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Apr 15, 2013
11:19 AM
From Memory to Memoir

Should You Include the “Dark Stuff” in Your Memoir?

Should You Include the “Dark Stuff” in Your Memoir?

If you show your reader a happy morning without also showing the dark night of the soul it followed, you deprive them of the chance to fully understand your life.

In an earlier post I encouraged you to start with the branching points that are pleasant to recall and write about. But at some point, you’ll probably find you need to write the "dark stuff" as well. This can be uncomfortable, even upsetting. But this is where the work of finding meaning in your life truly takes place.

Why would you include unhappy moods, unpleasant people, disastrous experiences, in your memoir? There are several good reasons to do so.

On a purely technical level, you need the “dark stuff” for drama. A story without emotional highs and lows will be boring. To give your memoir more "topography," borrow a technique used by visual artists: chiaroscuro.

The term refers to using distribution of light and shade in a picture to more expressively represent the seen world. The most common example is the pastel sketch artist who starts with a sheet of medium gray paper, then uses light and dark crayons to give that flat plane dimensions. This is what we do with words when we include both light and dark in our memoirs. Use details in your writing that bring out these tonal contrasts.

Besides the technical need for drama, there are other reasons to include the "dark stuff." But writing about it forces us to revisit in our minds—as vividly as we possibly can—scenes that were unpleasant enough the first time around. This can be traumatic. To bother with such difficult work demands a good reason. Here is why I feel writing the "dark stuff" is important:

  • Healing: Writing about the difficulties you’ve endured can be tremendously cathartic. If you find your mind returning to an uncomfortable memory like picking at a scab, you know writing that story is work you need to do.
  • Meaning-finding: As you review the "dark stuff" of your experiences, you will likely discover new insights. Writing about your worst experiences can help you find your core strengths.
  • Helping others: Sometimes you write about "dark stuff" just to shine a light into a subject that would otherwise go unexamined. Your troubles may have potential to inspire or teach, if shared with others.

These are all good reasons to write the "dark stuff."

When you reach the revision stage, you can decide what to include in your final manuscript. Out of respect for others’ feelings you may decide to omit some of what you’ve written. Maybe writing about it was enough—no need to publicly air dirty laundry. On the other hand, you may decide you want to include some of the "dark stuff"—for literary reasons or to pass along insights for the benefit of your readers.

Stories that show your resilience are the most important gift you can give your descendants. By sharing the story of your positive moments and your ability to bounce back from difficult ones, you show others what you have learned about how to live.

Photo: Sarah White camping in her backyard in 1961.

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About This Blog

Sarah White, author and personal historian, has written for a variety of markets ranging from business “how-to” books to consumer advice for teens. She applies her professional writing experience to help individuals preserve their life stories through workshops, community projects and one-to-one coaching. Born into a writing family, White graduated from Indiana University in 1980 with a Journalism degree. She has been a professional freelance writer since 1998. Her memoir essays have been published online and in print. She has taught memoir writing locally since 2004, helping dozens of individuals to complete and publish their life stories. She is active in the Association of Personal Historians (www.personalhistorians.org), currently serving as the organization's president. 

 Sarah White

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