Writing about difficult topics (and ebook anthology sale)

I can’t sleep. There’s a dog barking on and on and the room is cold and I’m too tired to get up and close the window.

I’m on a do-it-yourself writing residency in Tucson. I’ll write a post soon about the advantages and disadvantages of arranging your own residency, in your own location.

First, though, I’m freaking out a bit. It’s late at night and dark and I’m staying at a sublease house that’s comfortable and cozy yet far from home.

Right now, I want to give up, stop writing, go out and find a regular job, wear tights and skirts and pull my hair back into a sensible bun (how does one pull one’s hair back into a sensible bun, I wonder?) and do something, anything but write.

I’m here in Tucson because it’s one of the last places I spent with my sister, who died almost fourteen years ago from complications due to an eating disorder.

She was my second oldest sister, and for a year, when we were all young and beautiful but unaware of our own beauty, my oldest sister, my sister and I lived in Tucson.

We were at messy crossroads in our lives, and we all pretended to be happier than we were.

Yet even that unhappiness shadowed moments of great awe.

The monsoons came in July, the sky clouding over each afternoon and then the rains, abruptly, almost without warning, water falling from the sky like a gift. And the way it smelled, fresh and clean, almost sweet. I’d ride my bike out of town, run through the sand, my shoes kicked off, that wet earth sucking my toes. It was exhilarating, to be so wet, skin cold, face lifted to the sky.

I’m rewriting a memoir titled Hunger Prayers. I initially wrote it about ten years ago and it was almost picked up by HarperCollins. An editor requested edits, which I f**ked up. I tried too hard to change the story, to make it what I thought an editor in New York would like instead of staying authentic to my own voice. I was insecure; I didn’t trust my instincts, or myself.

After that, I put the book away and tried to forget about it. Oh, I mentioned it from time to time: “I’ll have to get my memoir back out,” I’d say. Then I’d eat expensive chocolate and try to forget about it some more.

It’s easy to put aside that which means the most, isn’t it?

Then my dog died and I sat with her dead body for an evening in front of the window, the moon shining down upon her beautiful and dead face.

A few weeks later I was in Tucson.

I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be writing about my sister, even after all of this time. I hadn’t realized how many messy emotions would swim up: Anger, guilt, grief, shame, sorrow, depression, sadness–I’ve experienced them all within the past two weeks.

What’s more difficult is trying to decipher what is actual memory and what is merely wishful thinking. It’s easy to recreate the past, we do it all of the time.

According to Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, memoir is a story of memory.

In an interview with Wow–Women on Writing , she says:

“We tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. But science has now shown that we do not record our experiences the way a camera records them.

Our memories work differently. We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”

What this means, she explains, is that people remember the same event differently.

“…a memoirist’s obligation is to be honest with the reader,” she says. “Honesty is not necessarily the same as factual truth, verified objectively. Honesty requires you to tell the reader what you remember, tell the reader when you are speculating about how it might have been, and be upfront with the reader when you simply can not know, but have always imagined it was this way or that way…”

Great stuff, no? Just writing it has snapped me out of my funk. So thank you, Judith. And please know that wherever you are, there’s an Alaska writer huddled in a small house on a dead-end street in Tucson who has drawn great comfort from your words.

Note: One of my pieces from Carol Tice’s very popular Make a Living Writing Website is included in her upcoming ebook, 40 Freelance Writers Share How They Find Clients, Stay Motivated and Earn Well Today. It’s on pre-sale right now for just $1.99. Check it out here.


9 thoughts on “Writing about difficult topics (and ebook anthology sale)

  1. What a powerful and haunting place to work on your story. And how frustrating to have come so close before, only to be led astray by an editor who’s supposed to guide you through the process. I know you’ll work through it this time!


  2. Cinthia, I wish I could take some of that pain away. But maybe you need it to help you write this book, I don’t know. I hope the writing process does that for you, and that you are happy with the new version of the memoir when it is finished. Take care of yourself. And thanks for sharing Judith Barrington’s powerful words, too.


  3. Thanks so, so much, Lynn. I think at this point that the pain is very necessary, even vital though it doesn’t make it any easier. I also adore Barrington. I clutch her book as if it were a Bible and in a sense, it is. Cheers and happy writing.


  4. Some of my favorite and most honest writing has come from the most painful moments in my life. It sounds like Tucson is the perfect place to revise your memoir (and run in the sunshine!). I know I’m dying to read it.


    1. Thanks, Karen! Thank god I have running, it’s about the only thing keeping me sane. And oh, such runs! I’m heading back out to the mountains and canyons this weekend and cannot wait. Hope you two have equally lovely runs, which I’m sure you will. Cheers and take care.


  5. I’ve had that experience where writing a blog post, working through difficult emotions, led to some release. I love this from Judith’s book: “Honesty is not necessarily the same as factual truth, verified objectively.” I’ve often thought I could not write a memoir because I have such a god-awful memory … so many holes, and I’ve already had those arguments with family about whether I remember an event “correctly.” But being reminded that it’s honesty that counts in memoir, not factual reporting, really helps. Memoir is not journalism, it is not even nonfiction. It’s a story, one person’s remembrance of times past. And sometimes I think we draw truth out of an event or a past experience when we look back and remember than when we simply try to record.
    Hope you’re writing like the devil now 😉


  6. Hey Lady!
    I’m so glad I stumbled into a bit of blog catch-up (while not updating my own). Wonderful to read your wry/acute/poignant/wise words; you make my heart do all sorts of things, and the temperature of my skin.
    I’m glad because it’s good to know some of your Tucson backstory and around your sister. I hope we can talk about some of that.
    And I glimmed your previous post too–thanks so much for the shoutout!
    much love,


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