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.

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

Note
For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Memoir author talks about writing, sharing, and healing

By Jerry Waxler

Bill Strickland’s memoir, “Ten Points,” weaves together three things: a promise he made to his daughter, a summer of cycling to fulfill that promise, and his insights into the wounds of his own childhood. To see my review of his memoir, click here. To learn more about his experience of digging so deeply into his past and then sharing it with the public, I asked Bill Strickland to answer a few questions about writing and publishing his memoir. Here is the second part of the interview I conducted with him.

Jerry: Many writers feel a concern about sharing their private lives in public. I imagine this was even more intense for you, given the very personal nature of some of your disclosures. What was it like to share these private experiences?

Bill: At first I was terrified. When I first met my agent David Black, I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, even without details. I also hated sending the story to my mother, but it turned out to be good; we talked like we never had before ? a conversation that made its way into the end of the book.

After I submitted the manuscript, and it made the rounds through the offices at Hyperion, I was speaking to someone about the book – of course, right? – and the experience was so bizarre that it cured me of shock. I was lucky to be able to realize that everyone was going to know the worst parts of my life. And I’m luckier, I think, that for some reason I don’t very much care.

David Black, my agent, gave me some great advice when he read my first chapters. “Get ready for everyone on earth to understand you,” he said. And that’s been true: When I lose my temper at work with friends or I’m snotty at work or something, it’s not because I’m having a bad day but because my dad stuck a gun in my mouth ? that sort of thing. Everyone else has all these potential motivations that are hidden so we assume they’re just having a crappy day or are sick or tired or justified in their actions. But for me, now, for everyone who’s read my book the temptation is to attribute everything I do to something they’ve read. I don’t hold that against them. It’s probably hard not to do.

Most people are nervous when they approach me to talk about the story. They’re not sure if mentioning some scenes will open some sort of traumatic wound that’s been scabbed over. I try to put them at ease, and also try to apologize for the graphic nature of the story.

The bizarre thing is that I’m more myself now than I ever was. Rather than being driven or affected by shame, all the mistakes I make are my own mistakes, all the anger is my own, all the stupid decisions are just me being a stupid human, which is all I ever wanted. I’m more me than ever, yet to everyone else, I’m more the character in the book than ever.

The only concession I think I make is that when I give a book reading I try to select a section based on the audience. The story about my father making me race the killer poodle works pretty well.

Jerry: What advice would you give to people about looking at their own darker memories, and how to decide whether to dig deeper, or keep them hidden, or share them with others?

Bill: I imagine that the best way to go about our lives is different in at least some measure for each of us. Mining the hole inside me worked out; it might not for someone else. For me, it worked out that to be successful in a sport I fell in love, I had to spend a lot of time immersed in suffering, turmoil, unpredictability and other conditions that evoked my memories – and that one positive trait I possess, tenacity, was the answer to the memories as well as the sport.

Jerry: How would you describe what happened to you by writing this book – for example was it healing, redemption, therapy?

Bill: It felt like I was purified in some kind of fire. I don’t think I can make up for the rotten things I’ve done, nor do I think I have to make up for the things that were done to me. I just wanted to be shed of all of them, start fresh. My idea was never that I would be perfect, or even necessarily a better person. I just wanted to be a person.

The races themselves were the vehicles of my transformation . . . the experience of trying so hard, of failing, of succeeding only to fail again, of being outmatched but not quitting, then of having to quit anyway – all of that thrust my childhood back into my life. So my introspection took place at 30 mph, 180 beats per minute, 500 feet off the back of the pack or rubbing elbows with a whirling madman. Bike racing, as it turns out, feels like being burned clean.

Jerry: Some of the humiliating experiences your dad put you through were extremely difficult for me to read. Did you ever consider damping the book down to make it more palatable?

Bill: My editor at Bicycling magazine, Steve Madden, pushed me to be honest about my life in a feature story I wrote about cardiac health back in 2003. I was recounting my family’s cardiac history, and starting writing not just about the physical heart but the emotional concept of heart, and in a draft I dropped the detail that my father had once shot my dog, and I remember Steve saying, “That goes in,” then asking for more. At that time in my life I wasn’t going to tell anyone all that had happened to me, but the incidents I sketched out in that article marked the first time I’d admitted that what went on in my past wasn’t some hilarious caper of misadventures and loveable anti-heroes; that started a change that developed as I wrote the book.

Jerry: What role did writing play in helping you come to terms with your past?

Bill: Writing, as it turned out, was a way to process it, organize it, make sense of it. There was no narrative to my quest until I made it a narrative, in other words. I mean, we all decide where the stories begin and end in our lives — plenty of incidents related to that story happened before and after the framework of the book, but I made sense of my life within those particular boundaries.

One of the oddities about my personality is that I often seem to not know, or fully understand, what I think or believe until I write it down. It’s been this way for me as long as I can remember, just the way I relate to the world, a quirk of my mental make-up. I was one of those kids, for instance, who could learn how to hit a cue ball or build a go-cart from reading about it more so than from watching it demonstrated.

