Writing Memoirs as Therapy
One major difficulty we run into when we start writing our memoirs is an inability to face or process troubling emotions. When we write things down, naturally, we have to think about them, and most of us would prefer that they just go away. We try to avoid thinking about the painful, traumatic events in our lives, burying them deep down so that we won’t have to look at them.
But there’s a problem with this particular coping mechanism. These hidden traumas can come back on us in all kinds of unexpected ways. Inhibition or suppression of emotions, traumatic events, or aspects of our identity can result in long-term, low-level stressors and create an increased likelihood of becoming ill.
Loss and abandonment can come back as neediness and separation anxiety, abuse can come back as retaliation or addiction, suppressed stressors of all sorts can return as migraine, cancer, heart disease and a host of other ailments.
However, just like lancing a boil to drain the abscess, it’s better to face this mental and emotional damage head-on and bring it out into the light where we can examine it and begin to heal.
One very effective and cathartic way to do this is by treating our memoir as a form of self-therapy, which can then be transformed into a coherent story.
Definition: From Wikipedia:
“Writing therapy; relieving tension and emotion, establishing self-control and understanding the situation after words are transmitted on paper.
“Writing therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the act of writing and processing the written word as therapy. Writing therapy posits that writing one’s feelings gradually eases feelings of emotional trauma. Writing therapy is used to work with a wide range of psychoneurotic issues, including bereavement, desertion and abuse.”
Benefits of Memoir Writing as Therapy
1. Writing longhand helps us to slow down
In today’s fast-paced world, we’re so used to multi-tasking, typing on our devices or using voice recording that we seldom take the time to slow down and write by hand. Writing longhand forces us to take our time, because it takes longer to get the words out, giving us more time to concentrate. When we focus on the underlying meanings and significance of the words themselves, it gives us clarity regarding our own motivations and the reasons why we feel the way we do in a given situation. Often we can discover enormous insights into why we are upset about something, simply by taking the time to write it down.
Many of us, especially as we age, find ourselves without someone to talk to, to discuss our thoughts and feelings. Writing, and especially memoir, provides an outlet for self-expression because we can take the time to examine the issues and problems that bother us, with complete honesty. It allows us to rant and moan about all the stuff that’s irritating, even enraging, and (as long as we show a little restraint and keep ourselves from immediately posting it on social media) we can get the anger and pain out without hurting others. By getting the words out on the page or screen we can begin to explore some of the ramifications and tangents that feed into our emotional responses. Sometimes, it’s those tangents that provide the greatest insights, allowing us to better understand ourselves and providing solutions for the problems that bother us.
3. Staying in the moment
When we’re writing, if we’re lucky, we can get in the Zone, that blissful place where we lose all track of time and we can achieve a Zen-like state of laser focus on our own thoughts. The more of this we do, the better at it we become. Like any mindfulness technique, it takes practice, but it has the added bonus of prompting us to begin looking at our daily activities more mindfully. Since we know we’ll likely be writing about it later, we tend to begin noticing more. And by writing about our emotional issues and gaining insight into our triggers, we can begin to be more objective about our own emotional reactions in any given situation, which can result in better emotional control under stress.
Some further benefits can include:
- better immune function
- fewer doctor visits
- reduced stress
- improved performance in work and school
- reduction of emotional and physical pain and suffering
- Improved relationships and social skills
- decrease in symptoms of depression
- lower blood pressure
- improved liver function
- fewer sick days
- better memory
Writing is used as therapy for all kinds of conditions and traumatic experiences: PTSD, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, various phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bereavement and loss. Even confusion or fear of undertaking a large project (such as writing a memoir) can be clarified by writing it down and exploring exactly what aspects of the project are confusing. When we get it all out on the page we can begin to make sense of it, because it’s not all swirling around in our heads. Once we can organize and categorize our thoughts, they become manageable.
When prescribed by a registered therapist, therapeutic writing tends to be more focused than keeping a personal journal and is often guided by specific prompts and guidelines.
But many people keep a journal or diary as a matter of daily routine. Others write Morning Pages, based on Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way”. When we write about our thoughts and feelings related to stress and trauma, we gain a better perspective on the stressful experience. Writing gives us objectivity and distance from painful events, allowing us to process them rationally and defuse them emotionally.
Gaining clarity on our own psychological makeup in order to make sense of the events of our life can only contribute to the value and honesty of our memoir.
