Monday, 29 June 2015

How to manage the emotions that writing can bring up

Sitting up in the top of my cupboard is a blue box tied with a piece of white fabric tape. It’s been there for two years now and I haven’t touched it.

I’m scared.

Inside it is every letter I ever wrote home from boarding school – five years’ worth. And honestly, I don’t want to go back. I know, though, that I need to do it. The after-effects of those five years have been large in my life and I still have dreams where I’m back in boarding, usually with one or more kids in tow, attending maths class in our freezing cold Himalayan mountain classrooms and getting into trouble for not doing my homework. (At some point in those dreams, I say to myself, “Hang on. I’ve done a whole university degree. I don’t have to be here, doing maths with cold fingers.” At that point I wake up and lie in the dark for a bit.)  

I know I’m going to have to go there and open that box, though, so I have a plan. Next year is the year of the memoir: The Year I Read My Boarding School Letters.

But I’m still scared. I’m scared of the emotions that will rear their heads, of the things that I’ve ‘sorted out’ becoming ‘unsorted’. Basically, I’m scared of feeling, again, like I felt at boarding.

This year I’ve been teaching a ‘Write Your Memoir’ course with another writer. Last week in our session I handed out a sheet with a list of tips on Managing Your Emotions While You Write Your Memoir. Anytime we write about things that have happened to us, we are going to be dealing with emotions. Some, like my boarding school letters, we know will stir up old angers and fears. Others may pop up unexpectedly, right out of the blue. Either way, we need to know how to deal with it when it happens, so here are the tips I gave my class – tips that I’ll be dedicated to sticking to myself next year.

·         Keep a journal/blurt book.  Use it to write down whatever you want – even if you’d never tell another soul. Crying and punching pillows is also allowed.
·         Find a support person - someone to talk to. The right person is a gift. The wrong person may be a curse. If you really can’t find anyone, consider booking in to see a professional counsellor.
·         Limit your writing time to a manageable amount. Putting boundaries around the time you’ll spend thinking about hard things each day or each week can help.
·         Stay healthy. Eat your vegies, drink enough water and make sure you exercise. It dissipates stress and creates that lovely serotonin and dopamine in our brains.
·         Find a mindfulness/meditation practice. Pick one that works for you and do it every day. It may be prayer, relaxation, playing music or colouring in.
·         Breathe deeply for two minutes every day. It increases oxygen and gets rid of stress.
·         Stock up on funny DVDs and books to give you a hit of humour. If you’re laughing, it’s hard to be sad.
·         Realise when you’re ‘kicking the cat’. If the people around you are suffering because you’re passing on your stress without realizing it, stop and take care of your own feelings.
·         Take time off if you need to. I can’t believe I would ever tell anyone to stop writing. But if you need to, you need to. (On the other hand, you could move on to the next tip instead…)
·         Balance out the hard memories with the good memories. Follow up writing about the hard stuff with something that’s more positive.
·         Make a list of ‘rewards’. Write down ten things you’d like to do but haven’t gotten around to yet. Reward yourself with one of them every time you do a piece of difficult emotional writing.

·         Anything else that works for you. You probably know what it is, because you’ve been doing it for years already.
Cecily Paterson is a novelist for young teen girls, based in New South Wales. She blogs at


  1. Thanks Cecily for an honest and challenging post. Emotions are essential and challenging at the same time. What would our writings be if they were devoid of emotion? So I pray you can unpack those memories, happy and sad, good and bad and line them up to serve you as you write this book. I look forward to reading it one day. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Great list, Cecily--and one I kind of wish I had read before I wrote my own memoir 'Soul Friend', although some of these I think I did do intuitively or because I had learnt to do them over the years. And I can well relate to that experience of being caught unawares with some blast of emotion at times that would leave me staring at the computer screen, reliving some past event with so much immediacy. At the Christian Writers' Conference last year, I presented a workshop on memoir writing and remember including the point 'Be kind to yourself'--something I sadly didn't put into practice until after I'd finished the book!

  3. I can relate, Cecily. Last year I rewrote a manuscript I'd written a few years after I'd been the victim of an armed robbery. This manuscript has an armed robbery in it and I think the rewrite was more painful than the original one, maybe because more time had passed since the event so it felt like I was returning to a dark place I'd escape from. Not much fun.

  4. Thanks Cecily. I'm so sorry about your difficult boarding school experiences. Sounds like a very harrowing time for you - and no wonder you don't feel like re-reading those letters. I had a similar experience when I was newly married and living in a new country and working. Absolutely HATED going to work - and had a heavy sinking feeling every time I reached work - waited for the lunch hour to go out - and then waited till 5 p.m. Was so glad to stop work 1 1/2 years later when I got pregnant with my son.

    As a child - being trapped in an environment you didn't like would have been so difficult. No wonder it's difficult to go back. I know God will use those experiences for good as you unwrap the package and bless others with it.

    Writing for me has been very therapeutic and God has brought healing to my difficult times through being able to vocalise it in my writing. I am sure it will be the same for you. Many thanks for sharing.

  5. Hi Cecily
    Thanks for your post. You give some excellent tips on dealing with emotions.
    I had one year at boarding school, and another year with staying with my aunt, plus a term boarding with a family while my family was in Africa (as well as three years of schooling in Africa). I think my experiences may have been more positive than yours, yet they had their toll as well. So I can imagine it would be difficult to relive them as your write about them in an engaging way.
    As I mentioned in a recent post at ACW, the final unit of my course was on journaling. In the last four weeks in particular we looked at using our own experiences to inform our writing, ways of writing about trauma, and self-care. The protagonist short story I was writing at the time experiences significant loss and grief – so I tapped into grief from my past, then looked at how this helped me write about grief in my story. In the last unit, one of the readings was a poignant rendering of our lecturer’s grieving the cot death of her youngest child.
    Those weeks were something of an emotional roller coaster as I relived difficult memories such as my brother's death 13 years ago. Poetry, metaphor, externalising, fictionalising, journaling, knowing my limits, debriefing, faith and prayer– I found these helpful in handling those difficult emotions.

  6. That moment when the emotional hammers from difficult memories batter your writing chair legs out from under you and leave you sitting on the floor in a heap of wreckage saying 'What just happened?' Do you crawl off into a corner, or pick yourself and your writing chair back up off the floor and get on with it? You've offered some great advice to help us do the latter. Thanks for your words of wisdom Cecily.

  7. Great tips Cecily. I've written on autobiographical topics and I've found it's not just the stirred-up emotions that are a problem, but also the fact that it makes you vulnerable. If you have it published, other people will see it and know your weak spots. But then that's often what really touches people. I have a couple of topics I know God will have me share at some point, but they're still a bit raw. Your tips will come in handy when the time comes. Thanks for sharing :)

  8. You people are all very kind. This is an excellent blog to write for. So many thoughtful comments all at once!