I was 24 years old when my brother, my only sibling, died by suicide. Fresh out of a graduate program in literature, words were the way I made sense of my life. I decided that they were the only way I’d be able to make sense of my brother’s death.
Research has proven that writing about traumatic events, if done properly, can be beneficial. I spent nearly a decade working on a memoir about my brother’s suicide, our lives, and my grief. Here’s what I learned along the way:
1. Give Yourself Time
For the first two years after my brother’s death, all I could do was focus on daily life. Any time I tried to write about my brother, I felt worse. According to Harvard Health Publications, this is common. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a researcher on the health benefits of writing about trauma, recommends people wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event occurs before writing about it.
2. Reach Out to Your Support Network
When I began writing about my brother, it felt like I was grieving all over again. I hadn’t told anyone what I was doing, so my husband, parents, and close friends didn’t know why I was suddenly more sensitive. After telling my loved ones about my project, I received the space and support I needed to deal with the difficult emotions that came up during the writing process.
3. Write to Heal, Then Write to Publish
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a book, and that I wanted to share that book with the public. But the first and second drafts of my manuscript were just for me. If I’d written them with an audience in mind, I might have held back. I might have shut down. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to work through my grief. The first time you tell the story, tell it for you. Don’t show it to anyone, if you don’t want to. If your intent is to share the work with others, you can make edits with an audience in mind later.
4. Start Slowly
I began writing about my brother in short journal entries, just fifteen minutes a day. Small goals made the project feel more manageable.
5. Walk Away When You Need To
There were times during the writing of my memoir when my emotions became overwhelming. When that happened, I took a break—either by working on another part of the book or taking a few days off from writing completely.
6. Be Patient and Gentle With Yourself
The work you are doing is hard. It’s not always going to feel good. It may take you a long time to complete. Be kind to yourself along the way. Treat yourself to long walks, naps, warm baths, strong cups of good coffee, or an extra chocolate chip cookie.
7. Work With a Mental Health Professional
If you don’t already have a therapist, get one. Writing about a traumatic event, even one that happened decades ago, is bound to trigger some complicated emotions. Some research suggests that writing about trauma is most beneficial when it focuses on meaning and understanding, rather than simply reliving the detail of the event. A mental health professional should be able to help you frame your experience in a way that encourages healing.
While writing a book-length personal story can be one of the most rewarding writing endeavors you will ever undertake, it's important to know not only how to write about your personal experiences, but also how to translate and structure them into an unforgettable memoir. The goal of this course is to teach you how to structure your stories, develop your storytelling skills, and give you the tips, techniques, and knowledge to adapt your own life stories into a chronological memoir.