On Writing and Anger and Balloons…

Handling the Truth

What am I doing here?  Why am I waking up at 5:30am, reading all of these books on writing – how to write, when to write, what to write, etc.  Do I need to write about the weather?  The landscape?  Is that what this memoir will encompass?  I’ll tell you about the weather where I’ve been – for the most part it’s approximately 71 degrees in my house where I’ve spent the majority of my time because I’m either too busy or too embarrassed to bring my kids anywhere, or it’s 74 degrees in my car when I’m shuttling my kids to therapies or doctors appointments, or it’s 66 degrees in the hospitals where it feels like I spent the first two years of Owen’s life (though I know it was only two weeks plus a bunch of appointments each week after that…).  So there.  As for the landscape, well, I don’t really give a shit and I assume my readers won’t either.

It is incredibly confusing to be living a memoir while in the midst of writing it…  I know that some people have done this – Dani Shapiro’s Novel Devotion (which I’m reading currently) takes place while she’s on a search for spiritual fulfillment and enlightenment.  But just about everyone else I know or I’ve read (barring Anne Lamott’s journal-style memoir Operating Instructions), is talking about things in their past.  Anne Fadiman, Claire Bidwell Smith, Jeannette Walls, my friend Jenny Feldon (whose memoir is coming out next month), etc.  These women have lived their memoirs – past tense.  They have the had at least a modicum of distance between themselves and their events.  My events are still unfolding – with Owen, with Parker, with my mother, with myself.  Will that enrich or muddy my words?

I am learning though – that chapter on tense in Handling the Truth was fantastic for me.  It didn’t tell me which tense I should be using – again, I think the fact that I am living this while I am writing about it makes a difference – but it did allow me to give myself some sort of permission to write my story in different tenses if and where applicable.  Some things I’m writing about are more dramatic when told in past tense – from a distance.  But some aspects of the story I am still living, I am still struggling with today as they unfold – and that can be very powerful when told in first person.

And there is something that many people – the first to be a writer friend Allison Slater Tate – have told me that has lingered in the back of my mind…  Am I ready to write this story now?  Has enough of it unfolded?  Has there been enough time yet? Beth Kephart wrote in the current memoirist’s tome that I’m reading right now, “If we don’t know what we love – if we’re not yet capable of it; if we’re stuck in a stingy, fisted-up place; if we’re still too angry to name the color of the sun – it is probably too soon to start the sorting and stacking and shaping that is memoir.”

Angry in general, or angry about the specific and/or main subject of the memoir?  Because I am still pretty fucking angry – but not about Owen anymore.  I think (maybe?) I have moved onto acceptance about Owen.  I don’t know what the five (seven? sixteen?) stages of grief are, but I know I no longer ask “Why him?” or “Why me?” or Why us?”.  I have realized that it just doesn’t matter why.  The question has no bearing on what actually is and that’s where we are.  So that’s where I start from.  I am here, and asking “Why?” takes you back there.  I don’t have time to look over my shoulder right now – it is too hard to move forwards while looking back.

But I am still angry about my parents – about my mother and my childhood and my adulthood – I am still angry and sad and resentful.  And that is part of this story too.  My childhood and my parenting must be intertwined as they are for all mothers and fathers. And I do worry that it will cloud my judgement.  I am still grieving my childhood and the relationship I never got to have with my mother.  I am still angry for the hole I had to claw my way out of and still occasionally feel myself slipping back into.

I don’t want to write a book coming from a place of resentment and anger – I do not want this to be a tool used to avenge the little girl that I used to be.  It’s is tempting, as all revenge fantasies are, but it will never come out the way I want it to.  There is a difference between telling the truth so the full context of a story can be told, and telling it for the sake of “sticking it to them”.  Of course I go through times when there is nothing more I would like to do than to expose all of my mother’s manipulations and lies and abuse to the world – to make her “pay” for what she has done to me – but to what end?  Anyone that knows her knows those truths already, and will this book be as rich if it is coming from a place of anger and resentment?

I need to get to a place emotionally, where I can let go – where I can push those emotions far enough away that I can write this clearly.  I need to let all of this go like when you release a balloon into the sky and watch it become smaller and smaller as it drifts further away from you, until it is a speck of color…and then nothing.

Where can I get such a balloon?  I’m pretty sure they don’t sell those at Party City.


  1. says

    Loved this post because I’m reading this book too and absolutely loved this chapter about tense. I think you are answering a lot of your questions in this piece. I want to say so much more about this, so I’ll send you an email, but this is my favorite thing I’ve read of yours so far!

