Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision


I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.

I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?



Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream



Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream, 

Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.

The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hell happened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.

I could offer the standard fare about taking classes, joining writing groups, finding beta readers, and working with professional editors, but I sense you’ve already done these things. You’re looking for something deeper.

Here’s your first question: What kind of book are you writing? (One that works on you or through you?)

Once you’ve identified the type of memoir you’re writing, envision your success. Create a collage of your narrative arc. Then create another one that reveals how you will have changed as a result of completing this project. Clip pictures from magazines or print them off the web. Get out the scissors and glue. Let your unconscious guide you as you pictorially imagine the comfortable resting place for your story. In the world of images, you may discover something that’s been evading you.

If you still feel stuck, pause. Sometimes we wander in the dark forest and feeling tricked by illusions because the ego mind is trying to defend a deeply held core belief or a traumatic experience. Fearing the examination will destroy us, the ego creates detours and impasses. If you already know this is happening, proceed with caution. Remind yourself of this book’s purpose: to change you, not the world. This work shouldn’t be rushed.

Counseling can sometimes help writers navigate these dark forests and create a safe space for an honest exploration of secrets and hard lessons. While traditional talk therapy is very useful, some writers benefit from sand tray therapy. Sand tray is an intensive form of projection therapy that bypasses the ego’s defenses. In sand tray, you arrange a series of objects in a sandbox while talking about your story. To the untrained eye, it looks like play. But in sand tray, blocks are revealed. Unexpressed emotions or needs rise to the surface so they can be attended to. By manipulating the items in the sand tray, you not only develop a new understanding of the story you’ve always told, but you can also change it at the brain level.

I’ve experienced sand tray therapy and have been trained as a practitioner. It’s a powerful healing modality. You’ll feel your feels and come away with realizations. But be forewarned. Sand tray is not for everyone. Consider it a possible source of inner guidance, but only follow this path if it speaks to you. Forcing yourself to confront things before you’re ready or for the wrong reasons (like getting published) is never helpful.

Sometimes the best thing to do when your draft is lost in the woods is to let it go. I’m not suggesting you give up on your manuscript, just that you may need more time away from it than you think. Distance may lead to new insights. Or, something may happen in your life that changes your memoir’s trajectory. While you’re waiting, write something new. Using the knowledge you’ve earned from this challenging process could be very satisfying. It could also lead to insights in this manuscript.

Dinty Moore writes about the benefits of letting go in his book The Mindful Writer. He spent four years drafting 360,000 words toward a book with unresolvable problems. When his agent finally told him to let it go, he was devastated. But within hours of releasing the manuscript he felt free. This freedom allowed him to write the book he’s most proud of.

Letting go is an act of faith. Anytime faith is involved, fear arises. Writers worry that letting go of a manuscript is a failure or that they’ll never write again. We misconstrue the work manuscripts do on us with something that must be published. We forget that personal transformation is the real miracle of memoir and that sometimes this is enough.

But you’ll tell me, I’m writing to get published.

And I’ve worked so hard.

Letting go is an act of courage. It’s living into the belief that your best work is in front of you, not behind you. It’s believing that nothing has been wasted. Anything you’ve learned over the past ten years will make your new projects even better. If this book is meant to be published, you’ll return to this manuscript. When you do, it will not only work on you but through you. At that time, a clear path out of the forest will appear.

You are a courageous writer, Lost. I have faith your wandering days will soon be behind you.



Lisa Ellison


Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Meet Our Memoirists: Lara Lillibridge

Meet Our Memoirists: Lara Lillibridge

I’m thrilled to share that this week, Lara Lillibridge‘s second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent—From Divorce and Dating to Cooking and Crafting, All While Raising the Kids and Maintaining Your Own Sanity (Sort Of)

(Skyhorse, 2019) has hit bookshelves everywhere! This oh-so-real and laugh-out-loud funny book about Lillibridge’s experiences single-parenting her two young boys, “Big Pants” and “Tiny Pants” resonates not just with single mothers, but with anyone who has faced the ups and downs of parenting. Lillibridge’s voice is an engaging mix of sarcasm, self-deprecation, dry wit, and unchecked honesty that makes her a refreshingly relatable and authentic narrator.


