Writing About Significant Emotions Print
Writing Workshops


Writing About Significant Emotions

Concentrating on your memoir’s subject, think of an incident in which you experienced a very strong emotion.

Strong emotions include, but are not limited to—passion, love, anger, rage, joy, fear, tenderness, awe, feelings of rejection, abandonment, belonging, innocence, wisdom: the rapture and/or the despair that accompanies some of our days.

Your incident may have happened with another person or many other people or only with yourself.

Make a list of these incidents: perhaps do so with, “the one time I felt the most pain was when . . .” Substitute other emotions for the word “pain.”

Put a check by three of those experiences, from lesser to greater intensity.

Choose one to write about. Remember writing may make it flood back, so be careful.


First write a short paragraph describing the incident using narrative and description.

Then, using analysis and reflection, examine the emotion more deeply. Push into these questions.


Describe what you felt then. Go internal. Feel the emotion again on your skin, in your heart, in your mind’s eye.

Next, write about how you felt about the incident as it happened.

How did I act? What did I do in its immediate aftermath? Did I share this emotion or the incident with anyone else? How? Who? What did the other say?

Next, write about how you feel about the incident now.

How do I feel now about then? Are my feelings different today? Are they more informed? By what? By whom? Is there something you know now that you didn’t know then? What?


Now free-write on this incident into 500 words. Show what happened. Then add in and commingle your past perspective and your present perspective. The goal is to mix the I-then with the I-now.

Try to make all three things clear for the reader: what happened, how you felt about it at the time, how you feel about it now. You need not balance these three with equal amounts of prose. But a reader should be able to “get” all three.

Ideally, the way you mix things up will say a good deal about how and why we have conflicted feelings about so much in our lives. This is a touchstone for memoir writers.