“Nothing between my heart and the world…” On writing out our experiences

I am still buzzing after spending Saturday morning listening to Patricia Debney talk about the challenges – and benefits – of writing memoir as part of the first meeting of the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. One of the things Patricia said was that, when she was writing her memoir of her childhood, even though the memories she was writing about were not unknown, it was only in the process of writing that she came into a position of ‘knowing’.

Now I’ve heard that before – I will even say I write to understand things – but Patricia went on to define this more closely. She understood through writing what real ‘knowing’ was, not because she got the facts down, but because she had never before really assigned or clarified the emotion held inside those memories for her.

I find this fascinating. We tend to think of it the other way round – that we write to relieve ourselves of a particular emotion – grief, or loneliness, say – rather than write to understand what we are feeling. But of course it makes sense that feeling follows articulation. And once we can have a clear grip of that, then we can understand better what has happened to us. It isn’t about just the facts.

Her understanding, she said, comes with pen in hand, and never from merely thinking about what had happened. I love this – to write yourself into a place of realisation.

And because we tend often to think of any kind of therapeutic writing as writing about a place of pain, it was interesting to hear Patricia say that the more she wrote about the goodness of her grandparents, and the more she understood what this had meant to her, ‘the better it became.’

Real deep ‘knowing’.

Another take on writers transforming their experience into creative gold is shown in this superb video from Clare Best about how she evolved her personal story of a double mastectomy into her poetry collection Excisions. I am still stunned by Clare’s realisation that ‘there was nothing between my heart and the world.’ Beautiful. As is she.

Self-Portrait without Breasts, Poems by Clare Best with Photographs by Laura Stevens from MLC on Vimeo.

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3 thoughts on ““Nothing between my heart and the world…” On writing out our experiences

  1. I find the process of writing often throws up more depth and complexity than I expect. I’ve been doing some memoir writing and while I thought it would just be a case of writing down memories I’ve found I’ve delved much deeper into the process of examining what memory is, how it works, why we need memories and of course the personal quirks of my own memory etc – all of this only opened up through actually starting the process.

  2. Yes, Jem. I think it’s often the case that we know exactly what happened until we try to explain it! Have you come across Gornick’s The Situation and the Story? One of the best memoir writing books I’ve found.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation Sarah – it was already on my wishlist but I’ve bumped it to the top now. I’m reading Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories at the moment and loving it.

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