I first met Lara when we both read as part of a debut authors’ panel at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in August of 2017. Lara’s first memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, was to be released the following spring. This achingly moving story of trying to navigate the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, layers of dysfunction in her childhood home was chosen as a 2018 finalist for both the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards and American Book Fest’s Best Book Awards. I recently talked with Lara about her two memoirs and her journey to bring them into the world. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her amazing work.  


Melanie Brooks: This week, your second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama, launches onto the scene. What has the pre-publication preparation (say that 3 times fast!) been like for you this time around? Is there particular insight that you gained from the publication of your first memoir that has influenced the way you are approaching the process now?

Lara Lillibridge: Patience! The first time around I’d stress out or lose hope every time I had a delay. This time around, I knew that delays are inevitable and that release dates are really just target dates at the beginning. I worked with the same editor for both books, so I was way more relaxed. I knew what sort of edits she’d likely make, and I trusted her judgement on all aspects of the book. I also knew what to expect in terms of publicity and to manage my expectations.


MB: In Girlish you courageously tackle many complex and often painful issues that defined your childhood and adolescence. For memoirists, this kind of personal exposure can be a pretty vulnerable place to live. Do you feel the same kind of vulnerability as you send Mama, Mama, Only Mama off to readers?

LL: I guess it’s different. Girlish I was awake nights with terror. I lost a bunch of weight from the stress of it. Only Mama is a different kind of fear, but not as terrifying, for several reasons. First, it’s lighter by design. Second, I was in a happier place in my life, and third, I know that I’ll live through whatever happens. The unknown is terrifying, but after going through it once and living, it is definitely easier the second time around. But with Only Mama I worry about how my kids will view it if they ever read it, that people will judge me for admitting to being such a flighty person, that I might seem like a bad mother. And of course with Girlish I worried about the risk of writing in 3rd person—if I had the chops to pull it off. With Only Mama I worry that it’s not literary and that readers of Girlish will be disappointed. 


MB: Humor is a prominent feature in both of your memoirs, and I found myself laughing out loud so many times when I was reading them. Is the use of humor a conscious decision for you? Do you think there’s a so-called “right” balance of levity and seriousness when it comes to writing memoir?

LL: It’s weird—with Girlish I wasn’t trying to be intentionally funny—any funny moments are a result of my personality, and I think I am a naturally funny person. I did, however, look at the overall balance of the book and added in lighter chapters to keep it from being too dark.

Mama, Mama, Only Mama was the opposite. When I started the blog, I wanted it to be humorous, so I sort of trained my eye to look for funny moments or how a story could be told in an amusing way. I put the book together during the wait between when Girlish was signed and when it came out, and writing it was a much needed respite from the heaviness of Girlish. 

One of my first beta readers, also a single mother, commented that it was too light and fluffy, and didn’t have any substance. I chewed on that for a long while, and realized that she was right. The first draft was funny, but it wasn’t honest. After Girlish came out, I realized I couldn’t be completely bare in book one and flippant in book two—it was a betrayal of the readers. So then I went back and wrote in some of the darkness of those years. I called my word doc of this revision “Only Mama—More Honest and Beautiful.”  I think I made it around 35% darker, but also, I hope, more meaningful.


MB: You have made some distinctive choices in terms of the style and structure of each of your memoirs. Though Girlish is about you and your family, you’ve diverged from the traditional first person approach and refer to yourself as “Girl” throughout the story. Mama, Mama, Only Mama weaves lists of advice, posts from your “mommy blog,” and actual useable recipes into the overall narrative in a really effective and creative way. Did the writing take these forms initially or did you land on these narrative choices later in the process?    

LL: With Girlish the change from first to third POV happened somewhere around the second draft. I wasn’t able to find the distance I needed in first person. For me, I discovered in grad school that “weirding it up” always helped my writing—when I give myself permission to write any way I want and throw out the rules, I come up with my best work.

