Writing and Healing: Coping with Emotions by Katherine Mayfield

by Matilda Butler on November 13, 2011

Writing and Healing LogoPost #30 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Finding Healing through Coping with Feelings When Writing Memoir

by Katherine Mayfield

“Sometimes I get up in the morning, and the feelings just overwhelm me. Then I have trouble functioning for the rest of the day. And forget about writing – I’m totally blocked.”

Joan was a student in a memoir-writing class I was teaching recently at the local Adult Ed center. She wanted to write about her life so that her grandchildren could connect with their lineage, but she couldn’t get past the feelings that came up as a result of her PTSD.

When emotions get in the way of writing or pursuing other activities, most people thrust them aside. But the feelings are there for a reason: they’re telling us truths about our life experience, truths about who we are and how we’ve chosen to live our lives. One of the primary causes of writers’ block is an overload of unacknowledged emotion.

In writing memoir, it’s essential to recognize the anger, sadness, and fear that arise in the process of getting our stories down on paper, and to find ways to let go of those feelings so we can move on. If we don’t look at them and allow them expression, the pile of emotions will keep growing, becoming even more overwhelming, eventually turning into what Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Unexpressed emotions can affect every area of your life in a negative way.

Without the human expression of feeling, a memoir is simply a story about events that happened. Readers will connect more with your story if they can relate to it emotionally—which means the feelings need to be there in all their glory and horror, right on the page. And they’ll sense the honesty with which you tell the story if you are aware of your feelings and include them in your memoir writing. It’s in the craft of writing—the process of rewriting, and rewriting again—that we sculpt those feelings into prose that moves, that makes readers think, that offers a path to a new understanding and a broader perspective.

Yet the feelings can be completely overwhelming at times. When you’re overcome with emotion, it means that something in your psyche needs your attention, needs some space to express itself, to let go of some past experience so you can become more fully yourself, more free in your interaction with the world. So it’s in your best interest to face your feelings, to ask them what they want to tell you. Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, calls this “sitting with the feelings.” Whether they bring tears or anger, expressing those feelings—even if you’re alone—will clear your mind and heal your body. And you’ll find that, once expressed, it’s easier to put them into your writing so that your words affect others on a profound emotional level.

memoir-emotion, writing and healing, storytelling and healing, writing and emotions, using emotions in writingWhile I was writing my memoir The Box of Daughter: Overcoming a Legacy of Emotional Abuse, I had to stop countless times to grab a box of Kleenex or to take a sofa cushion and shake it, shake it, shake it to release my anger. Tearing up newspaper is another great method for releasing anger, as is chopping wood or yanking weeds if you have the option. This is the marvelous, healing catharsis of writing memoir. Always, when the emotion is fully expressed, your mind will be more clear, and you’ll learn something new about yourself or your situation. And always, always ask for help if you need it, if the emotions become too overwhelming over a long period of time. Clearing the emotional clog is serious work, and sometimes people need a lot of support in the process. I know I did.

Don’t be afraid to spill all of that emotion into your writing. Let the anger, the pain, the angst at the human condition fly out of you and become your story of truth. You can always go back and edit, correct, delete later. Let it all out, and then shape the story the way you want it to be told. Right now, the world needs all the emotional truth it can get.

storytelling, writing and healing, writing, memoir writing, how to write a memoir, coping with emotion during writing

Katherine Mayfield is the author of The Box of Daughter: Overcoming a Legacy of Emotional Abuse. (Currently available through the Kindle store on Amazon.)

She blogs on her website at www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Grace Peterson November 13, 2011 at

I wish I would have gotten this advice years ago when my emotions were completely out of control. I couldn’t understand what was going on and only after 4 years of therapy did things begin to make sense. Great post!

Katherine Mayfield November 14, 2011 at

I know what you mean. When we grow up in a family where we can’t express feelings, they can really blast out once we start acknowledging them. But I’d rather be an aware person with feelings than the robot I was brought up to be.
Thanks for your kind words!

Anj November 20, 2011 at

Excellent advice for anyone attempting to write personally charged material in any genre. The extra payoff is how cathartic it is to put it all on the page no matter the form: journal, poetry, essay, memoir, etc…

Cynthia Briggs November 20, 2011 at

Great post!
I have two comments:
1) My dad had been gone for twelve years before I was able to begin writing a 1000 word story about his passion for salmon fishing. It took me months to complete the brief story while going through boxes of tissue and frequently sobbing at my keyboard. All of it was happy, sweet remembrances but it tore me up.
2) Similar to you, I was teaching my first memoir writing (extension) class at a local community college. One young lady attended the first class, and then tore out early clearly upset. She refused to return to the class. I called her and tried to coax her into returning and perhaps work on some surface issues to begin. etc. I didn’t have any luck persuading her, which was unfortunate because she was an excellent writer. There was too much going on with her for me to handle and I knew that. At any rate, I got the message, she never returned to class.
During that same class one man often broke down while reading his wonderfully heartfelt stories about going to baseball games at Wrigley Field with his father and brother when he was a youngster.
We made a lot of progress, but it was sometimes awkward, sad, heart-wrenching, etc.
One night late into the class series, I was telling my husband the emotional experiences that were taking place in class. He gave me an odd look and said, “Did you tell tell them you don’t have a PhD in Psychology?” It totally cracked me up!
Over all the class was a true eye opener for me regarding how putting pen to paper seems to open a flood gate of emotion for most of us. I definitely learned as much or more than my students.
Cynthia Briggs

Katherine Mayfield November 22, 2011 at

Thank you for your kind words! You’re right — writing is very cathartic — and I really appreciate the fact that it helps us learn about ourselves and our relationship with the world. As I say to my students, “Keep writing!”

Katherine Mayfield November 22, 2011 at

That’s exactly what happened in my memoir writing class. Some writers want to dig into the emotion that comes up; some don’t. Sometimes the classes tend to turn into group therapy, and it’s hard to keep the students focused on the writing. But what’s important is that we’re all learning about ourselves and relating on an honest, heartfelt level.

Thanks for your encouragement!

Sherrey November 22, 2011 at

Our life stories as daughters sound so similar. I’m currently writing my story of abuse and its impact on my life, and yes, I find some memories very difficult to confront. However, now I can respond verbally or in the written word if I wish . . . I can finally express my feelings!

Katherine Mayfield November 28, 2011 at

I can relate — it’s so freeing to finally be able to express emotion after having it bottled up for so many decades! I support you 100%!

I think many daughters have had the same experience. It’s funny — we talk about women’s roles, and mother’s roles, and how they affect our lives, but we haven’t yet reached the point where we can talk about the role of the daughter in families. I look forward to that — I imagine it’ll be a very interesting conversation.

Helen Rousseau April 9, 2012 at

I absolutely loved this book and could identify with so much of it. I had a borderline partner and my reaction, feelings, self-doubt, etc, were all the same as Katherine wrote about. She is an exceptional writer who brings you into her story, not with pity, but with understanding and compassion. Her healing journey is inspirational

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