Reaching Into the Well


I write about life—anecdotal and narrative essays. This is what I do.

I have a blast trying my hand at flash fiction, short stories, and have been working on twelve books for twenty years but, really, my writing is mostly personal.

To do this, you need to dig, break up some earth, to get to the gems.

I don’t.

I skim.

My words are leaves and bugs floating on top of a pool and, when I write, I’m just using one of those mesh things to get the stuff on the surface.

You can come up with a net full of fascinating material doing that, but there is often a lot of debris in the water or on the bottom of the pool. When you kick up some of the stuff that’s been resting undisturbed, interesting things can happen.

Charli Mills, who invites writers to share their flash fiction every week at Carrot Ranch, once commented that I write “deep”—that I have a well I can reach into for my writing. It was a lovely compliment but made me question myself and my process.

If this well is there (and I think it is), why am I not reaching into it?

Why can I write so deeply about a fictional character but not dive in when I write about myself?

This seems an easy question to answer. Probably fear.

I’m a pretty introspective person so it’s not that. I can easily look inside myself and see the beautiful broken pieces, the harsh edges, the softness. I have journals full of hurt and anger and love but I don’t want to write about these things. It’s not something I’m ready to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. For now, I’ll skim and joke and poke fun at myself and my life. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally write a serious piece.

I’m okay with that.

I wonder, though, how all these other writers—memoirists and essayists—pull from their wells and share such poignant moments and memories.

Sarah Brentyn Sailboat Skimming - sig

Do you write personal pieces? Does this make you feel vulnerable? Do you skim or reach into your well of memories?


41 thoughts on “Reaching Into the Well

  1. I’ll admit that when I write it is often with tears in my eyes. But it’s a purging for me. It lightens my heart and it really really hurts. But it’s kind of like once I put those emotions to paper, they are contained there. And now I’m in control of them.
    There are pieces of mine that I love reading..
    There are pieces of mine that will start to bring the tears after I read the first few words…
    There are pieces that I can not read again at all.
    They say we dream in order to stay sane..we let our minds be crazy for up to 8 hours…and it keeps us from going crazy when we are awake.
    Writing, for me, is a continuation of dreaming. And I’m in complete control of that dream. If things ever get too intense I can always hit the delete key.
    I don’t think you should ever worry about not digging deep enough, Sarah. Write at your comfort level. It sounds cliché but, you only ever need satisfy yourself.

    All my best. #mast

    Liked by 3 people

    • Purging. Yes, I see that. I understand that feeling. It can be a powerful one. (I’ve made myself cry after reading my own writing, too.) I hadn’t thought about containing them and being in control once you have them on paper. Also had never equated writing with the continuation of dreaming. But you’re the poet here.

      A lot of people talk about pushing past your comfort level in your writing and I think that’s valid. But, for me, I’m staying where I’m comfortable. Thanks. ❤ #mast

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I write about personal things sometimes, but when it’s too personal…I tend to use metaphors. Like you I’m most comfortable to skim the surface of my own life…although people who read my words will sometimes say I dive deep. I think the topics I choose are sometimes more serious, but I don’t let it all hang out as much I could–or would in a diary. I’m careful about what I reveal. Maybe because of fear, but maybe wisdom. There’s an old proverb, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” Not everyone can hold gently the most vulnerable places within us.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a great post, Sarah. Your description of skimming is beautiful. I agree with Eric, that you should only go as deep as you feel comfortable. The depths are up to you. I’m rather new to memoir and creative nonfiction, and I also find delving deep is easier in fiction. But I enjoy the release of memoir, and I often cry while writing but it doesn’t feel bad, more cleansing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do enjoy writing about life. It’s easy, in a way. But then it’s difficult, too. I agree about the release and cleansing. Those pieces are in journals, though. 😉 I feel such a pull back to fiction lately–quite the opposite of what you’re going through.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am thankful and count my blessings that I live a charmed life. The charmed part, though, doesn’t make for good stories. I don’t typically feel vulnerable because a lot of the time, I’ve got the attitude of Mary Lambert’s song Secrets.