In Mama, Mama, Only Mama the structure was sort of given to me—I was at HippoCamp, and an editor from Skyhorse Publishing did a presentation about thinking outside the book. She was specifically seeking books that taught you things, or that incorporated photography or visual elements. I decided then and there to include survival of the fittest type recipes in Only Mama. What’s funny is that this was before Skyhorse signed Girlish, so although I wrote it with them in mind, I didn’t have any idea at that time if they’d actually want it. Luckily, they did, and they were the perfect publisher for it. I love how they made the recipes look as if they are printed on a different paper, and how the blogs are formatted as if you are reading them on your phone. My beloved editor also found all the images used in the book. I wanted it to feel as if you are reading my diary, with torn out recipes and blogs tucked between the pages, and Skyhorse took my vision and ran with it.


MB: One question that many memoirists grapple with (myself included) is what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to writing about our children. I know that this has been an ongoing challenge for you, particularly in the second memoir that journeys through the ups and downs of single-motherhood. You write at the end of Mama, Mama, Only Mama, “This fall, I have agonized over the ethics of writing about my kids as they become more adult-like…” Can you talk more about that struggle? What would you say to other memoirists facing the same concerns?

LL: When I started my blog in 2013 I knew the Internet lives forever, and that someday my kids might eventually find and read everything I wrote about them. I tried my hardest never to take the cheap laugh of making fun of my kid—something I see parents do all the time. I think other parents understand that under the laughter is deep love for these little creatures, but the little creatures themselves may not see the humor in it until they are grown. As Mama, Mama, Only Mama went through its final revisions, my kids were very much involved in it. They’d suggest recipes or stories to include in the book. They knew I was writing about our family, and my oldest occasionally read my blogs online. I found myself telling my kids, “don’t worry, I won’t write about this,” on more than one occasion. That was when I made the decision to stop writing about them for now. I didn’t want them to grow up looking over their shoulder, afraid that I would share their most embarrassing moments on the internet. I want them to trust me with their secrets.

At this point I have asked them not to read either of my memoirs, as I wrote them for adults. There’s a lot of content in both books that isn’t appropriate for children. I did offer my eldest the chance to read the chapters that he appeared in before I submitted the final version to my editor, but at the time he decided not to—he said that he trusted me and didn’t want me to change things based on his opinion when the book was written for adults. Now that both my kids are older I worry that they may regret that I have two memoirs out there, but we have spoken extensively on why I think the books are important—how books can reach out across the country and maybe, if they’re done well, help someone else feel less alone.  


MB: You’ve published two books in two years. Is there another one on the horizon? How do you keep the creative momentum going? 

LL: Publishing memoir is terrifying and anxiety ridden for me. The way I cope is by working on something completely different while I’m in the pre-publication stage. I started writing Only Mama while I was pitching Girlish. Once that was solid, I started writing Dragon Brothers, a middle grade novel written for my kids. Every night I’d read that day’s chapter and they’d tell me when the character’s voices were off, and if they fell asleep while I was reading I knew the action had lagged. Now I’m pitching Dragon Brothers and working on a couple of new projects. Writing is my happy thing, and I’m lucky to be able to devote a lot of time to it.


MB: Thank you so much for letting us peer into your process, Lara! I’m so excited for you as Only Mama settles into the hands of readers, and I’m looking forward to hearing more news of the latest book you are writing!        

Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome

Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome

Michael. Christopher. John. Jamal. Ethan. Oliver. Jack.

My friend, Angie, tells me to name it. She tells me to give this doubt a name and tell it to shut the fuck up. She is much bolder than I can ever hope to be, but each time she calls there is a reminder and a questioning about what name I’ve chosen for it. Impostor Syndrome. She says it is a man and suggests the name Derek. I haven’t been able to whittle down a list of my own. I know I do not want to name him after an ex nor do I want to pick a moniker I actually like. I don’t want to be kind to this voice. I want to be able to cuss and spit at it when it gets too loud to ignore.

It seems fitting that Impostor Syndrome was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the year I was born. This syndrome tells us that we are frauds, that what we have accomplished is simply the result of luck. Imposter Syndrome cripples me. That devil on my shoulder leans in really closely and says to give up. It perches just in the corner of my vision and says I’m too old to try. That I don’t have a large enough network for anyone to care. It tells me that I’m not as talented as I think I am. It chatters and chatters until sometimes I give up.

