, I’ll give them a hug rather than a handshake. Since I know that the other person may think that’s a little strange behavior, I usually accompany the hug with explanatory words such as, “Any one who is a good friend of XXX is bound to become a good friend of mine, so I’ll just go ahead a give you a hug.”

Memoir Writers: Let’s Go Back to Dr. Levine and See What He Offers Us

My sister, on the other hand, can’t stand for anyone to touch her. She has good friends, she just isn’t the touching kind. She can be described as attachment avoidant, one of the three types of attachment behavior (along with secure and anxious) identified by Dr. Levine’s research. He found that about 50 percent of people are attachment secure while about 20 percent are anxious and the remainder are avoidant. Furthermore, it seems that a certain type of person is attracted to an emotional opposite, which works well at first but causes major problems later. Picture the attachment secure and the attachment avoidant as a married couple.

Although Levine’s research focuses on couple, I want to raise the issue of an anxious attachment style or an avoidant attachment style of a mother? She may love her child but not be able to emotionally connect through hugs or affection. How does this affect the mother-child relationship?

What Does the Memoir Writer Do With This Information?

The more we learn about emotions, emotional states, and emotional behaviors, the deeper we can get into understanding the people in our memoir, including ourselves. Knowledge enables us to write deeply.

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Write down the name of someone in your memoir. Think about how that person showed love or affection to you or someone else in your memoir. Through physical contact? Through cooking or caring for the person? Through small gifts? Develop a brief scene around one of these expressions of love or affection. Write for 10 minutes. Even without using the word “love,” can you write a scene that lets the reader know how much this person loves the other person?

2. Having done this exercise for someone else in your memoir, now think about how you express love or affection to another person in your memoir. Develop a brief scene with you as the central character in a situation where you are showing love or affection. What are your behaviors? What are your words? Again, try this exercise without using the word “love.”

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