    I suppose I’d be more capable of reaching into my well, if I actually kept better track of stuff that has happened. Unfortunately, the perfectionist part of my personality prevents me from filling out the dozens of blank notebooks I own because I don’t want to mar the pages with temporary feelings or crappy drawings. *sigh*

    Liked by 2 people

    • A charmed life doesn’t make for good stories! 😀 Well, that’s one way to look at it. “Temporary feelings…” has me thinking. That’s interesting. I think a lot of my Thought Bubbles come from temporary feelings but they’re not “deep”. I don’t think you need to make people sob to have a good story or essay. (Another Thought Bubble?)
      Thanks for this, Loni.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My blog is primarily full of essays on my everyday life, but occasionally I do take a stroll further down memory lane. I like to think I’ve ventured under the surface deep enough to merit holding my breath, but it is unlikely to be described as the Marianas trench.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha! 😀 Yes, I sometimes have to hold my breath but no need for a submarine.
      My blog is similar. I write about everyday life. Bits and pieces of this and that. No direction, really. I don’t often write about the past…unless it’s 6 months ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, interesting. I write personal essays but think I’d be terrified to write a full memoir. I love fiction because debris does kick up and I can rearrange in new ways, or retrieve something deep and give it meaning in an outside life. I’ve got to ponder this one. Maybe the gems surface when you aren’t digging for them. Maybe memoirists dig and fiction writers enchant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I always knew I was an enchantress. Huh. Love when things begin to make sense.
      So that’s something to think about. When the debris (inevitably) kicks up, you can resurrect it in a way. Fiction is zombie memories! 😀 Okay, seriously, I’m going to ponder, too. Very cool idea here…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My blog is about parenting, but weirdly I’m still very private about what I write. Mostly I want to protect people who didn’t choose to have their lives discussed. So I keep the focus of my blog about my journey as a parent, rather than specific things about my family.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You actually don’t talk in depth about your life and kids now that I think about it. “people who didn’t choose to have their lives discussed.” Yes. I don’t know how you do it — having a parenting blog without discussing your children. You manage it well though.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a lovely metaphor Sarah. I think you capture the differences in writing from the personal beautifully. I love to skim and glide over the surface – here lies choice and often fun. Writing memoir though is digging deep, pulling at the stagnant sucking mud to get to the bottom. Checking everything that needs to be looked at is seen. The process can leave me gasping for air and losing sight of the light and so it feels hard to do at the moment. There’s little reward in the stinking decay and digging it up, of course muddies the waters for a good while.
    I’ve realised I need to develop an oxygen tank or else drown.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve been waiting for you… 😉 (And Sherri and Irene, too.) Memoir is digging deep — oh, yes. You can glide, skate, sail, skim…and it’s fun and delightful to write about your life in that way. It can be serious, funny, whatever. But reaching back into memories, especially ones that send readers for the tissue box, are brutal.
      This: “The process can leave me gasping for air and losing sight of the light and so it feels hard to do at the moment. There’s little reward in the stinking decay and digging it up…” This is perfect. There are absolutely some things that feel this way. I’m with you on getting an oxygen tank. (Or pretending to look for one because no one expects you to dive in and drown yourself for an essay.)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your post provoked a lot of thought and great comments, Sarah. Too many for me to reply to individually, though I’d love to. Charli’s thoughts about digging up gems and enchanting – are enchanting. And Lisa’s comments about needing an oxygen tank I can identify with. I skim the surface of my personal life. I don’t want to delve too deep there. But I’m happy to share my perspectives about certain things. I like to believe the choice is coming from wisdom rather than fear. We are often told to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Sometimes the fear is there for good reason and it is wiser to go with your gut and not do it instead. No one can tell us how we must deal with our internal stories. They are ours to reveal or hide as suits our needs. Thank your for sharing your perspective on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I love the digging up gems and enchanting. That’s a great way to look at it. (Lisa’s comment, too, about needing a tank…) I do skim and I’m okay with that for now. I guess, like some of the comments say, we need to stay within our comfort zone. Though I see SO much writing advice to the contrary: “Break out of your comfort zone!” I don’t think it’s a good idea to do that while writing personal pieces, though. I agree with your assessment that the fear is there for good reason and sometimes we need to listen to our gut — wisdom vs fear. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I read this yesterday, Sarah, but was on my phone and not able to comment.
    I’ve often wondered about the choices we make as writers and had some “why memoir” discussions on my blog, and I’ve got a guest post with Sherri soon.
    But, anyway, shouldn’t it be simple?
    1. Write what you want to write as deep or shallow as you choose.
    2. Check out if people want to read it. (Personally, I’m reluctant to read anything too personal, although I like an individuality that brings it alive)
    3. See if there’s a gap and, if so, do you want to bridge it?
    However, might be easier said than done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh. Looking forward to the guest post with Sherri.
      I suppose it could be simple.
      1. Fair enough. We should decide what we want to do and do it. (Though sometimes there is pressure to “dig deeper”.)
      2. I am, too. Though I must say that a lot of memoirs and some blogs give way too much information and are very popular so some people really like reading super personal stuff. ?
      3. Mind the gap! 😉 Yes.


