How does Counseling Relate to Memoir Writing?

by Jerry Waxler

This is a terrific question, because it relates directly to the reason I wrote Memoir Revolution. I think that memoir writing is one of the most exciting developments in psychology in the last 100 years. And, unlike other systems, it wasn’t invented by a genius or by a team of researchers. Instead, the use of memoir writing as a form of healing was developed by a groundswell of individuals intent on finding the stories of their lives. Here’s how I came to this understanding.

When I had outgrown childhood and realized I was going to need to become an adult, in addition to all the usual challenges of picking a career and finding a relationship, I had many emotional problems. I was depressed, confused about how to relate to people, what I really wanted to do and so on.

After I settled into steady employment, I started on a longterm commitment to talk therapy. These weekly discussions helped me put in words the things that had been bothering me. Ten years into this process, I switched to a different therapist and I had to introduce myself all over again. Naturally, I attempted to reconstruct the bits and pieces I had been explaining for years. After the second or third session, my new therapist said, “Have you ever put all that on a timeline?” I couldn’t grasp what she was saying. Not only had I never put the events of my life on a timeline. This was the first time the notion even occurred to me.

“How would that work?” I asked.

She grabbed a piece of paper and drew a horizontal line. Underneath the line she listed a sequence of years, and said “write a few sentences about each major event and place your descriptions along this line.” The method was so simple. Why had I never thought of it?

So I went home and listed key bits of information, such as the year I went to college, the year I was in a riot, the year I moved to California to become a hippie. On paper, the sequence shifted from a collection of confusing memories to the skeleton of an interesting story. For the first time, I considered the possibility that with a little more work, I could turn that whole mess of memories into a sensible sequence.

Eventually, I went to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in counseling psychology. By fifty-two, I was the one who sat and listened to clients, providing for them the same survival tool that my therapists had provided me. However, based on my experience, I wished I could find a way to help them collect the whole journey into a continuous narrative. BWith a chronological understanding, perhaps they would be able to feel more whole, just as I had done. But my education as a psychotherapist did not include such a method, and I had not yet come across the world of memoirs, so I forged ahead with hourly sessions.

Around that time, to increase my writing ability, I joined a writing group near my home in Bucks County Pennsylvania where aspiring writers could drop in anytime to talk with other writers, or to take classes. The reputation of the group grew, and people drove 50 and 100 miles to participate. This group experience introduced me to the fact that writing does not need to be isolated. When writers come together, magic happens. I realized that if I could teach writing workshops, I would be able to be around writers a lot more.

From this experience, I began to develop self-help workshops for writers. My notes for those workshops evolved over a period of years to the book I now call How to Become a Heroic Writer. [available on Amazon – here’s the link – http://amzn.to/1wx0Xkj ] To help writers become more courageous, I developed a technique I called “story of self” in which I explore ways to see yourself as a writer. I began to tap into this notion of “story of self” as a self-help tool, and realized the connection between the story we tell ourselves, and the way we see each other.

From the first time I took a memoir class, I was hooked on the potential for memoir writing as a way of healing. I recognized in memoirs that everything I had learned through my years of self-help, the wisdom I had gained through my own journey, even the experiences of spirituality and love, could be contained in a holistic story of myself.

By studying other people’s memoirs, teaching memoir writers, and continuing to develop my own story-of-self, I have come to appreciate the power of memoirs to provide a simple method for anyone to develop a keener, clearer understanding of their life experience, draw lessons, heal wounds, and eventually through effort, craft, and polish, share themselves with readers.

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