    • says

      Thank you, Evelyn! That means so much coming from someone who is in the same place I am… I have discovered the power of present tense and it is a force. Can’t wait to talk with you about it further! xo, J.

    • says

      Didn’t we talk about this during our lunch? Jamie, I too am wondering if some stories aren’t ready to be written/told because I haven’t finished the arc. But I think as you continue to write, you will discover the answers to these questions.

  2. says

    I don’t know about the balloon, but let me know if you find it. This is precisely (one of) my big issue right now, too … how much to let things unfold before writing, vs. writing as I live. Hard. xoxo

    • says

      I think I am discovering that balloon slowly, Lindsey. Only it is filled with lead – with words in present tense that need to be let out in order for it to soar. This is a new challenge, a new discover, and hard to do – so, so hard. We need to discuss… xoxo, J.

  3. says

    well love, from the conversations we’ve had lately, you know I am living mine as well. :/ But I do think you are right–it is easier to have the objective ease of time and space when writing about true events. It’s not the only way to do it though.

    • says

      So many of us are going through this right now! It’s such a hard task – looking objectively at a life you’re currently living. If that was possible, therapists would go out of business, and the self-help section of Barnes and Noble would be deemed obsolete! I think I have found a possible answer though – will call you this weekend… xoxo, J.

  4. says

    I’m in the very final editing stages of my memoir about my experiences with my 17yo daughter with moderate CP. I understand your struggles. Hoping to have the published book in my hands by the holidays. My first few chapters of the first draft were void of feelings (positive, negative or otherwise). But, as I wrote, received useful feedback from my writers group and eventually spent a few months in therapy, my writing really fell into a “good” place. Later drafts were MUCH better, more connected to a full spectrum of feelings. So, I encourage you to keep reading, but keep writing, too, even it doesn’t feel like your authentic voice…yet. It will be. And I am confident writing will really help you in ways you could ever imagine. Good luck! Eager to keep up with your progress.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Kerith! I went over and checked out your site and it is wonderful! I can’t wait to read your memoir when it is published… I would love to talk to you sometime and hear your perspective on how the process of it all went for you. I hope you’ll keep sharing here – I know I’ll keep looking at your progress as well! J.

  5. says

    I asked that question because I ask it of myself. I don’t know the answer (for you or for me). But I think what you are doing will have worth and value at some point, no matter what, for your book (and you will have one). So keep taking it one day at a time. You’re doing it.

    • says

      Thank you for this, Allison. You know how much your words and questions have resonated with me. This is not something to just dive into – there is wading (and waiting) first. Careful deliberation must be made in order to do the thing right – which is the only way it should be done. I know YOU know this, but I appreciate that you’ve made ME ask the question too. xoxo, J.

  6. says

    Still reading your blog, Allison. And I love your honesty. Have you read Bird by Bird by Anne LaMotte? If not, that HAS to be the next writing book you read. It’s refreshing, funny, and insightful. Take care of you.

  7. says

    Hi Rebekah! Not sure if this was for me or for Allison Slater Tate, but I have read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and it was phenomenal! Definitely one of the literary tomes I will go back to over and over again. So many lines and passages I have underlined and bracketed out to remember and go back to! Thanks for sharing here… J.

  8. says

    I don’t have any answers other than to keep writing. Get it out. From what I’ve gleaned from your past (which is very little), I can’t imagine that anger won’t drive the narrative once in a while, and I think this is okay. Take the time later, in subsequent drafts, to pull back and prune and edit yourself, but not now. Tell your unique story and try not to place too much weight on the emotions that seep onto the page. I’m sure many memoirs began rife with emotion. Maybe it is only through the purging of that emotion that you’ll gain the perspective you need to move forward. Just my two cents, for what it’s worth. 🙂

  9. thelatchkeymom says

    HI Jamie. I have been reading your posts at the Huffington Post and they are wonderful. I met Beth two months ago, at the Decatur Book Festival, and finished her book a couple weeks ago. I struggle with the tense thing as well. I have twins with autism and I’ve been working on a memoir, off and on, for years. In the beginning I was definitely writing present tense – I was in the “fight or flight mode.” The writing was hard, because it hurt. I was angry and sometime got angrier as I wrote. So I stopped. That was a mistake, in retrospect. I recently “picked up the pen again” and the tense is now more past, which is easier, but I fear it doesn’t reflect my emotions from the past accurately – does that make sense? I was really angry then and it scared me, but I can’t accurately recreate that anger now, for the sake of my story, and that’s not good. The best memoirs are a journey – embrace that anger, it’s fuel and content. I bet you will be able to let it go, as your write on!

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