  11. You know, I never before considered how difficult it would be to write a memoir.

    I recently read David Niven’s memoir, “The Moon’s a Balloon”, which ends with a note of regret. Your post makes me wonder how difficult that last chapter may have been for him to write. I wonder how it felt for him to see it in published format?

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. You’ve given me a new way to look at memoirs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reading the comments…I don’t know. Some might find it painful and some might find it cathartic to finish that last chapter and see it in print. I don’t know how I’d feel. Depends what it said, I guess. I’ll have to check out that memoir. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Painful experiences from my past are mostly dealt with by fictional characters. It makes it easier for me to talk about it if it’s happening to one of my imaginary people.

    I like the freedom that comes with fiction. I can change events to make it more interesting. In RL, that’s lying.

    So mostly, I keep my personal stuff light, too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. I absolutely love the freedom that comes with fiction. Pulling from our lives sometimes makes for fantastic stories. (And it’s definitely not lying.) 😉 I’m so happy to see I’m not the only one keeping it light.


  13. An interesting post Sarah. I have thought long and hard on memoirs and memoir writing and it really depends on what type of memoir you are writing as to what you write and how deep you go. Your fiction is often deep and you probably feel the security that anonymity gives you to reveal characters to their full extent. Elizabeth Gilbert said something about if you want to find out about her read her fiction “signature of all things.” She says that she reveals more about her life and herself and other people in it than she does in either of her memoirs. That her memoirs have been carefully constructed and edited and she does not let much out about her true self. I think this is often the case for memoir writers. I have had to read a lot of memoir and I find that there are few that I really enjoy. Sad as this is my area of study and I’ve had to read lots of them. What I find is that those that you can relate to appeal most. Those where I feel the writer is wallowing in self pity or the opposite turn me off. Those that I enjoy have a life experience and are able to tell it with humour and respect for the others in it. They don’t tell what I consider private information such as you would find in a diary. If I find it unbelievable then they lose me immediately. If you are writing to purge yourself of demons do it unreservedly but don’t make it for public consumption.
    Memoir usually is a combination of memory of a past person plus reflection by the person doing the remembering on the effect the remembered past has had on the present day person. If you remember that the past person is a “you” and you treat them with the respect and ethical consideration given to others then your writing will only go as deep as you are prepared to expose the narrated ‘I’. I am now starting to waffle but hopefully that has given you an idea of my thoughts on writing memoir. If people seem to soak up those with a depth it is because they are trying to make sense of something for themselves.
    I don’t often write deep (or at least I don’t think that I do) but I do hopefully tell a good story. I am not the typical memoir writer however.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh Sarah, I’ve been trying to get over here for so long to comment on your thought-provoking post…but am glad I waited as I got to read Irene’s excellent reply just now, which I totally agree with. What jumped out to me straight way and completely is that if anyone wants to write memoir to purge themselves of the past, hoping for some carthartic experience in so doing, then absolutely, don’t put it out there. I’ve had several people ask me if writing me memoir is carthartic, and I always say not at all, that’s not why I’m writing it. The events that happened took place over three years and had a profound