by Jerry Waxler
I discovered the benefits of journal writing in the late 1970s when a spiritual teacher suggested, I write my thoughts as if in a letter to God. Allowing my thoughts and feelings to flow onto the page helped me maintain my poise so effectively, I kept going for years. When I began to read about the healing benefits of journal writing, I wasn’t surprised. I had already experienced these benefits for myself.
Similarly, when I first came across the notion of memoir writing, I was not thinking in terms of healing. I had been through many interesting experiences, and wanted to gather them into a narrative form. I wondered if it was even possible, considering I had never written stories before. However, I loved to write and thought that this would make a fascinating creative challenge. In addition, I had always been shy, and thought that learning to think of my experiences as a story might help me open up to other people.
At first, I was happy to be working on the project, gathering anecdotes and attempting to develop them into a compelling story. After I had been doing it for a while, and reading other people’s memoirs, I noticed a remarkable similarity between writing a memoir, and talking to a therapist. I had been in talk-therapy for years, first as a client, and later as a therapist. In talk therapy, a client attempts to tell a story, with the goal of sorting things out and finding new ways to see things.
Writing a memoir is an attempt to do the same thing, but rather than speaking to a therapist, by writing a memoir, I was attempting to explain myself to strangers. By sitting at my computer, spending hours each week trying to organize my life as a story, I was building upon the years I had been in talk therapy, constructing my past into the universal form of a story.
By seeing the way memoir writing helped writers understand themselves, I began to realize I had come across one of the most comprehensive self-help techniques that I have found in my forty years of studying such techniques. I describe this psychology of memoir writing in my book Memoir Revolution. Here’s the short version.
All young people grow up unconsciously putting together a story about themselves. At first build that story from interactions with parents and siblings. Over time, we gather more information, experiment, and continue to tack on new parts of our self-image. If we’re lucky, by the time we reach adulthood we have a coherent story of ourselves. But then the years keep adding on more experience and we have to change and grow.
Eventually, this cobbled-together story becomes unwieldy. Earlier parts might be hard to remember. We ignore contradictions, or forget about failed predictions. Some memories are scary and we try to avoid them altogether. Many of our most informative experiences must be pushed aside in order to make sense of ourselves today. To maintain a coherent story of ourselves we think about the parts that make sense, but we have very little practice experiencing ourselves in a more holistic way.
Writing a memoir allows us to overhaul that story of self, converting it from an accumulated set reactions to circumstances, into a series of clear understandings about who we used to be, how we got here, and where we are now. This makes memoir writing one of the premier methods in our culture for revising and healing one’s sense of self.
The benefits spill over into our interactions with other people. To write a memoir well, we are drawn to other like-minded individuals who are similarly attempting to find their own stories. Memoir writers need each other in order to overcome the fear of revealing too much.
I remember the first time I sat in a group and shared a secret. My revelation, about some teen indiscretion, did not evoke contempt. Miraculously, by telling my dark secret, I felt closer to them. A lifetime of shame crumbled away. Together with fellow writers, in critique groups, blogs, and other social units I call tribes, memoir writers draw on this mutual support. This makes memoir writing one of the premier methods not only of developing the self. It is also a fabulous tool for gaining a more mature understanding of one’s interaction with other people.
Even though I have not yet published my memoir, the fact that I have shaped my memories into stories makes it far easier to explain things about myself, making me more confident, comfortable and open. The act of writing a memoir has actually enhanced my ability to relate to other people. And in order to write a memoir, I’ve had to read hundreds of stories by other people. In story after story, I gain a deeper understanding of the people around me, creating even more openness and confidence in my relationships.
I look back on my journey as a writer and see that the foundation of it all was writing in a journal. By learning to allow my thoughts to flow out onto the page, I developed the instincts and “mental muscle” that aided me throughout every writing project. Journal writing is to memoir writing, as practicing scales is to playing music.