Two tips on “dealing with the dark”

My APH colleague Sharon Waldman wrote me recently to say,

I just read your essay about the “Reminiscence Bump,” which is a phenomenon that I had never heard of. Thanks for discussing it! I don’t find that my memoir writing students focus only on their youth, though. They’re pretty realistic about their lives and write about all ages, phases, and events, whether happy or sad. We’re either laughing or crying in class all the time….

Anyway, I wanted to ask you if you’ve written anything about dealing with “the dark” side? You mention techniques to help the writer go “into the cave of memory” and come back safely….

Just wondered if you could share any enlightenment with me on the subject.

Sharon’s question got me thinking. For all the chipper tips I might dispense, there’s no avoiding the fact that writing about dark stuff is usually a depressing task.

Here’s the answer I wrote back to Sharon.

 Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life as Story has some useful advice on “dealing with the dark.”  The two tips I “preach”–one from Rainer’s book, the other from some forgotten source–both relate to a fundamental thought. Do not attempt this work without support.

1. “Leave a light on for yourself.” Tell a supportive friend what you’re doing and tell him or her to call you in a set period of time (2-3 hours?) to bring you out of it. Make a plan to do something fun together to bring you back into your present. Don’t leave yourself open to perseverating on the difficult memories stirred up after your working session is over.

2. Remind yourself of your strengths. Make a list of “spots of light” (that came from Rainer) — moments during the dark period you’re writing about when you experienced joy, beauty, quiet…. Keep the list handy and refer to it before, during, and after the difficult writing work.

Both are useful ways to stay attached to the “you” who controls the telling of the dark story. That said, when I’ve actually tried to work on “dark stuff” of my own, I’ve found my advice only moderately helpful. Once the memories are up and stirring, they stalk me for days, making me absent-minded and moody. No cure for that but ice cream, romance, or a trip to Italy.  😉

So. Why go there at all?

On a technical level, a memoir need the “dark stuff” for drama. A story that’s all emotional highs can seem like a flat plateau. (Boring.) But there are other reasons to visit the dark side besides mining it for drama. Writing about the stuff that hurts you can help you find healing. When you understand its meaning, its contribution to your life’s story, you may finding forgiveness coming along with the new insights. Sometimes others need to know what we’ve experienced, because the story has the potential to inspire or teach. By writing your down your “dark” you may be bringing back the boon, the vision-quester’s gift that transforms her from child into adult member of her community.

Only you know when it’s time to “go there” and when it’s time to let it be. When it’s time to go, leave a light on.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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