Jerry: I recently met John Bradshaw, who has spent his whole life working on the topic of shame. This fascinates me, since as near as I can tell it’s one of the main deterrents to introspection. Help me understand your willingness to stare your disturbing memories in the face and keep going.

Bill: Well, I was desperate. When Natalie was born, I was actually terrified that I might turn into the kind of monster my father had been. My choices were either to leave, to destroy myself, or to destroy the monster that was in me and wanted out. (I had no idea there was another option, which I found out only at end of that long season, which was to unmask the monster and see that it was only shame.)

At the end of the last race of the season, when I failed to get the ten points and had to deal with my failure and the fact that it had happened right in front of Natalie and my wife and my friends, I realized that the monster I’d always feared was nothing but shame. And I knew that exposing shame to the world would be the best way to neutralize it ? which meant I wanted to not only write my story but publish it so I would become transparent. I also wanted to keep my promise to Natalie. I couldn’t give her ten points (the score), but I could give her Ten Points (the book).

It wasn’t that I faced shame like some brave and noble human, but rather that the racing, the failing at racing, and the succeeding at admitting I’d failed, shone a bright light on the shame that was in me. I mean, there it was: I couldn’t not see it.

Jerry: Do you speak or do any sort of advocacy for victims of child abuse?

Bill: I don’t feel qualified to speak knowledgeably about anyone’s abuse except my own, or about the causes, effects or other commonalities. I just haven’t done that much research. The one thing I feel confident saying, which is in the book, is that I believe all of us contend with our own personal demons (though the intensity and source varies) and that for each of us, our obsessions, whatever they are – bike racing for me, stamp collecting, gardening, or whatever – can teach us all we need to overcome or learn to live with those demons.

Jerry: What’s next?

Bill: I’m done writing about myself. Next summer the paperback of Ten Points comes out. There has been some interest in movie rights to the story, though that’s notoriously unpredictable and not to be counted on, and I’m not inclined to see many of the scenes from the book acted out.

Next summer is also the release of a book I co-wrote with Johan Bruyneel (Lance Armstrong’s team director), We Might as Well Win (Houghton-Mifflin). Stories from Bruyneel’s life illustrate all he’s learned about how to win, whether it’s in the Tour de France or in life.

This is the second of a two part interview. To read more of this interview, click here.
Note: Foster Winans reports a similar experience in which revealing his observations of childhood helped him deepen his relationship with his mother, rather than alienating her as is so often feared. I comment more on Foster’s experience in this review.

Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience

By Jerry Waxler

I recently reviewed Bill Strickland’s memoir Ten Points. It strikes me as being a “perfect memoir” – it’s a great read, it has a powerful sense of love and redemption, and the author opens up generously into his inner process. In order to delve even deeper, I asked him answer a few questions. Just as he was generous in his memoir, he was also generous in sharing his insights about writing it. This is the first of a two part interview.

(To read my review of the memoir, click here.)

Jerry: When did you realize you were going to write your life experience in a memoir?

Bill: As I started training for that season, I was taking notes and writing about the races, because that’s generally what I do ? try to make sense of my life by writing about it. But at that time, the writing was strictly for me. One of my training friends, Jeremy, who makes a few appearances in the book, rode many early 5 a.m. morning rides with me, during which we talked and talked, as cyclists do to fill the miles. He was a book editor (now an agent) and he kept telling me, “You have a book. This is a book. Write this book.” But I kept hesitating, because Jeremy, along with everyone else, didn’t know the full story. He only knew what I’d told everyone: That I was trying to score ten points to show my five-year-old daughter, Natalie, that any of could achieve something impossible, and to show her that we should ask much, and expect much, of those we love. Jeremy, like other people, that I’d had a tough life; I’d never been shy about spinning yarns about my white-trash family, turning us into comic-heroic misfits.

I didn’t tell anyone though, in detail, about the horrors of my life and what I really hoped to accomplish by scoring ten points ? destroying the monster I believed lived in me. I knew if I wrote a book, it would only be if I told the full, true story.

As the season wore on, and I wrote more, some of the stories of my past began to lay over the stories of the bike races in ways that seemed natural. And the act of racing itself, the suffering and the survival and the triumph and tragedies, was like opening a pipeline to my childhood. After the racing season was over and I’d had that final epiphany about shame, telling the story was not only okay to me, but almost mandatory.

Jerry: How long did it take you from the time you started to the time you finished writing?

Bill: From the end of the racing season through the rest of 2004, from October to Dececember, I kept writing scenes and what felt like chapters. At my agent’s urging, in 2005 I began working on a proposal, and we submitted a 50-page proposal that spring. It had a long chapter that also worked as a kind of introduction; a summary; and a summary of every chapter I’d planned.