How To Use Writing as Therapy
1. Schedule, Goal and Deadline
Set up an appointment for yourself, at the same time every day if possible. Set aside a specific time when you know you won’t be interrupted. It may be early in the morning when you’re fresh, or if you’re a night-owl, it may be after the rest of the world is asleep. Do your best to keep to your schedule so that writing each day becomes a habit.
If there’s a specific problem you’ve been facing, name it, even give it a title. Set an intention to explore the thoughts surrounding why you might feel distressed about the situation and why it’s a problem for you.
Then set a timer — 10 minutes of writing, 20 minutes or an hour, or whatever time you have available. There’s something about having that timer ticking down to a deadline that has a near-magical effect on our ability to focus. Alternatively, some people choose a specific word count or number of pages they want to achieve.
Keep your attention focused on the specific events you’re recalling and your analysis of them. It’s important to really interact with the thoughts and ideas you’re writing about in order to fully understand and process them.
Try not to get side-tracked. Exploring your thoughts can take a while, and you don’t want to be distracted when you’ve just caught the first glimpse of the reason why you’ve “always” done something that you know is self-destructive. Memories may bubble up that you’ve suppressed or simply not thought about for years, and it’s important to get them down so you can discover the emotional hold they may have on you.
As you write, more thoughts will occur which may take you off on a different tangent. If you have an interesting thought before you finish the one you’re currently exploring, make a quick note, so you don’t forget the tangent, and immediately get back to the current exploration. The greatest insights happen when you can just stay focused. Sometimes the tangents are your subconscious trying to deflect you from revisiting a past pain. Stick with it, so you can find the core of the pain and begin to see it objectively. The majority of emotional traumas happen as a result of a child’s immaturity, resulting in an inability to process events rationally as an adult. We hold worries, fears and memories as physical manifestations in our bodies. A mature re-evaluation of traumatic events can release stressors we’ve carried for decades. When we identify these past stressors, we can heal ourselves, mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
This is stream-of-consciousness writing. The objective is not to produce a literary work of art. Far more important than that is the emotional expression lying beneath the words, irrespective of written style or content.
Don’t re-read or edit as you go. Don’t think about word count, literary content or quality of any kind. No perfect sentences, no complete paragraphs, even spelling doesn’t count. There’s no need. Editing on the fly can influence the direction of your thoughts and at this stage, you want pure free association.
This is not even a first draft. It’s purely a brain-dump, to get the thoughts out on the page. And if you don’t know what to write, start with something inane, like, “I don’t want to do this.” Or, “I don’t know what to write.”
This could lead to, “Why can’t I think of anything, I’m so dumb. Why do I feel dumb? Who told me that?” And so on. Follow the thought to its source. Ask questions. Dig for answers. You may be surprised by the results.
This writing is not for anyone else to see. It’s intensely personal and honest. This kind of vulnerability is simply not possible when you think someone else will read it. You’re having a conversation with your deepest self, the identity that has no secrets, and you can’t be honest if there’s any chance the words need to be censored. That censoring comes later when it’s time to write and edit your memoirs. The insight you gain through this authentic exploration of your own thought processes will give you an understanding and truth that will ultimately pervade the words you write in your memoirs. Without that insight and honesty, your stories will always be less than they could be.
What we’ve been discussing is free-writing — free association of ideas that are somehow connected, but if you’re having trouble getting started, here are some prompts and ideas that might help.
- Write a letter to yourself, asking for help with your current problem.
- Write letters to others — you won’t send these letters, since the point is simply to be brutally honest about your feelings. If you do want to send a letter, rewrite it so it conforms to more socially acceptable conventions.
- Try mind-mapping (draw mind maps with your main problem in the middle and branches representing different aspects of your problem).
- Journal with photographs — choose a personal photo and write down what you feel about the people and places in it. Answer questions like, “What do I feel when I look at this photo?” or “What do I want to say to the people, places, or things in these photos?”
- Sentence stems — the beginnings of a sentence that encourages meaningful writing, such as, “The thing I am most worried about is…”, “I have trouble sleeping when…”, and “My happiest memory is…”
- List of 100 – Create a list of 100 things that make you sad, or 100 things you regret, or 100 things you want to do, or 100 happiest moments of your life, and so on…
The greatest benefit of all is that we can all use writing as therapy at any time. Even when there’s no one we trust who’s there to listen, we can always talk to ourselves through writing. All we need is pen and paper, and the willingness to be honest with ourselves.