I was small talking at a party in Boston when it hit me most recently. Gripping a glass of champagne and Chambord, I was worrying about how my body was draped in my seat. I was fretting about whether someone would ask me a question about a book I’ve never read or ask if I knew someone whose name rang nary a bell. I was asking myself how I ended up in the affluent Back Bay neighborhood still coming down from the high of presenting in front of a room full of people. No matter how many times scenes such as this have occurred, there is always the specter at the edge of my social self that is waiting to swoop in and expose me as a fraud. Each of these times, before I could fully allow myself to live in the moment of what was happening to me, I was already sharpening the reasons I shouldn’t be there, why these experiences shouldn’t be true.

I’m not very sure how to push that voice back to the recesses of my mind. There are days I can mute it, culling it to a corner far enough away that I can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Those are the days I submit, the days I write until my back aches from sitting, and the days I shuffle the pages of my book back and forth until the picture becomes clear. I try to hold onto them through depression that makes it hard to function and anxiety that makes me a bit nauseous when I have to step out of my shell and network. That doubt makes me convinced people can hear the shaking of my voice and notice just how often I avert my eyes.

At Grub Street’s Muse and The Marketplace conference this year, Patrice Gopo and Grace Talusan gave a talk on envy. I sat in the back row because my energy was waning. It was the last day and I was struggling to tuck in the green edges of my jealousy and fear. So much talk of agents and manuscripts and cover design issues and I felt like I was drowning. I felt like at any point someone was going to peek into the room, beckon me with a finger and strip the presenter lanyard from my neck. I thought they’d say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Dixon. There’s been a mistake.” It didn’t happen and if I’m being honest with myself, I’m fairly convinced it will never occur.

Even if almost 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome in their lifetimes, in the midst of it everything seems lonely and echoing. You are convinced that somehow everything before you is a lie or at best a half-truth. You begin to believe that someone has done you a favor, that you are a charity case, that maybe the person meant to be there had a similar name. Each of these things does your talents and accomplishments a disservice. Nothing in this syndrome gives you room to understand that there are reasons you have walked through these doors. It partners with anxiety and perfectionism and will not let you speak up or out. It is cruel and it is very real.

This doubt, heaped upon our shoulders internally and externally, rears its head in all walks of life. It is not exclusive to writers nor any other profession. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that traps you in an echo chamber of voices telling you what you’re doing is wrong and why you don’t belong. And we must acknowledge just how social media exacerbates this, watching the highlight reels of others’ lives on repeat and wondering when it will be our turn.

So how do we learn to live with, or maybe even conquer, that voice rattling around in our heads? We take stock of what it’s saying. We can never be afraid to admit that sometimes that voice may actually be relaying something that we need to pay attention to. That perhaps a portion of it may stem from some very real lack of preparation or fear. I don’t want to sell you any false hope here.

Maybe we should listen to Derek. He could be telling us that maybe we didn’t put as much effort as we should have into the project or just maybe we skimmed that chapter instead of reading it for meaning and that’s the reason we are afraid to approach a discussion about its significance. What Derek should not compel us to do is make his voice the only one we hear.

Derek, or any manifestation of him, should only be a shout in the distance that sometimes reminds us that outside perspective is needed. What is more important is our voices, the ones that brought us exactly to the place we currently doubt or fear. Our voices should be the ones of reason even if they are trembling. Even if they are weak. We should tell Derek to close his mouth and listen. We should make him listen by any means we can. By listing what we are unsure of, why we feel this way, and how we can overcome what seems to be standing in our paths.

Maybe acknowledging Derek is the first step in dismantling a larger issue. Is what he is saying repetitious? Does he seem to be a broken record telling us over and over something we’ve yet to heed? As writers we know where patterns appear. We know through lines. We know when a shift in perspective is needed. So, we acknowledge it and seek out where this voice needs editing. Perhaps it will shrink into a small parcel of words we can easily swallow and forget ever existed or perhaps we take the boom of Derek’s voice and distill it down into a few lines we can carry a bit easier. Do whatever it takes, just don’t allow him to take your voice. Don’t allow him to make you leave the page or leave the room. Derek wasn’t invited there, if anything he is simply riding your coattails because he can’t stand on his own.


