Difficult Memories: Finding Voice and Grace in the “Hard Stuff”

How do we handle the hard stuff in our life stories? How do we write about the memories that are controversial, painful, or just no fun to remember? We'll practice writing techniques that strengthen our voices and reveal the grace and wisdom to be found even in hard times.

That's the description of "Difficult Memories," the workshop I'll be teaching at Story Circle Network's Stories From the Heart V Conference, in Austin, Texas, February 5 – 7, 2010. 

When I proposed the workshop last spring, I was thinking about my process in writing my memoir, Walking Nature Home, and my struggle to find the wisdom in the painful and outright hard parts of my own story. When I wrote the first few drafts of that book, I was still angry and hurt by some of my experiences. Writing out my feelings was therapeutic, but didn't result in particularly good memoir.

In fact, some of the initial drafts are so bad that re-reading them is more than embarrassing. It took me decades–and many rewrites–before I learned to chip away at the narrative to find the gift of gold in the hard stuff, before I found the grace to tell my story in a way that was respectful, honest, and compelling. When I finally did, reading the story was exciting instead of painful. It finally felt right–and I felt good about writing it.


Here's an example of finding voice and grace in the hard stuff, from the first chapter of Walking Nature Home:

That Labor Day weekend, we went backpacking with friends and an early fall snowstorm moved in. All I remember from those three days is a steady rain of wet, white flakes falling silently, muffling forest and lake and rock, pressing down on the roof of our small tent until I felt like I would suffocate. On the long drive out, even the cab of our pickup truck seemed to have shrunk. I looked over at Kent and said,

“I need space. I think we should separate.”

His jaw clenched hard, but he didn’t turn his eyes from the gravel road. “You’ll be dead first.”

I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor. 

Those four paragraphs paint a vivid picture of the disintegration of my first marriage, conveying the salient points without portraying every gory detail. The last line shows how dramatic paring events down to their essence can be: "I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor."

There's obviously a lot more I could have said. That chapter did in fact originally include much more material, all of it vivid and dramatic in its own right.

Over time as I worked on the memoir though, I realized that this particular part of the story had come to "weigh" so much that it disturbed the overall balance. Writing out the intimate details of the disintegration of my first marriage may have helped me come to peace with my decisions, but it distracted from the larger point, a love story on several levels: me learning to love myself, the loving bond I found with my second husband, Richard, and the love of nature, the community of species with whom we share this planet, that sustained me through those years and still does.

As I re-visited the painful story of my first marriage, my ability to tell the story well grew as I grew as a person. I can't say which came first: my ability to understand myself or my ability to write the hard stuff with clarity and grace. But I know that we grew together, that memoir and me. 

Now I need every bit of that clarity and grace as my beloved Richard and I walk hand in hand through the "hard stuff" of his brain cancer. I know my practice in learning to tell the sometimes painful and traumatic stories that make up Walking Nature Home is helping me keep my balance today, both in writing and life. Wrestling with difficult memories not only taught me how to write a story that novelist Sandra Dallas recently hailed as "a moving story… filled with hope and joy," it also taught me how to make a hopeful, joyous life–no matter what comes.

5 responses to “Difficult Memories: Finding Voice and Grace in the “Hard Stuff”

  1. that was nice to read the story.. that was really nice to read that .. that was great…i like that.. great job…

  2. Susan,
    Clarity, grace, wisdom, joy…before we can apply techniques and write a shapely, powerful memoir, we write in layers and draw on these inner springs.
    These are good lessons for any hard times and any writing project.
    May you and Richard continue to walk your life in grace, wisdom, clarity, and joy.

  3. Janet, I love the word “shapely” for a memoir! You always add something interesting to the discussion. Thank you for that, and for your lovely wish for Richard and me!

  4. I read your book. I am still impressed with how rich your words and phrases are. I felt enriched by your words and your story. I am going to read your book again just to learn more about expressing myself.

  5. Hi Susan,
    When I teach writing as healing, I run into this–as people find it hard at first to go beyond “the gory details” because “that’s what really happened.” Your example and discussion show how important time and all the levels of writing are to the healing and the publishing process. I’m so looking forward to meeting you in Austin again. We were at the summer conference in San Marcos a couple years ago! I’m enjoying your blog very much, and wish you and your husband the best for this holiday.

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