5 Tips on Transforming Painful Memories into Memorable Stories

by Pamela Jane on November 4, 2012

Writing and Healing LogoPost #45 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Five Tips: Transform Painful Memories into Memorable Stories

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties will be out in 2013. Please visit her website at http://www.austencats.com

Memoir Writers Find a Bumpy Ride when Painful Memories Are Dredged Up

bumpy rideThe process of vividly recreating and reliving distressing episodes from your past can stir up long-buried emotions, color your mood (whether you are aware of it or not), throw you off-balance, and generally make for a very bumpy ride.

The problem for the memoirist, however (or even the novelist) is not the trauma of reliving painful experiences, but writing about those experiences in a way that will engage readers.  Too off-handed or blasé and you come across looking shallow or callous; too heavy-handed or morose and your narrative gets bogged down.

Following are five tips for transforming painful memories into compelling narratives –  tips I’ve learned and applied myself along the way.

1. Let the pendulum swingpendulum

If you’re like me, you can get pretty intense when you’re writing, especially when you’re reviving experiences that were intense when they happened, and may have rested dormant for years.  Let yourself alternate between focusing on your work and taking a respite from the writing and its dilemmas.  Relaxing your concentration allows you and your story to settle down.  It’s like letting a roiling stream grow calm so the sediment ­­­– the aspects of the narrative that pull you away from your story – sink while other, more significant elements rise to the surface.  The result is clarity in your writing, and in the structure of your story.

storyteller2. Connect to the oral tradition of storytelling

A memoir is essentially a story told to a friend.  In that sense it’s closely related to the oral tradition of story-telling with its emphasis on structure, voice, and commentary.  One of the best ways to tap into your natural storytelling voice when confronting a difficult chapter in your life is to keep a miniature cassette recorder nearby when you’re not writing, or pencil and paper if you prefer. That elusive insight or perfect phrase tucked just beneath the surface of your consciousness may get dislodged while you’re walking, raking leaves, or throwing a log on the fire.  (Writing is not exclusively a sedentary activity; it is much more physical than we sometimes realize.) You want to be ready to capture those fleeting revelations before they are lost forever.

3. Interrogate yourself

I have a signed copy of Story by the famous screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.  The inscription simply says, “Tell the truth.” I believe this is the single most important thing you can do when tackling painful realities.  The truth is bigger than the facts, your authentic voice, or the emotional impact of your story.  But all these elements will come together if you tell yourself and your readers the truth – your truth.  This is a lot trickier than it sounds.  The truth is ingenious at hiding, and the tools to reach it don’t come easily to hand.  So how do you do it?

Gene Tierney being interrogated as a murder suspect in the movie "Laura."

Gene Tierney being interrogated as a murder suspect in the movie "Laura."

To get to the truth, ask yourself what really happened – and how you really felt about it.  Throw away your expectations.  Throw away the facile clichés and the alluring words that seduce you away from the truth.  (Don’t ask me why words are such clever deceivers; I think they’re just naturally perverse.)  Write carelessly, impressionistically, visually if you want.  Then, when you’ve hit on a crucial insight, slow down and search for the best way to express it.

Whether you end up with a quip or an eloquently-written episode, let it be the result of serious and sustained interrogation.  No bare walls or bright lights are necessary here though; this should be a gentle, patient investigation.

PJs4. Put on your mental pajamas

When you sit down to interrogate yourself, make sure you’re comfortable – mentally loose.  Don’t try to be witty, dramatic, or brilliant.  Don’t try to be anything.  Just step into your mental PJ’s, and your physical ones too, if you want.  Then tell the story to yourself, your best friend, or your best listener ­ – that handy little cassette recorder.

5. Let your hands get dirty

During Hurricane Sandy, I was talking to my friend and fellow author, Deborah Heiligman, who was writing a post for womensmemoirs.com about her new young-adult novel, Intentions.

“I’m going to write the first draft quick and dirty,” she said.Muddy Hands

I knew just what she meant.  In truth, everything about creating is messy – your mind, your early drafts, possibly your desk.  So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, especially when confronting painful moments from the past.  After all, you’re wrestling with some pretty formidable material, or certainly a formidable process, no matter how you choose to tell your story. You’ll have to roll up your sleeves to pull those wrenching truths out of the mud.


When you return in your memoir to a painful time, you’re confronting long-ago (or even recent) emotions and experiences just as you might in therapy.  But writing a memoir goes much deeper because you are searching for the story buried beneath layers of memory in order to find meaning in the past, and ultimately in the human experience.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Matilda Butler November 5, 2012 at

Hi Pamela:
Another great set of tips. My favorite is actually the last one that you didn’t number because you raise such an important point. Memoir writers get so caught up in the writing that it is easy to forget the readers expect us to get to the story beneath the events — the story about meaning and how events have shaped us. So in addition to five tips, I want to thank you for your additional advice.

Pamela Jane November 5, 2012 at

Hi Matilda,
Thank you for your comment. It is interesting to think about what makes a memoir different from therapy when you’re dealing with difficult emotions. I think it’s quite different because writing a memoir compels you to think about your story in an entirely new light, and you come away feeling satisfied that you have created a work of meaning for yourself as well as for others. I feel another 5 tips coming on!

Pat November 5, 2012 at

Great suggestions, Pamela. I love the phrase “mental pajamas”
And this is gold:
Throw away the facile clichés and the alluring words that seduce you away from the truth.

Marcia Quinn Noren November 17, 2012 at

Thank you for these concise, clear and excellent suggestions, Pat! Returning to edit my memoir, I see what can be removed, to allow the reader to remain comfortable and safe. My goal is not to traumatize, but to instill hope.

Pamela Jane November 18, 2012 at

Marcia: I’m glad my post inspired you to return to your memoir; reading about how others overcame and triumphed over difficult times does instill hope and I look forward to hearing more about your memoir in the future!

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