Athena Dixon. Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she launched in 2012. Athena‘s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), and a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018).  Additionally, she has presented at AWP (Boston 2013) and HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018). She is the author of No God In This Room, a poetry chapbook , published by Argus House Press. Her work also appears in The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books). She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in So To Speak Literary Journal, Narratively, Great Lakes Review, The Grief Diaries, Compose Journal, and elsewhere. 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?


There But Not There Too




Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

Grief complicates the writing process, especially if the wound is fresh or the loss was traumatic. Not only do we have to navigate painful feelings surrounding the loss, but we also have to contend with brain fog and memories that go through a different encoding process.

Most experiences transit from short-term memory to verbal, long-term storage areas of the brain in an orderly fashion mediated by the hippocampus. When trauma occurs, stress hormones rush memories to nonverbal limbic centers of the brain, which is why we experience them so viscerally. Because trauma sends some parts of the brain into overdrive, other parts shut down or dissociate to mediate the pain. This is why traumatic memories are frequently choppy and disjointed. Hence the writing challenges described in your letter.

There But Not There, the following paragraphs contain strategies for further memory retrieval, but before you proceed, consider whether a deeper dive is beneficial. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the loss of choice. While I firmly believe in the healing power of writing about painful events, I also believe we must empower ourselves as writers. At every crossroads ask: Is this detail important? For example, does it matter whether a conversation occurred in the living room or kitchen? If it doesn’t, write something like, “We could’ve been standing in the kitchen or dining room.” If it matters, determine how much emotional effort the retrieval will require and how you’ll take care of yourself as you mine the gap between your memories and your memoir.

Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.

Early in the writing process, I recommend writers record their memories without input from others to ensure their stories are truly their own. You’re past that. Ask safe co-conspirators who love you, celebrate your work, and ideally don’t play a major role in your book to share what they remember about you and your behavior during that grief-laden period of your book. Ask them what your face looked like, how you sat, or what you did when asked difficult questions. If they have pictures of you from that time period, ask to see them.

It’s likely you’ve already researched your story’s key events. Now research items on the edge of that experience. Check the weather, the number-one song on the radio, or the number-one book on the NYTimes bestseller list. Touch the book, listen to the song, and if possible, re-experience that weather to see what you might have done on such a day. Read the newspaper for the days in question. Seeing what the world viewed as newsworthy may trigger additional memories. Even if it doesn’t, you may find yourself touching certain parts of your body or feeling a specific kind of pain. Record your results. Also, pay attention to body sensations and visceral experiences when writing, revising, or reading your work out loud. These visceral sensations are muscle memory in action.

If it feels emotionally safe to do so (remember the power of choices), walk or drive the same routes you would’ve taken or follow your old routine. Hold the newspaper containing your son’s obituary. Because you have a clear sense of your thoughts and feelings, focus on how your posture changes, how tightly you grip the newspaper, what happens to your jaw. Attend to any aches and pains. If you have any chronic illnesses or injuries, notice whether symptoms flare. This could be stored trauma revealing itself.

Debra Gwartney capitalizes on physical experiences in her memoir Live Through This. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts: “I turn back to press my fingers against a rib that tends to devil ache at moments like this. It’s a pain that reminds me, again, how sometimes the past simply refuses to be finished.”

Where does your body devil ache?

What pains remind you that your grief is unfinished?

Answering these questions and completing these exercises may be useful, but don’t let them become torture. Part of the truth you may need to tell is that not only is your dear and precious child lost, but some of your memories are lost too. Because memoir is a story of memory and memory is always fallible, admitting to lost memories, hedging about the details, or speculating to create a sense of narrative cohesion is perfectly acceptable, provided what you’re doing is clear. Check out these examples.

In Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, she writes this about the time her mother almost killed her. “I don’t remember talking. I must eventually have told Dr. Boudreaux there weren’t any marks on me. There weren’t. It took a long time to figure that out for certain, even longer to drive my memory from that single place in time out toward the rest of my life.”

