While details might be foggy, if you remember how you felt, the story is still there.
Maya Angelou once said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I am often telling stories from my childhood, even though my memory from that time is a little shoddy. Like most people who experienced traumatic events in their childhood, I have wiped whole years from my memory, because they are painful. While I was growing up, from the age of about 5 until part way through college, I kept detailed journals, a few of which I have managed to hold on to. This sometimes helps me recall details that I’ve cleared from my mind. Even if I didn’t have these journals though, I remember how I felt at the time, and often that is the story itself.
In fact I have found the details matter far less than the feeling. My journals have direct quotes from people, full conversations sometimes, transcribed from little notes in my high school agenda book. I don’t know why it was so important for me to hold onto all these details. Maybe one day I will write a full length memoir and they will come into play. For now, I am writing blog posts, and most of the details are simply inconsequential in this format. What happened to me is not really the point of most of what I write here on Medium. How the experience can be useful to others is my larger concern.
Recently I was reading a personal blog piece about an assault. It was obvious from the amount of vague language, the author could not recall many of the details. He used phrases such as “I probably thought this…” or “maybe I did that because…”. I am sure he wiped much of it from his mind, as we often do so that we may carry on day to day. This is fine. It’s to be expected. I believed every word he said about his abuse because I know that people rarely lie about abuse. From a story telling perspective though, I knew his writing could be stronger.
How do you write a story you don’t remember? Tap into how you felt. Maybe your father didn’t slap you, maybe he shoved you down the stairs. There are plenty of reasons to erase that memory from your mind or replace it with something seemingly less harmful. But how did you feel about the pain? Humiliated? Embarrassed? Unloved? These are the feelings worth tapping into. It is not the slapping or shoving that a reader will relate to. Ultimately, it’s the feeling.
What I mean to say here is, if you can’t recall the details of what your father did, pick one or the other or both, but don’t dwell too long on your faulty memory. There is more leniency in story- telling than you might think, even in memoir. Give yourself a break. The story is no less important because the details are lost. The reason they’re lost is often why the story is important.
So many of us, especially bloggers, use writing for personal healing. There is the hope that in sharing our stories, we can help guide someone else towards repairing what has been broken inside them. Details are good but they are not mandatory. For one thing, you don’t need to spill your blood all over the page to make your point, but also readers understand that we do our best in recalling memories and it is not required that a play by play of life event makes it into the story.
Cut weak language. You’re not weak and neither is your story. Maybe you don’t remember exactly what your father said before he hit you that particular time. That’s fine. You remember enough of his violent words to tell the story. They’ve lived within you this long, for better or worse. Dig them up, and nail his image to the page as though it were a cross. You have the right. Don’t be scared.
Tell the story. Trust yourself.
Kesia Alexandra is a creative writer from Washington, DC. She studied at Boston University. She’s on Twitter and Instagram. She’s the author of It Ain’t Easy, Eating off the Floor and Majestic and Lynn.