Guest Blog on How Are You Different after Completing a Memoir

Continuing on the theme of How are you different after writing a memoir, memoirist and blogger for the Huffington Post  Diana M. Raab has written a guest blog.  Thank-you, Diana!

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. This is how I feel about having written and published two memoirs. I will never be the same. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal was inspired by my bout with depression in 2001, following my cancer diagnosis. I wanted to learn about the origins of my grandmother’s suicide, which occurred when I was ten years old. I was curious about her state of mind prior to taking her life, and hoped that her journal would offer some useful information. The journey into the details of my grandmother’s story disclosed that she had a very tormented life. My research taught me that a life filled with war, loss, divorce, and ongoing misery, could lead to emotional issues such as depression and suicide.

During the writing process, I realized that the traumas of our childhoods could take decades to cause havoc on our psyche. Typically, children are very resilient. As a ten-year-old I shrugged off her death, but when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of forty-seven, and began a battle with my demons and mortality, I began to understand some of my grandmother’s torment.

The most difficult aspect of writing my memoir was figuring out how to structure the story. I must have tried six different ways before arriving at the final published version. The book’s structure evolved into a weaving of our two stories, incorporating the pages of her journal that were found in her closet forty years following her death. Ultimately, the memoirist needs to keep revising until the structure is organic to the story. It helps to have mentors or early readers who have some distance from the subject because after a while, the structure and characters may become a blur to the writer. What was interesting was that my initial structure choice was the one that was used in the published version. Sometimes our first idea is right on.

While writing my memoir, I acknowledged and consequently had to reveal some painful truths about my mother who is still alive. As much as my instinct told me to leave her out of the book, so as not to hurt her feelings, early reviewers suggested that she needed to be included because she was the link between my grandmother and me. It was a risk, but in the end I have no regrets about sharing my own emotional truths regarding my narcissistic mother, who eventually read the book and acknowledged its candor. There were no rebuttals or grudges. In fact, for the first time in my life, my mother expressed that she was proud of me for writing the book, and she admitted that my grandmother would also have been proud and honored.

An important aspect of writing memoir is to remember that we are writing about our own emotional truth, not that of others. What also helped me dig deep was being in psychotherapy for a number of years. Although the writing assisted me in making sense of my past and my grandmother’s tortuous life as an orphan during World War I, my therapist also helped me realize that I was not the cause of her death. The nature of her childhood contributed to her torment. My therapist reminded me that we are not responsible for anyone’s actions other than our own.

My second memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey did not erupt as easily. I never wanted to be identified as a cancer victim. I wanted to be considered a survivor who dealt with her cancer and then moved on with her life, dreams, and aspirations. I feared that writing my story would submerge me deeper into the pain of the mastectomy and reconstruction. The reason I ventured to write this book is because of friends and colleagues encouraged me to do so saying that it would help others. I trusted and honored their sensibilities. Once I surrendered to the idea, the book was written quickly and effortlessly. Unlike Regina’s Closet, the structure was chronological. Although it was not easy to reprocess painful moments, in the end I was proud to have written and published this book, especially after receiving many positive reviews and hearing how many women and families it helped.

In both my memoirs, I admit to having embellished some sections. For example, when describing my grandmother’s childhood home in Poland, I researched what the homes looked like during that time in history, and had to fictionalize the street. Having an appropriate setting helped set the platform for writing her story. I think memoir writers need to do this in order to write compelling stories. Even in situations when we were present, it is also sometimes difficult to remember all the details from events that occurred decades prior. Sometimes we just have to use our imagination while crafting the story. There have been instances where the writer shows the memoir to another family member or loved one who encountered the same experiences and they recall scenarios quite differently. The memoirist must acknowledge differences and remember they are writing what they remember about the story through their own eyes, no one else’s. It is the writer’s emotional truth that is most important, and embodying that truth in the writing is what will make the memoir a compelling and powerful read.

Diana Raab,