Memoir Writing as a Form of Therapy

By Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your story can change the world.

I sat in bed, beneath a six foot poster of Picasso’s Guernica taped to my wall. The book I held, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, was probably not on the summer reading lists for most other 17 year-old boys in 1964, but I was on a mission. I needed to figure out how to become an adult. The book by the father of Twentieth Century psychiatry raised more questions about war, peace, and human nature than it answered. Over the next few years, I read many more books, delving into science, psychology, and social theories.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out my place in the world. By my early 20s, I began to meditate, watching my thoughts flow down the river, learning how to let them go. I didn’t need to jump in after each one. In my 40s, I discovered psychotherapy. I became an instant believer, grateful to receive help on my introspective quest. I loved talk therapy so much, I returned to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.

Finally, by the age of 52, I was fully invested in adulthood and one of my first steps as an adult was to figure out how to help other people. I put out my therapist’s shingle on a busy street and nothing happened. Few people were willing to spend money to tell me their most intimate thoughts. It turns out talk therapy is not for everyone. Frustrated in my desire to help, I searched further, trying to understand how I could help. By this time, well into midlife, the center of my curiosity shifted gradually from knowledge of ideas to connections with people.

Writing gathers, shapes, and then shares

My transition from knowledge to  communication started many years earlier. I wrote regularly in a journal. The flow of words on paper soothed my agitated mind, an experience shared by many journal writers. Journaling allows sentences to pour from the cloud of unknowing, allowing you to verbalize what you didn’t even know you were thinking. Natalie Goldberg, arguably the most influential writing teacher of our era, suggests that powerful writing emerges from deep within our spiritual and emotional core. When such authentic feelings burst from their hidden places, we feel a lift and clarity.

Entering the Twenty First Century, I was stuck in this puzzle. Filling journals  pleased me, but without an understanding storytelling, I was powerless to please readers. Then I stumbled on the rumbles of the Memoir Revolution. I noticed memoirs appearing in bookstores and talk shows. I began to read them and my questions about therapy and life journey snapped into place.

Memoirs push us towards the heart of civilization

Each memoir taught me about the workings of an author’s life. I started looking into this system and experimented with it myself. By pouring my life into a story, I saw the boundaries and definition and shape of myself. And the most exciting thing about memoir writing is that I can share it with others.

When writing our lives, we have no therapist to offer feedback, to ask us to explain a feeling, or see more deeply into a particular situation. However, in a sense, we have a more natural resource than simply one individual guide. By writing for a broader audience, memoir writers follow the form called Story, with its familiar beginning, middle, and end. The broken thoughts that make no sense begin to take shape. Like assembling a puzzle, the pieces fit together into a continuous whole.

Once a story is on paper, any reader can say if the explanations sound complete. How do they know? Because by following the ancient principles of storytelling, memoirs push us to organize experiences into the structure civilization has been teaching us since the beginning of time.

Life into myth, life into literature

Until I read the work of the scholar Joseph Campbell, I never realized stories were so important. I thought books and movies were just for entertainment, the evening news was just for information, and literature classes just allowed us to admire the expressions of previous centuries.

Thanks to Joseph Campbell’s work, I know that stories are everywhere, and that we use them to discover fundamental insights into the human condition. Through his interpretation, I realize that memoirs are exactly the tool I’ve been looking for. By reading them, I understand the shape of another person’s life. By writing, I develop a deeper understanding of my own.

Perhaps when people write memoirs, they are participating in the original therapy. Sigmund Freud apparently thought so, since his technique consisted of asking clients to tell stories about themselves. Now as I learn to tell my own stories, I see how my life works, and finally discover the river into which my years have been pouring me all along. Memoir writing is a social form of therapy, joining us through understanding ourselves and our relationship to each other.

Note: This entry is a rewrite of an essay first posted on September 28, 2007

Notes
While talk-therapy is studied in the psychology department, literature is studied elsewhere. So combining the form of language art known as “story” with the psychology art of healing the self does not fit nicely into an academic framework. But there are those independent thinkers within academia who make the bridge.

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the fantastic book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

For more about research into the psychology of talking and writing, see:

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker

For more about cognitive therapy, google for Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, two of the founders of that movement.

For the brain science of cognitive work, see Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz book on combating OCD with cognitive methods.
Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

19 thoughts on “Memoir Writing as a Form of Therapy

  1. I lead a group of women in my community through writing practice about twice a month. All three of these women work in social work and psychology. The first few times I wrote with them, all using writing practice and writing personal narrative, they commented that writing in that way was like therapy. Sound testimony coming for people who should know.

  2. Great blog, Jerry. I absolutely agree, memoir writing is theraputic. I think of the quote, “Physician heal thyself.” Well, this is “Writer heal thyself.” I started my first memoir over ten years ago. It was a bleeding, sappy piece of sentimental mush with moments of irate anger. All of that gushed on the page and dutifully taken to my poor little critique group to endure. And slowly, I began to not only work the page, work the words, work the story…I began to work and shape my life.

    I;ve finished my second memoir, my first one’s published (Mothering Mother) and my second one (working title, Said Child) is under consideration at a publisher’s. Both have had many excerpts already published in magazines and reviews. It took a lot of work to learn to write a memoir in a way that is not maudlin, self-serving and navel gazing. But I found that the same work it took to clean up my writing and make it a valid, respectable piece of writing–did the same for me.