In Caged Eyes, Lynn Hall’s brave memoir about surviving a sexual assault as an Air Force cadet, she writes about dissociating during a rape. “I left myself again . . . I have no memory of what happened next. I didn’t hear if he said anything else to me, and I didn’t feel where his fingers made contact with my skin.”


Lara Lillibridge does something similar in Girlish, her memoir about growing up in a bipolar home. When talking about possible sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, she writes “There was that time in the bathtub with Dad that got a little weird, when he asked Girl, ‘Where’s the penis?’ And maybe let her poke it. Maybe not. She wasn’t clear on what exactly happened, just that she felt squirmy inside and dirty and bad when she thought about that day.”

Write some speculative scenes to free yourself from the constraints of absolute fact so you can discover your story’s truth. Begin with one of the following phrases “I don’t remember,” “I don’t want to remember,” or “It could’ve happened like this.” See where the writing takes you. While you may not remember everything, have confidence that you will retrieve the details that lend universality to your work.

No matter how you proceed, be gentle with yourself as you continue this journey. As someone who’s also experienced a traumatic loss, I salute the work you’ve done and cheer you on as you complete your book.



Lisa Ellison

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Meet Our Memoirists: Lynn K. Hall

Meet Our Memoirists: Lynn K. Hall

I was lucky enough to meet Lynn K. Hall when I learned my publisher, Beacon Press, was publishing her memoir, Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience, on the same day in 2017 that my book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma was launching. Lynn and I were both newcomers to the publishing world, both writing about painfully raw material, and both feeling more than a little out of our depths. Bonding as “pub buddies” set us on the path toward a lasting friendship that has helped sustain us in the vulnerable arena of sharing intimate stories with the world.

Caged Eyes is a book that breaks your heart and inspires your soul simultaneously. It recounts the story of Lynn’s rape by an upperclassman when she was a first year cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy and details the devastating impact the experience had on her career plans and her long-term health. It portrays her resolute strength as she journeys toward healing. With courage and unflinching conviction, Lynn focuses a deeply personal lens on a far-reaching military culture of sexual violence and the ongoing inaction that has left survivors to suffer silently and alone. By breaking her own silence and writing her book, Lynn has become a necessary activist and compassionate advocate for other survivors of sexual assault within the military and beyond at a particular time when the cultural conversation is gaining steam. I recently asked Lynn to share some of her experiences since publishing her memoir, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her incredible work and her beautiful writing.  

Melanie Brooks: Caged Eyes tells your very personal experience of being raped when you were a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but it also exposes a rampant culture of victimization of and abuse toward women in the military. When you began putting words to your own story, did you recognize that you were taking on this broader story, too? Was that part of what prompted you to write it?

Lynn Hall: In 2003, a group of women who were my peers at the Air Force Academy went public with their stories of having been raped and retaliated against when they reported. I was still a cadet and didn’t go public with them, but I watched as they went from 20/20 to Good Morning America all the way to Oprah. I noticed how the public twisted their stories and missed the bigger picture of their testimonies. I first thought of writing a memoir because I wanted to tell my story in my own words, and I wanted the public to better understand the issue in a way that a minutes-long news story wouldn’t allow.

My goal with Caged Eyes was to write my experiences in such a way that it explained the damning effect of “rape culture” without ever using that expression. I think I succeeded. Whenever a reader treats Caged Eyes as an isolated case without seeing the wider trends, I want to tell him or her to read it again. Read it until you see how culture enabled my perpetrators and silenced me, and how the same story happens over and over every day both within and outside of the military. Read it until you see that it isn’t a story about me at all.


MB: In a recent blog post for Moving Forewords, “Memoir as Activism: Finding My Path Post Publication” you share the conflict you’ve encountered as someone who, through your writing, has offered safe space for others to share their stories of trauma. You write about the “privilege” of being trusted with these stories, despite the painful impact that the accounts from other survivors has on you. How do you take care of yourself in the midst of that tension and what advice would you give other memoirists venturing into that tricky territory?

