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.

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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Our childhood is filled with events both big and small, and we carry those memories with us as we grow older. That’s why our childhood and early family life are fertile soil for story ideas for memoirs and personal essays.

Sometimes our minds can draw a blank when forced to come up with a story idea, however. Beyond the basic “I remember” prompt that I frequently talk about on my blog, there are other story starters to brainstorm potential ideas.

I found the following list in my collection of notes from webinars and workshops. I wanted to share them with you so you never run out of story ideas for your essay collection or memoir. Feel free to refer to this list often whenever you feel stuck.

Good luck!

1. Fears, big and small. Perhaps your biggest fear is spiders or snakes. Or maybe it’s drowning or flying in an airplane. When was the first time you noticed that fear and how has it dominated your life? Have you done anything to overcome that fear?

2. Secrets, big and small. What secrets, big or small, have you never told anyone?  Perhaps it’s the one night you spent in jail for disorderly conduct that a friend helped you get released. Or maybe the abortion you had when you were sixteen that you never told anyone about. We all have our reasons for keeping secrets. Explore why you’ve kept this secret for so long.

3. Embarrassing moments. What is your most embarrassing moment in front of strangers? It could be spilling a gallon of milk while waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store? Perhaps you openly belched after a scrumptious meal in an upscale restaurant? It could be anything that happened to you or to someone else, and it can take place anywhere. Whatever the event, don’t forget to describe how people reacted because that’s what makes those embarrassing moments worth writing about.

4. Physical features. What physical feature or body part do you obsess over? Is there a feature that you think is too big, too small, too crooked, too narrow, or too obscene to show in public? Explain why this feature makes you feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

5. Parents are people too. When did you realize that your parents were not perfect? That they could not always protect you when you needed to be protected. Or that there were times when they felt scared, angry, lonely or guilty – that they were (gasp!) human.

6. Name changes. Some people don’t like the name they were given at birth. If you could change your name, what would you change it to and why? This could pertain to your first name, your last name or your middle name – or all three. What’s in a name anyway? Do you think a name change would alter your personality or your outlook on the world?

7. Family pets. Did you have a family pet? If so what are some of your favorite memories of that pet? Perhaps you had, like my family did, a series of unusual pets – hamsters, baby chicks, a baby alligator (I think my brother named him Sidney) and goldfish that died within three days. When you think of your favorite pet stories, think “Marley & Me.”

8. Families and food. When we think of family gatherings, we also tend to think of the meals we shared. What role did food have in your family life? Did you enjoy outdoor barbecues and abundant celebrations? Or was it just the opposite – your family struggled to put food on the table? How has food defined your childhood, and have those attitudes carried over into your adult life?

9. Family road trips. What is the most unusual place you and your family visited together? Perhaps you remember going camping for the first time, or learning to ski in Colorado. Have you ever seen the ocean or the mountains? Describe your most memorable vacations and explain why they were so memorable.

10. Family vehicles. Do you remember the car your parents drove when you were a child? Or do you recall the first car you ever owned? What did that car mean to you?

11. Favorite mementos. Is there one possession you have that brings back memories? It could be a piece of jewelry that you received from your grandmother, or a Christmas ornament that’s been handed down several generations. When you see that item, what memories does it conjure up for you?

12. Job hopping. What was the most unique job(s) you ever had? What about your parents or siblings – did they hold any unusual jobs? What work did they do? What did they learn from their experience? For example, when I was born, my father worked as a milkman, delivering milk to households. It was a dying career, however, and my father was soon forced to find other work. Think about family attitudes toward work and earning a living.

13. Hidden quirks and happy habits. Family members all have their hidden quirks and habits – a sister who talks in her sleep, a grandfather who collects antique instruments, or a mother who dances the Irish jig every night after the dinner plates are cleaned and put away. Do you have any family members with hidden quirks, habits or special talents?

14. Musical interludes. What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up? Did you learn to play a musical instrument? I remember growing up with a jukebox in our basement that arrived for my sister’s sixteenth birthday party. I listened to records on that jukebox for hours. These days I have a playlist on my iPod that contains many of those records I listened to long ago. How did your family’s musical tastes influence your own? What role did music play in your family life?