Hyperion bought the book in the spring 2005 and I began writing for a May 2006 deadline. I mostly hit that deadline, with an 80,000-word manuscrpt. My editor, Leslie Wells, asked me what the book might look like with less cycling, more present day family stories, and a little tighter. She made some suggestions about which parts worked and where her interest flagged, and I ended up liking her ideas so much that I cut about 12,000 words and tried to focus on the most compelling race action rather than document each race. That, in turn, made the connections to my past even sharper. I turned in a final draft in August of 2006, and it was published July of 2007.

Jerry: What can you share about persisting, overcoming slumps, and making it to the end?

Bill: There was never a slump for me. Rather, in the spring of 2006, in the middle chapters, I could sometimes forget I was writing a book and that there was an end. The process seemed to exist only for itself, which I found sort of satisfying but also mystifying; I could get lost in the writing for days. Each week I tried to look at the book as a whole and see where I was, in a way kind of reminding myself that I was trying to complete this big, long thing.

I never had periods where I felt blocked or stumped. There were definitely times when I went off-track, or when I felt drained. I simply took a few days off, tried not to think about the book, then came back to it. I get great joy from the act of writing, even when it’s hard, maybe especially when it’s hard. To me it’s less about persistence than the incredible good luck that I am able to do this. When I get a chance to write, it’s a gift.

Jerry: What were your writing habits?

Bill: I don’t keep track of words or hours or consecutive days. I would guess that I write something, whether it’s fresh copy or playing with something already written down, just about every day. But I don’t know for sure. I write until I know I should stop for any of three reasons – I am exhausted or I can sense the next sentence and know I’ll be able to pick up the flow, or I have reached what I think of as a “turn,” in the story, which I define to myself as the end of a section that moves in a certain direction or with a certain rhythm. Or, sometimes, I need to take out the garbage or let the cat in or something, too – life’s mundanities rule us as much as our passions.

I’m also a fan of revision, so I like to just get something on paper and then tune it.

I write on computer, edit on paper, and like to move about the house with my laptop. I also wrote a fair bit of the book in our local bike shop, South Mountain Cycles.

Jerry: I am stunned by the brilliance of the story telling and phrasing. How much of this skill was learned before you decided to write a memoir, and how much after?

Bill: I have to say that I was surprised to hear myself called a good storyteller (by my agent, readers and editors). It’s not that I thought of myself as a bad storyteller but I’d never tried to tell a long story and didn’t know if I could, whereas I’ve always more or less known I can write some striking sentences.

In a strange way that is almost embarrassing to discuss, I think that deciding to be honest about who I am, for the first time in my life, opened up my writing in a way that changed it. I realize this sounds precious or maybe makes me sound like a sophomore in a creative writing class, but I now believe that I was always holding something back in my writing, what I gave to my writing, or the chances I was willing to take with language and sound and rhythm and image.

Jerry: What memoirs did you read to learn the art of memoir writing?

Bill: I didn’t want to read other memoirs as I wrote mine, especially those that dealt with abuse. I wanted to prevent anything from the abuse canon from slipping into my story; I wanted the details and whatever patterns or connections there might be in that area to come to the story strictly from my experience, even if they are part of a common experience . . . if that makes any sense. I guess you could say I don’t mind being derivative as long as I’m original.

I did have some reference points. I’d read Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, which is about a year he spent trying to become a world-class cross-country skiier. I still think Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider, captures the entire feeling of a bike race better than any other book (or movie). A book about swimming, of all things, Water Dancer, by Jenifer Levin, showed me something important about language in its cadences; I realized that I wanted the writing about the racing to be extremely physical – to feel harsh or hard or as if it were slipping away from the reader, or hitting them in the face, and I worked hard to try to accomplish that through word choice and rhythm. I kept reading Worstword Ho, by Samuel Beckett, because I thought the pacing was a good model, and because some phrasing in it became important to me: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, as I raced I used to repeat, like a mantra, “fail better,” and I had that in the book for a bit but the idea of a racer quoting Beckett seemed too outlandish to be accepted as real. I used it as the epigram, at least.

Jerry: Tell me more about your approach to finding the story amidst your memories.

Bill: I found that, to be effective as a storyteller, I had to quickly get to a point where I was able to view the story as a story rather than as therapy. I don’t think I could create tension, character, setting within the confines of a therapeutic recounting. A story, even the ones that feel loose, are structured. I was writing certain ways, introducing certain things at certain points, ending things at certain times, revisiting at certain times, for storytelling effect. I talk about the people in the book as characters, which I think can be disorienting for people who want to talk about me, or Natalie as people. We’re both, but those people inside that book are more characters to me. I mean, I counted up once and Natalie has less than 300 lines of dialog in the book — a fraction of a fraction of everything she said to me over the course of that year. Her dialog in that book is the dialog of that particular character, whereas Nat and I have this whole, nearly boundless yearlong mess of our life together.

Notes

This is Part 1 of a Two Part Interview. To read part 2, click here.

To see the Amazon page for this book, click here.

To read more about Bill Strickland and Ten Points, click here