LH: I’m still working out how to manage this self-care. As I wrote in that blog post, I’m someone who becomes deeply affected by others’ trauma. Part of the work of being a memoirist is being open to reader’s expressions of shared experiences – whether those admissions come in an email, or during an office holiday party, or even during a massage. I am constantly trying to find a balance between letting these stories move me into activism and letting them roll off me without stoking my most inner rage.

My advice to other memoirist is the same advice I’m giving myself right now: find a way to control your narrative. Your words are going to be misconstrued. Readers will project their own experiences onto you. Interviews you give will be sliced for the juiciest content. Own your story at every opportunity you have so that however readers respond – by criticizing or by relating – you’ll be able to continue to find shelter in your own truth.


MB: You are an ultrarunner who regularly completes races that range in distance anywhere from 30-100 miles. This tells me you have a pretty intense inner drive and the capacity to push yourself beyond what most of us would consider “normal” limits. Do you think this mindset has influenced your writing life? In what ways?

LH: Absolutely, ultra-running has shaped who I am as a writer. In fact, I would say I became an ultra-runner in part to cope with the pressures of going public with my story of having been sexually abused and raped. Both 100-mile ultramarathons and my work as a memoirist push me to the absolute brink of what I am capable of withstanding.

I’ll never forget coming into an aid station at mile 93 of my first 100-mile-plus ultra. I was so pushed physically and mentally beyond anything I’d ever felt, I began sobbing. A volunteer crouched in front of my chair, rubbed my quads until the tears stopped, and told me that she wasn’t going to let me quit. After feeding me watermelon, she stood me back on my feet. I followed my pacer’s heels for the next 13 miles up and over one last mountain to the finish line.

I think about that accomplishment every single day. I think about my inner strength which was deeper than anything I knew I possessed, and I think about the love of my friends and the volunteers that got me to the finish. If I could come back from that moment of extreme despair and hopelessness, then I can do the same thing in my writing life. Just this week, for example, I was quoted on the front page of the New York Times. Exposing the most intimate details of my sexual history to thousands of readers doesn’t get any easier. Maybe other survivors would be less affected by such publicity, but me? I struggle. Sometimes I want to sob. To get through I remind myself of all the times in ultra-running I felt like continuing to move my feet was akin to doing the impossible. The strength I gain in ultra-running moves me to do more with the opportunities I have as a writer.


MB: You are working on a second memoir about climbing Colorado’s fourteeners—the mountains with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet—and the healing and self-discovery you found in those treks. How would you compare this writing journey to that of Caged Eyes? Has anything surprised you along the way?

LH: Wow, you give a better elevator pitch for my project than I do!

My second memoir is the story of how I recovered from the ordeal I described in Caged Eyes. Writing this second memoir parallels my climbs of those mountains because in many ways, reliving the journey is healing me from having published such an intensely vulnerable first book. Whether I’m writing about how camping in an alpine basin during a multi-day thunderstorm helped me release years-old grief or how I trusted a climbing partner as if he were a brother-in-arms I never fully connected within the military, re-immersing myself in my favorite mountains is helping me re-discover a sense of peace and trust within myself.

This second memoir is inherently more optimistic than Caged Eyes. While Caged Eyes exposes a culture that is misogynistic, oppressive, and deeply wounding to many, the underlying truth of my second memoir is much more warming: nature’s beauty heals. I feel incomplete having one story about brutality out in the world without it being balanced with the other’s beauty. That’s why I feel so strongly about seeing it through to publication.

The thing that surprises me about this second project is how vulnerable it still makes me feel. Even if my second memoir isn’t as taboo or shame-inducing as my first memoir, the work of making your most intensely private moments fit for public consumption is an act of exceptional vulnerability. I feel every bit as naked writing this memoir as I did when I wrote my first. I push on because that’s how firmly I believe in the power of connecting over our shared experiences.


MB: Thank you so much for this authentic glimpse into your memoir experience, Lynn! I am so grateful that we’ve connected over our shared experiences.  I’m so excited to see what’s ahead for you, and I know I am not alone when I say that I cannot wait for Book #2!


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