What Frozen Taught Me About Writing Memoir

Franz Kafka famously said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Who knew a Disney movie — one named Frozen, no less — could act as that axe, too?

My four-year-old son Asher loves Frozen; the movie is on regular rotation in our house. He often sings, “Let it Go” at the top of his lungs, complete with hilariously misheard lyrics (my favorite being “and it looks like a McQueen” — the character from the movie Cars). If you don’t have a four year old demanding a near-constant dose of Frozen, you may not know that “Let it Go” appears in the movie after the newly crowned Queen Elsa unwittingly reveals her power to create ice with her hands — something she’s been told to hide her whole life. Mass hysteria ensues and she flees to the mountains where she can be her true self at last. I’m not often moved by big bombastic anthems, but the first few times I heard the song, I sobbed — Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s lyrics broke right through the frozen sea within me, made me think of all I’ve had to let go, all I still need to release, all the parts of myself I’ve hidden away. Now that I’ve heard the song approximately 4,347 times, it no longer makes me cry, but it does continue to stir me. When I hear it these days, it makes me think about writing. Memoir writing, in specific.

I’ve been working on a memoir about my mom, who hanged herself when Asher was one week old, on and off since her death. The writing has been slow going at times; I often find myself shying away from the project when the feelings get too intense, when I feel I don’t have enough distance, when I have to reveal something particularly unflattering about myself. As cheesy as it may be, “Let it Go” reminds me to get back in there, to not hold myself back, to lay it all bare.

In the film, the song begins with some instrumental plinking as we get a panoramic shot of an icy slope; the lens narrows in on Elsa slogging up hill in a turquoise gown, her purple cape trailing behind her. When she starts to sing, I find myself in silent conversation with the lyrics, meditating on my life as a writer.


The snow glows white on the mountain tonight

Not a footprint to be seen


The empty page is where we all start, right? The white page, the white screen, untrammeled, intimidating, glowing with promise.


A kingdom of isolation

And it looks like I’m the Queen


As writers, we have to be sovereigns of our own solitude. It’s best not to isolate ourselves like Elsa, of course — it’s important to connect with the greater community, to not get stuck inside our ego-clotted skulls — but when we face the page, we have to do it alone.


The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside

Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried


This is what we most need to write — the stuff we can’t keep bottled up, the stuff that howls and swirls under our skin, demanding release. Even when I try to resist writing my memoir, it won’t leave me alone; it’s like a dog scratching at the door, but from the inside. It wants out.


Don’t let them in, don’t let them see

Be the good girl you always have to be

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know


This is a big one for me. I have always been the good girl, uncomplaining, optimistic; it’s always been hard for me to let people know when something is bothering me. In the last couple of years — in large part thanks to the example of writers like Cheryl Strayed and Lidia Yuknavitch and Emily Rapp and Roxane Gay — I’ve given myself permission to be more open in my writing, to reveal my own flaws and vulnerabilities and questionable decisions, and it’s been terrifying. Terrifying and exhilarating and necessary.


Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold me back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

I don’t care what they’re going to say

Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway


I still find myself worrying about what people will think when I publish a revealing new essay or write a scene in my memoir that I know could make readers — especially family members — cringe, but I’m learning to let that go. Now that I’ve started to let people see what lies beneath my good girl smile, I’ve realized that this doesn’t show that I’m bad. It shows that I’m human.


It’s funny how some distance

makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me

can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free


When we start to write our scariest stories, they become smaller, less threatening — they no longer have power over us because we’ve taken power over them. And when we let ourselves break through our own self-imposed creative limits, when we let go of all the “rules” we think writers should obey, we do free ourselves. We give ourselves space to write our truest, deepest stories, in our most authentic voice.


Let it go, let it go

I am one with the wind and sky


The first poem I ever wrote, when I was four years old, was called “Little Wind.” It ends with the line “Blow me until I am free, little wind.” I think I knew even then that writing had the power to connect me with something elemental, to blast me wide open. It is something I try to remember now when I face the page, to keep the line between myself and the air porous, to let myself write like the wind, to let it flow through me.


Let it go, let it go

You’ll never see me cry


This is the one part of the song that doesn’t speak to me. When we write, it’s good to let the reader see us cry. If we’re not willing to be vulnerable on the page, how will the reader trust us? The lyrics here may encourage a stiff upper lip, but the “strong, silent type” is just that — silent. I want my writing to shatter my own most persistent silences, not cloak them further.


Here I stand

And here I’ll stay

Let the storm rage on


Writing requires perseverance. It requires digging in, staying grounded, keeping your butt on the chair even when storms of doubt or fear or expectation or judgment — your own or others’ — whip around you. And if those storms do knock you off balance, which is bound to happen, take a deep breath, find your center again and plant yourself back down.


My power flurries through the air into the ground

My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around

And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast

I’m never going back, the past is in the past


Of course when we write memoir, we have to go back — the past is where our material lives. But if we go back with the desire to learn and discover more about ourselves and our world, our thoughts do crystallize — we gain greater clarity about our lives; we can move into the future with clearer eyes and a stronger sense of our own agency.


Let it go, let it go

And I’ll rise like the break of dawn

Let it go, let it go

That perfect girl is gone

Here I stand in the light of day

Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway


At the end of the song, Elsa’s modest gown turns into a slinky iridescent number, her hips swaying like a runway model’s as she walks through her new castle made of ice. She may sing “That perfect girl is gone” but here she looks more conventionally “perfect” than ever. When I hear this song, I get a much different image in my head — that of a woman standing unadorned in her own messy truth.

I spent so much of my life trying to be perfect — I was a girl who hid tests where I missed two answers in my end table drawer so my parents wouldn’t see them; they hadn’t put that pressure on me, at least not explicitly — I had put it on myself. I couldn’t even be wrong when I was asked to — in my short run as a child model, I was hired to demonstrate a primitive classroom computer at a trade show. When a businessman asked me what would happen if I pushed a wrong answer key, I just couldn’t do it. It was physically impossible. My mom had to carry me off through the convention center in tears. I’ve slowly let go of this level of perfectionism over the years, but it’s continued to be hard for me to share anything but positive emotions to my friends and family, to show myself as anything other than a mellow hippie chick.

How radical and transgressive it’s felt to break my life open in my work, to rip back the veil and expose my secrets — the year when I pretended to be sick as a teenager, say, or my lack of faithfulness to my husband, or my inability to get my mom the help she needed — but how incredibly freeing. There has been some fallout — if you ever publish an essay on Salon, I urge you not to read the comments — but I’ve found that the more honest I am in my work, the more I hear from readers who feel empowered to tell their own hardest stories in turn, and the more deeply I am able to connect with the people in my life. It is wild to me to think that I, who have hid so much, could become an example for truth telling, but I want to do for others what my sister-writers have done for me. That perfect girl is gone — and good riddance. She kept things frozen; she kept everything on the surface, glittery and treacherous as ice. I’m still learning how to break open the places that remain frozen within me; I’m still learning how to let go of fear and doubt and pain and guilt, how to let it go, let it go, let it all go, how to let my darkest stories go. It’s the only way I’ll ever be free.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds ofInspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in such places as Salon.com and The Rumpus, and have been widely anthologized. In 1986, when she was 18, Gayle’s essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue of Liberty. The Writer Magazine named her a Writer Who Makes a Difference for her work in the community as well as the social content of her work. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler. She is serving a two year appointment as the current Inlandia Literary Laureate.