Brittany Foster is a freelance writer and editor living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Publishing from Toronto Metropolitan University and is a student in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College. She’s also writing her first book — a memoir titled You, Me, and the Tree. You’ll find her writing or editing bylines in a wide variety of publications, including a short story anthology, a Canadian historical fiction trilogy, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Expert-Backed Tips for Approaching Sensitive Subject Matter
Memoir is one of the most recognizable and popular forms of creative nonfiction. And what makes a memoir worth reading is how interesting, adverse, or powerful the author’s life story is. To craft a compelling and engaging personal narrative, a writer must not only walk readers through the good, but also the bad.
Sometimes, this means reliving and recreating trauma, as well as navigating the depths of publishing sensitive material.
So, how do you approach writing about trauma in a memoir while maintaining your mental and emotional health? Learn four of the most common tips from experienced memoirists below.
1. Focus On Your Why
76% of Canadians surveyed report having experienced trauma during their lifetime.
As such, it’s no surprise that many memoirists are plagued by self-doubt, especially considering the emotional costs of writing about trauma. But many find the inspiration to power through by keeping their “why” at the forefront.
Kelly S. Thompson, author of Girls Need Not Apply, and Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, both wrote deeply personal memoirs that encompassed trauma they had experienced in the past. And both found power in purpose.
Thompson shares, “I quickly realized that what had stopped me from writing about my female military experience was that I felt I didn’t have a right to—I caved to that old masculinized adage that to be a veteran, I had to have been in a war zone or have served for thirty years.”
When asked why she wrote her book, Thompson said, “The short answer is that without speaking out, change will never come.”
Walls was similarly motivated: “[…] she hopes that her book gives hope to kids like her.”
Keeping the “why” in mind — in Thompson’s and Walls’ cases, giving a voice to those who don’t have one or shedding on light common experiences that are rarely discussed — will give you perspective and help you to keep self-doubt at bay.
2. Write With Honesty and Compassion
It goes without saying that writing nonfiction means writing about real places and events. But there’s more to it than that. As Tara Westover says, “In telling your own story, you’re going to have to tell other people’s stories.”
That means that you will have to do your best to recreate events as accurately as possible, even if it means writing about a traumatic memory where a specific character is at fault or cast in a bad light.
Besides using sources and resources to confirm and back up your memories, the trick to writing about sensitive and painful topics is to stick to the truth as best you can. Not just when it comes to hard facts, but the people in your story as well.
For some authors, that means writing happy scenes and traumatic ones with the same characters. In Educated, Tara Westover recreates a variety of complicated interactions with her brother. In one scene, they’re laughing together. In another, he’s forcing her head into a toilet.
Still, Westover was careful to only include memories that were relevant to the narrative, and that served the overall purpose of the story arc, saying, “I didn’t put it in there if it didn’t need to be.”
This honesty — the portrayal of both good and bad — is what gives characters depth and adds to the story’s credibility and relatability.
3. Embrace Healthy Disassociation
Reliving traumatic memories is triggering. Especially for writers who suffer from mental health issues related to their past experiences. That makes writing about trauma particularly difficult. However, some authors recommend disassociating as a coping mechanism.
When asked about how she navigates revisiting trauma, Stephanie Foo, author of What My Bones Know, says, “[…] dissociation, baby.”
But what exactly does that mean for memoirists? Writing about your experiences objectively and blending the roles of observer and participant.
Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, Hunger, and Difficult Women, says of writing about sexual assault, “I took a long time to write about my sexual assault because I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t want people to know something so intimate and something so painful. And then I started to think, ‘It’s been so long. Let it go.’”
Disassociation, or at least, separating yourself from the trauma enough that you feel comfortable writing about it, may also mean finding support outside of yourself in the form of support groups or therapy, or even through writing itself.
4. Leave Things Out
While a memoir should be truthful, it isn’t an autobiography.
You have to be deliberate about the memories you choose to include — and omit.
If a memory doesn’t propel the narrative arc, give insight into a character, or serve a purpose other than dramatic flair, you will need to ask yourself whether it’s worth including.
Cea Sunrise Person spent six years writing North of Normal and wrote 25-30 drafts trying to determine which memories to include, saying, “I actually did NOT reveal all.”
And Jeannette Walls took 20 years to craft a version of The Glass Castle she felt comfortable with.
If you don’t feel ready to confront sensitive subject matter in your memoir, it’s OK to ask yourself whether it’s important to the story. If it is, you’ll need to explore your options when it comes to writing it into your book. Such as taking more time to process it, seeking professional help, or discussing it with peers.
But, if it isn’t, it’s fine to keep it to yourself. Remember, if your book is published, you will inevitably have to answer questions about your story — including trauma.
Tackling Trauma with Tact
The elements that make a memoir engaging and compelling are often the hardest to write about. But recreating traumatic experiences in your writing can help to add depth, relatability, and honesty to your story.
Focus on your why to give your story purpose, write with honesty and compassion to create three-dimensional characters, process your trauma so that you can write about it with perspective, and deliberately choose what you put on the page.