    Jerry, I always enjoy your blog. Keep it up. You’re a memoir writer’s doula.
    ~Carol O’Dell
    author of MOTHERING MOTHER
    available on Amazon.

  3. I just discovered your website, and love your explanations of how memoir writing works. I don’t often comment, but you really “get it” and articulate it beautifully.
    Thank you!

  4. Sunny, Thanks so much for your comments. I lolve that you have combined organizing and personal development in your blog and website. That’s a good combination.

    Jerry

  5. I often refer to my blog as my therapy, Jerry. And yes, it’s pretty much a memoir at least a third to half the time too. Writing about my life gives me perspective. I discovered the value of journaling when my life was very busy. Writing about it enabled me to step back and see my experiences with new eyes. Memoir writing can be just as useful. Also, I see writing about my life as a teaching tool for myself and others. So YES! Memoir writing is absolutely therapeutic.

  6. Hi Jerry,
    You have brilliantly captured the art and process of writing a memoir in this essay – at least what the process was like for me. I began keeping a journal in 1978 when I lost custody of my son and it literally saved my life. But journal writing is not essay writing is not memoir writing. Thanks for doing what you do for us memoir writers.
    Karen

  7. Hi Karen,

    I clicked over to your blog and see that we are on similar wavelengths. So many stories of true life surely will make us memoir writers and readers more knowledgeable about what really goes on in life, and creates the essence of wisdom. Thanks for this lovely and encouraging comment. Compliments like this are like manna for writers.

    Jerry

  8. Jerry, I have to laugh. I clicked down to comment on this essay and found my post from two years ago! I feel even more strongly than I did the first time that you are doing exceptional work.
    Kudos and thank you! 🙂

  9. Sunny,

    Haha! Look – we’ve created a micro-story right here. Two years of time, two people, reading and loving and learning from memoirs. Time marches on leaving all these traces, and by drawing the lines through the dots we create amazing things. Glad you still like the ideas, which are essentially the same in this version as in the first, but in the more polished style I’ve developed in the two years since the first one.

    Thanks so much for the praise. It’s one of the main currencies of the blogosphere.

    Jerry

  10. Jerry, you’ve outdone yourself with this elegantly concise combination of mini-memoir and process overview. You know the old saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Memoir makes a powerful hammer, especially for the purpose of healing and insight.

  11. Thanks for your thoughts on the healing power of writing. I wrote and self-published a memoir of my journey to healing after a diagnosis of schizophrenia
    and the loss of my eldest son, (Forgive Myself) and I believe the process was very therapeutic. I felt it was the last tool I needed to let go of the shame I felt about my woundedness and to make peace with the past.

  12. Thanks for your comment, Bruce. I looked at your website. It contains much information about your ordeal. Congratulations for facing it and writing about it. Shame is a powerful obstacle for many memoir writers, and your leadership and insight could help others. Jerry

  13. Hi Jerry
    I love this post, and your weaving of your personal search for your own identity with the knowledge of the path of writing and literature as healing. Those of us who used books for survival as children, and who write now–for self knowledge, for pleasure, and for communication–know you are right on with this. Though I have taught writing as healing for 15 years, I still am amazed as if I’m discovering it for the first time when that special moment of aha, oh I see, oh I understand arises, for the student, and for me. This is what memoir gives us, as readers and as writers–the truth of our personal journeys as we learn about who we are. Thank you!

  14. Thanks for our comment, Linda. Many of us who have participated in the process feel changed by it. We are banding together “here” on the Internet in a growing chorus of voices to share these healing observations. Best wishes, Jerry

  15. Enjoyed your post. I took a memoir course as a capstone credit a few years ago. It turned out to be intense and rather cathartic. I’m writing an article for a content provider about it and came across your blog.

  16. Hi Kelly, Thanks for the comment. I scanned your lovely journal writing blog and your painting website, both really beautiful. Good luck with your article. Just one thing I would like to add about the word “cathartic” – there is a lot of controversy about this concept in the treatment of trauma. Some say talking about a traumatic event is “cathartic” in the sense that it allows you to freely express emotions. I’m sure that is an important part of dealing with the aftermath of trauma, but the aspect that most interests me is the “re-storying” that comes from attempting to turn the events into a well crafted story. By using words, sentences, and the structure of Story, you can become the author of the event rather than its victim. I’m not sure if it’s relevant to your article, but I thought I’d mention it, in case you found it useful. Best wishes, Jerry

  17. Yes, I agree. Cathartic came to me, I think, as something I’ve heard a lot before. Re-storying does sound more accurate. When I took the class, I took a humorous bent to my 15 page project, even though it was about serious subjects. That slightly humorous tack did help me to gain some perspective, even though I originally did it for the comfort of the professor and the class (It did touch on some serious things though.) So I see what you are saying.

    If I had expressed some raw emotions I would have made my piece hard to read for others and I’m not really sure it would have been therapeutic for me, because as time goes on I am healing. Perspective is really a more on-the-mark word for what I experienced.

    I felt happier after the class was over. I count it as one of my best experiences in college.

    I finished my article and it included that re-storying aspect. I write for a content provider so I’m not sure where it will end up and it won’t have my name on it but I did provide a link to your blog post in it.

    Thank you for what you said about my blogs!

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