Memoir: how to deal with emotional overload

When writing memoir, it is inevitable that emotions will rise to the surface as we describe both happy and sad memories. Sometimes writing memoir stirs the caldron of unresolved emotions. Rage, guilt, shame, hurt, and fear can all surge back immediately, even if we have done everything we can to heal, from therapy to moving on to a new life. While sifting through the details of the past, we may suddenly have revelations that shed new light on our motivations and personalities, and on others as well. These revelations can range from shame or embarrassment at choices we made or our naiveté or culpability, anger at ourselves that we didn’t act on our inner guidance, anger at others for mistreatment or ignorance of our suffering, regret that we didn’t make wiser choices or ask for help, or forgiveness of our innocence and youthful ignorance, and understanding or tenderness towards ourselves and others.

 Scientists who examined the brain discovered that the center of memory lies close to the center of emotion, and that reading sensual details of smell, taste, sound, sight and touch trigger the brain to believe the sensations are real. Logically, it makes senses that these sensations register as real when we write about them as much as when we read about them. Your body retains cellular memoires that can be triggered by writing your experiences on the page.

So what can we do? We want to write from a place of telling our stories, not seeking revenge, as victors, not as victims. The place for expelling the emotional turmoil is in our journal but for readers, we want our reflections to resonate: what the past means, what lessons we have learned, the wisdom we wish to impart.

It is important to take care of ourselves as surprisingly, these emotional states can arise again and again in different ways and in different levels of intensity as we progress from writing to rewrites and through further revisions. The emotions may change: we may no longer feel softened by the naiveté of our younger self, we may feel anger or regret that we had not felt before, the injustices we suffered may be more blatant or relationships may take on nuances we hadn’t noticed when we were just getting the story down.


Taking care of ourselves on several levels:

  • walk or do yoga or dance, hang out in nature, feel the sun on your face or sit by a body of water, have a massage, cuddle or have sex, eat healthy foods. Any activity that occupies your immediate attention and gives you a break from over-thinking can help soothe and restore
  • talk with a trusted friend or counselor, read uplifting messages, express love for family and friends, feel heard, discuss other topics, laugh
  • create and repeat positive affirmations, participate in a  spiritual community, sing, chant or listen to music, meditate and pray: quiet the mind down
  • make art or visit a museum: being inspired by others’ work will raise your vibration


Other possibilities:

  • write a letter to someone you admire, expressing your admiration and gratitude
  • write a letter to someone in your writing world (a writing partner, an imaginary agent or editor, a writer you admire) explaining what you are working on and your intended goals
  • write a letter to a reader, explaining why you need to write your story


Keep a blessing journal:

  • Every day write down three blessings. Note any blessings such as a friend called, a new book to read, a good meal, a cleaned kitchen, a gorgeous sunset, an inspiring poem, help with a project, a favorite song, a great parking spot, the bus on time, a smile from a stranger
  • If the material is too hard to write, write in third person and/or turn it into fiction.

 You can go back and rewrite in first person memoir. Sometimes we need to the distance of third person to get our emotions on the page. Turning it fiction will give us permission to explore other points of view and perspectives.

  • Write your story with a successful outcome or amazing synchronicities or with the ending you dream of.

Give yourself a break from the dissection of your self to the vision of what you can be. I once threw a “Come as you want to be” party. I arrived dressed up for my trip to accept the Nobel Prize. Even though it was a fantasy, it gave me momentum to keep going at a time when I felt discouraged. The Nobel Prize may be out of reach but I published two books of poetry and have performed for hundreds of audience members, have won four grants and have been able to teach in prisons and non-profits, schools and healing centers. Besides publishing in literary journals and anthologies, I had an article published in Poets & Writes magazine and I have been a community editor for the Saint Paul Almanac.

Come as you want to be as you rewrite your work: wiser, stronger, happier, beloved, and doing what you love to do. Keep your vision of your published book in your hand, your audience enthralled. Imagine the questions your interviewer will ask. Know that you have a story to tell that will open hearts and minds. 

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • . i do not remember the war .
  • 5 Things to Consider When Writing One Story in...
  • February Guest Editor: Mia Sosa
  • From Notifications to Nature: How Writers Block out...
  • Karma Brown on Discipline, Process & Patience
  • What is Life Really About?

No comments yet