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Writing About Trauma: What Memoir Is and Isn’t

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

A woman is seen from behind with her arms raised in triumph is standing on a mountain top.

I have done a deep dive into memoir for the past couple of years. As a freelance editor, I chose memoir, a subcategory of creative nonfiction, as my niche specialty because I was enthralled by the idea of helping people tell fascinating stories from their lives that would inform and inspire.

As an editor, once I get past explaining the difference between memoir and autobiography—autobiography is a story of a life; memoir is a story from a life—my experience has been that prospective memoir writers ask a variety of questions that largely fall into two categories:

1. Getting sued: Can I get sued for talking badly about someone, even if it’s true?

2. Writing about trauma: I have experienced a lot of pain/trauma/abuse. How much detail should I go into?

Regarding the legal liability associated with writing a memoir, let me refer you to a blog post of mine, Memoir and Law: Understanding Defamation and Invasion of Privacy. I wrote this article because worries about libel and other legal matters seem to dominate the conversations in memoir writing groups. I’m not going to elaborate on this subject any further here. Just check out the blog post.

The second topic, addressing trauma and pain, is brought up often, as well. Since I have never written about this, that’s what this article focuses on.

Understand the Purpose of Memoir

Let’s start by defining what a memoir is, to get a true understanding of its purpose. Using the words of author and memoir-expert Marion Roach Smith.

Memoir is not about what you did.
Memoir is about what you did with it.

Take a minute or two to think about these statements because understanding the distinction is key to knowing when the time is right for you to write a memoir.

Here is another of Roach Smith’s teachings that I’ve quoted before.

A memoir is a story about something you know after something you’ve been through.

A writer’s ability to comprehend this description is vital to produce a memoir about a person readers will come to empathize with and root for—you.

Memoir Is Not a Bummer Genre

A criticism often slapped onto memoir is that it is a trauma-based genre, all about pain, heartache, abuse, disappointment, failure, bad judgment, and missed opportunities. And, sadly, the book market is chock full of memoirs that bear out that criticism. Those winners of the Trauma Olympics give the genre a bad name and frighten many readers away.

Folks, the fact is, great memoir is more than the documentation of traumatic experiences. Period. If that’s all you’ve got—"Something terrible happened to me and I want to write about it”—you are not ready to author a memoir. Please hear me out.

Here are what a few memoir authors and editors have to say:

[A memoir] must be about something of universal interest that this person [the subject of the memoir] illustrates. ~~Marion Roach Smith

[Memoir] works when there is distance between what you experienced and your self-understanding, which is more important than simply recalling the experiences. ~~Dena Taylor, May 2014, shewritespress.

The now perspective is what makes memoir different from fiction; you explain how the story shaped you by weaving together the then and now. ~~Cindi Michael, December 2016, Writer’s Digest. (I talked about the importance of having a now in your memoir in my guest blog post for The Cheerful Word, Most Common Memoir Writing Mistakes.)

Memoir is about transcendence. You have learned from your experience and you are sharing what you learned. ~~Marion Roach Smith (Yes, again. She’s the queen.)

How Much Is Too Much?

This is the question. Some budding memoirists seem to think that they must drag readers through every second of whatever horrible experiences they have endured. They ask, “How can the reader possibly understand what I’ve been through if I don’t spell it out in explicit detail?” Well, give the readers some credit; skillful writing can transfer a plethora of detail subtly. Strive for intimation not information. Sentences that hint at and insinuate trauma can be more powerful and haunting than those that bludgeon our sensibilities.

And, here again, remember, the purpose is not to document your trauma, but to share the healing and insight you have arrived at.

I Have Nothing but Pain

Memoir writing is not therapy. A memoir is not a therapeutic journal. Simply re-living painful events in your life and calling it a memoir is not helpful to you nor is it a source of comfort or inspiration to a reader. Immersing yourself and the reader in the awful details of a traumatic event does not make for good reading, especially if there is no “But here’s what I learned and how I have transcended this experience” moment.

Think of it this way—you are the main character of your story. A novel that ends with the main character failing to have an “a-ha” moment, not developing courage and self-awareness, and never making something good come from something bad would be a pretty shitty novel.

What Else Can I Do?

A memoir is not how you work through trauma. But writing about trauma is an excellent way to get it in perspective and begin to move forward. If you are still grappling with a painful event, still in the grips of the hurt and confusion of it, work through your feelings by journaling, writing a series of personal essays, or starting a personal blog.

When you get to a point of self-realization and self-esteem—and you will—turn that insight into a memoir that serves as an inspiration to others.

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.

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I like the quote, "Memoir is about what you did with it."

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