Avoidance and Growth in Memoir Writing.

Avoidance is inherent in memoir-writing. We avoid our painful memories, avoid sitting down to type them on a page, avoid telling others of our endeavors. Sometimes, memoirists are our own worst enemies.

When I started blogging in 2016, knowing very little about writing, I even avoided stating the core of my book:

My adult son was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 11.

I tried to be cagey. I thought it would pique the reader’s interest to dangle some words like “child neurology” and “Children’s hospital” and “depression,” without giving them the full story.

As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve learned that being cagey is a turn-off. A little intrigue might be okay to draw a reader in, but we ultimately have to be honest. Avoidance gains us no readers.

In memoir, avoidance is a turn-off.

That blog is no longer live, but here’s what I had written below. You’ll see what I mean about being cagey, not to mention that the blog lacks a narrative arc and solid structure.

But any kind of writing, especially memoir, involves growth, and pushing through avoidance is a lesson I learned quickly and still repeat often. (Here’s a happy update on my memoir!)

 The box in the attic: On writing my memoir.

A few weeks ago, I took a deep breath and got the box down from the attic.

When we first moved into our old house 10 years ago, the attic was infested with spiders. Spiders are supposed to be good, right?  They eat all the other nasty bugs. But a bug is a bug and I don’t like any of them, especially when they’re invading my turf.

So I slowly transferred all of our storage from cardboard boxes to plastic bins, having read somewhere that spiders don’t much bother with plastic bins.

But the box was still a box. I have no idea why, with all the sturdy, tightly-lidded Rubbermaid up there, this priceless vault endured as cardboard, slightly mangled, softened, and duct-taped together.

Well, if I’m honest, I know exactly why. Avoidance.

After I had brought the box down, I set it on the office floor and tentatively opened it. I breathed a sigh of relief when nothing creepy-crawly climbed up my arm or skittered across the mishmash of notebooks, folders, and pamphlets.

Then I looked at what I had been avoiding, other than spiders:

  • •A prayer that a colleague had given me
  • •Medical appointment receipts
  • •Pages copied from the “Textbook of Child Neurology”
  • •An “About Depression” booklet
  • •A hand-drawn diagram showing how multiple childhood disorders overlap
  • •A publication about Astrocytomas
  • •A “Welcome” guide to Children’s Hospital in Boston
  • •A small packet of removed stitches

Thumbing through the densely packed material, memories and emotions came back to me from another life, it seemed. Tears stinging my eyes, I whispered aloud, “Did we really go through all this?”

Yup–we did.

One thing I didn’t find was a Good Housekeeping magazine from that era—1997.

How could I not have kept that? It was a critical part of the story.

So I put out an SOS to friends and family, and eventually found and ordered the issue I wanted on eBay. That package arrived while I was away for the holidays. Yesterday I finally opened it, flipped through the musty pages and found the article I was looking for. The caption under a picture of an adorable little boy read: He regressed until he kind of disappeared.  I completely understood.

So now I have all the pieces of my puzzle before me. I can pick up where I left off on the memoir that I started almost 20 years ago.

Telling the story will be slow, painful, infinitely rewarding, and uplifting.  I hope you’ll stick with me through it.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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