Writing about Your Ghosts: Tips for Writing a Haunted Memoir

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October’s theme is Writing Scary Ghost Stories

“When writing a memoir about a difficult subject, writers have two responsibilities. One to ourselves and the other to the reader.”  Alexandra Amor, author of Cult, A Love Story: Ten Years Inside a Canadian Cult and the Subsequent Long Road to Recovery

It’s that wonderful time of year when our thoughts turn to Halloween costumes, ghost stories around a campfire or tales of the dark.

Of course, most ghost stories we hear or see on the big screen are fiction. People enjoy them because they know they’re not true. They are popular because they also tend to feed on our imagination, on what we perceive to be ghosts. We all have our own ideas of what ghosts are supposed to look like. Certainly we don’t imagine them to look like the Maitlands in Beetlejuice, the newly married couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin who were caught between the real world and the afterlife.

But in reality, ghosts can be anything that is not easily explained, writes essayist Bruce Grimm Owens, who often writes about haunted memoir. It can be a sudden knocking on the wall, a fire alarm that goes off for no reason, a scent that appears out of nowhere or lights that switch on during the night.

Ghosts also don’t have to be literal interpretations. They can be metaphorical as well – a memory, a nightmare or daydream, a secret, or feelings of guilt, fear, grief or anger. Any event that leaves a lasting imprint on the writer that forces her to explore those events and find explanations for them. Why did they manifest in her life at that moment?

“A writer’s task is to explore what these ghosts mean to them,” writes Owens. Identity is often a major theme in haunted memoir, he adds. What role do ghosts play in the story you tell about who you are?

We all have our ghosts, real or imagined, literal and metaphorical. When it comes to writing about your ghost, you need to follow the same rules for writing creative nonfiction. For starters, memoir is not the same as an autobiography, which relays events in chronological order with little room for reflection about events. “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge, writes Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir. “The contemporary memoir includes retrospection as an essential part of the story.”

Author Alexandra Amor suggests that writing memoir is about writing for both ourselves and for readers. “We tell our personal stories in memoir to inform, educate and perhaps even to assist others.” It isn’t just about telling our own stories but finding ways to connect with readers through the stories we share.

There are different ways to approach writing a memoir and different ways of sharing the ghosts of your past. Below are a few general guidelines for writing your haunted memoir.

1. Stay focused on a particular time period, event or theme. You might focus on your teenage years, for example, or the time your family lived in a haunted house until they moved out.  

2. Be truthful about everything you experience. Avoid exaggerating the details, but be honest about what you saw, felt and heard. Don’t use the memoir to exact revenge on anyone, and avoid writing with anger and bitterness about events. It’s important to tell your story honestly and objectively.

3. Put readers in your shoes. Let them see the action from your perspective as you experienced them. That lends authenticity to your writing, and people will find your story more credible and believable.

4. Use all five of your senses. Describe your experiences through taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. Let readers feel the coarse straw when you hid under a haystack, or the slick, mushy feel of the green slime that oozed down the basement stairs. Describe the scent of lavender perfume that you always smelled in your haunted house, or the sharp, acrid smell of burnt coffee. When you engage all of your senses, it helps readers experience your life the way you did.

5. Slow down the action. When the scariest scenes arrive, slow down, suggests A. E. Santana at the Horror Tree blog. Take time describing the scene. Let them follow along as you explore the dark cold basement or the graveyard. Slowing down the action adds suspense and makes readers believe they were there with you.

6. Show your personal growth. Be sure to show how your life changed over time. What was your life like at the start of the story, and how did you change at the end as a result of your experience? Did you embrace a new identity for yourself? Did you learn a life lesson?

A couple of final tips. Many memoir writers often cannot write effectively after a life-changing event. You may need to let sufficient enough time pass so you can reflect on how this haunted experience affected you. If you find after you’ve started writing your haunted memoir that it is still too painful to write about or you are still too close to the event, Amor says it’s okay to set aside your work. Return to it in a year or two when you’ve done more healing.

Writing about your ghosts takes courage, but doing so will make you stronger and more resilient.