Writing Hard Stories



“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen


I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 


It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.


8 responses

  1. Thank you, Evelyn. Your post came at the right time for me. I too have been wrestling with how to write my story after leaving a 30 year marriage 3 years ago. How much to write? How deep? Etc etc. So just like starting anything the hardest part is just to begin, to venture into the unknown, not quite knowing where I’m going. More will be revealed, one step at a time.
    Thank you for sharing your process and your success.

    • Thank you, Linda. I’m sure you have much to offer others through your story. I’d be interested in reading it. Perhaps start by just journaling–images, feelings, anecdotes. Don’t think of it as a “beginning” but an exploration. See what comes to the surface. I sense the theme of bravery…

  2. Thank you, Evelyn. Your story underlines the psychotherapeutic and human dilemma: how to convey that which goes beyond words. The Wittgenstein quote is provocative. I’m not Wittgenstein scholar, but here is an edited portion of a discussion from the website, “Little Wittgenstein Quote:”

    “Was sich ueberhaupt sagen laesst, laesst sich klar sagen: und wovon man nicht reden kann, darueber muss man schweigen… Die Grenze wird also nur in der Sprache gezogen werden koennen, und was jenseits der Grenze liegt, wird einfach Unsinn sein.”


    “What can be said, can be said with clarity: What can’t be said, must remain unsaid … The language defines the limit, beyond that limit is nonsense.”


    “Anything you can say at all, you can say clearly. Don’t speak of things you can’t discuss. People will only be able to see from what you say where the border lies. Everything beyond that border is simply nonsense.”


    “What is sayable at all, lets itself be said clearly; and what you cannot speak of, of that one should remain silent… The border is only possible to draw in language, and what lays outside the border, is simply madness.”

    Elsewhere, Wittgenstein says this:

    “we have to accept that there is far more of God that we will never know or understand. When we get to that position we may often find that the best communication is wordless, actionless and happens in complete stillness.”


    The irony, it seems to me, is that even “what can be said” is hard to understand. Yet we try – must try – to be understood and known, by words or other means.

  3. Evelyn–

    You left a comment on my post on “The Muffin,” so I figured I’d leave a comment on your post.

    Your line about not having to tell the whole story at once is so spot-on. Tell the story in vignettes–in scenes–and then weave them together.

    Or, maybe you have several books in you. More than one memoir. It’s possible…

    Good luck with your current and future writing… and thanks for stopping by “The Muffin.”

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