15. The writing life. What events from your childhood influenced you to start writing? Did you win a writing contest, or perhaps you were always good in English and spelling? Was there someone who encouraged you to be a writer – or tried to persuade you not to be one? How did you develop your love of writing? Where did it come from?

There’s plenty of inspiration for your personal essays or memoir. You just have to be willing to go back in time to find them.

Why Writers Are Bigger Risk Takers Than Most Non-Writers

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How much of a risk taker are you? Not just in your life, but in your writing?

At first glance, it would seem that writers are not big risk takers. Writers are frequently perceived as thoughtful, introspective and cautious. That may not be true necessarily, but the cerebral nature of writing gives writers those qualities.

The reality is that writers are bigger risk takers than most average folks. Think about all the ways you’ve taken risks with your own writing.

* Writers risk putting their thoughts down on paper. The very act of doing that shows a certain level of commitment to the writing process. Putting words down on paper (or typed onto a computer screen) feels more permanent. It makes the stories, even in their most primitive forms, seem more real than if they were left alone in their brains.

* Writers risk exposing their emotional lives. Some feelings are so deeply hidden and so deeply felt that it is only by writing about them and with them that writers can truly embrace them. Writers take ownership of those emotions. Writing helps them process those feelings and give them life on the page that is both socially acceptable and healing.

* Writers risk looking ignorant or foolish. There may be times when writers express an unpopular opinion. The way around that is to do plenty of research to help support that opinion. Back up those opinions with factual data and studies or interviews with experts. There will always be people who disagree with you or who don’t like what you write. That is par for the course. That is the risk of being a writer. Writers will never please everyone, which is probably why they focus on pleasing themselves.

* Writers risk criticism of their work. Let’s face it – the world can be a sour, cruel place. Not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox of life. People won’t think twice about tearing down all your hard work, whether because of their own jealousy, fear or insecurity. Writers will need to develop thick skins to ward off those blows. But the satisfaction of doing work that they love is worth the brief moment of pain that harsh criticism can bring.

* Writers risk sharing too much of themselves. Especially in memoir writing, writers expose so much of their personal lives on the page that would make most non-writing people cringe. It takes courage to share stories of trauma, pain, anxiety and disappointment. It’s much easier to share stories of joy and triumph.  It takes courage to reveal the darkest sides of our souls. But it is a necessary evil if those revelations help heal others who experience a similar pain.

* Writers risk anonymity. They risk the possibility that no one will ever read their work. Writers can toil for weeks, months, or even years on one literary masterpiece only to see it never published. Or if it does get published, it gathers dust on the bookshelf. But like the risk of criticism, most writers probably won’t mind the risk of anonymity because it’s the writing process that gives them the most pleasure, not the outcome.

* Writers risk their pride. Many writers I know are not afraid to show their work to others when the story is still in its rawest form. It takes courage to ask others for assistance. Others, like myself, prefer to wait until the piece is nearly 100 percent finished before asking people to review it. Somehow it does not seem fair to ask people to review work that is still in progress. That’s like asking someone to view a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. You only see part of the picture, not the entire piece. Many writers are willing to set aside their pride to welcome suggestions for improvement along the way.

If you feel you don’t put enough risk into your writing, there may be ways around it. For starters, try something new and different that you would normally not consider doing, says Kellie McGann a contributor at The Write Practice blog. For example, if you’ve never been a big fan of poetry, sign up for a poetry class. Because the creative process for writing poetry is different than for other types of writing, you can learn a different approach to putting words and phrases together to tell a story.

It’s important to push yourself to try different things, McGann writes. “If you always write about what you know, you’ll never be a better writer,” McGann says. Which flies in the face of a long-held belief that we need to write what we know.

The next time you feel stuck in your writing or you just want to experiment with a different writing technique, do something different. Take a class or do something that is out of your comfort zone. Taking risks are necessary to open the flow of ideas. Or as McGann writes, “When we take risks, we step into the unknown. That’s where ideas begin to flow.”

Of course, not all risks go well. In fact, some fail miserably. There’s no worse feeling that taking a leap of faith and falling flat on your face.

So what can writers do when that happens? Grieve, suggests author Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed. Give yourself a few days, or even a week to process the disappointment. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss, the failure. Set a time limit too so the grieving process does not go on indefinitely. Then when that week is up, roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

The writing process is filled with risk. Embrace the adventurous, risk-taking part of your soul. It may just help you become a better writer.