effect on my life but they happened over 30 years ago and I have absolutely no axe to grind, no dark, deep, ugly stuff to reveal about me or anyone and although there are some painful experiences to recall and yes, I’ve cried some of the time in the remembering, but not so much that I’m devastated, more because it’s a sad memory that still pulls at the heartstrings as I bring back my young self and that of my American GI. What I am doing is telling a story, and yes, I go deep but that is probably more in the reflection on what happened. I’m placing myself back in another time, hoping to convey the ‘sacred carnality’ (quoting Mary Karr there, you will see how big she is on this…) of the moment, yet allowing the story to reveal what it is I really want and need to tell. I think you write deep, very deep, I think you write beautifully and powerfully and profoundly. All I know from myself is that when I read Karr’s definition of what it means to be a memoirist, I understood completely why I’ve always churned things up in my mind, seeking for answers, wanting to know the why’s and wherefore’s and wanting to make sense of everything as it unfolded around and in me. I still do, so it seemed natural to me to write memoir, even before I knew what it was (I thought memoirs were only for famous people, mixing them up with autobiographies). I think too that timing is a huge part of memoir. I couldn’t have written what I now write even five years ago, I wasn’t in the right place (even though I’ve ‘wanted’ to write it since my early twenties). Perhaps when you have enough distance between your personal writings and your desire to write about them, you’ll know then just what it is you want to say, how you want to say it and it will then come naturally. Trust me, you’ll know when it’s time lovely lady, you’ll know…and until then, you keep doing what you’re doing because it works and how 🙂 ❤


  15. Oh dear. There is a whole, whole lot I could say here if I weren’t on my 20 minute lunch break at work. That’s what causes me to skim surfaces, when I do. It’s funny. I write memoir because I don’t feel qualified to do anything else. Because I need a way to look at my life in an integrated fashion. Because I’m trying to make sense of things that are dark or troubled or confuse me. And because I want something of my identity and personality to persist in the world. As I watch my mother’s disintegrate, as her mother’s did before her, this becomes even more and more imperative. I don’t really think you do skim the surface, Sarah. Humor can be a tool for making meaning; it does have to be a way of avoiding darker truths. And darker is not always deeper anyway. I am currently reading a book Anne reviewed on her blog that might be interesting to you in this regard. ICYMI, the link is here.

    Now back to proving nonprofits need technology and funders should give us money for it.


  16. I write various things that are deeply personal. Some more obvious than others. Writing these pieces in itself is intense and sometimes I have to will myself to finish certain pieces and click publish. There are personal poems, essays, and a lot of elements of my life in my novels. It’s cathartic and it’s gotten a lot easier with the year. I often dig deep and often into unwelcoming territory because for me, there’s a very real need to see the worst of me and my life and make a positive out of it, if only to see that someone else says I’ve gone through something like that. Being vulnerable is a daily occurrence with what I write because I’m at the mercy of anyone who wants to take a ride on the trollocoaster, but I’m blessed that in all this time, it’s been negligible and instead I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people. To me, one of my greatest accomplishments was to have someone DM me and say that thanks to a post I wrote, they felt they could love themselves. Some people would focus on the mental or emotional stability of that person… for me, it is a gift that reminds me to keep going, keep digging, keep pushing through pain and tears and share. It may not be easy, but it is healing to several degrees.


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