by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
My friend Don mentioned that his writing group was thinking of offering fiction writing classes as a public service to veterans. The notion of serving those who serve their country inspired me and on an impulse I blurted out, “Maybe I could teach them memoir writing.” My offer caught me off guard. I had taught hundreds of civilians about memoir writing, but I had never taught a class full of veterans. Now that the thought was out in the open, I wondered how much I knew about teaching veterans to write, especially those who had been in combat.
After the World Trade Center bombing, I wanted to help trauma survivors, so to supplement my master’s degree in counseling, I took a course offered by Pennsylvania’s department of emergency preparedness. The main technique they taught, called trauma debriefing, consisted of encouraging survivors to talk about their experience. The treatment seemed reasonable to me. Talking has always been the mainstay of counseling.
Later I learned that many researchers disagreed with the technique saying that if you talk about the experience, you might re-experience the trauma. I didn’t have enough information to form my own opinion, so I filed the debate in the back of my mind.
Memoir Writing as Trauma Debriefing
When I began to study memoirs, I realized that many of them were taking me on a journey through horrifically traumatic experiences like combat, rape, and abuse. But within the pages of the book, the horror had been transformed into a literary framework.
When I began to teach memoir writing, I extended my understanding of how this works. The participants often shared their most painful moments. After they read their passage aloud, something changed in the room. People became more relaxed and open with each other, as if they had gone through the actual experience together. The speakers said they had rarely if ever shared these moments with anyone, let alone strangers, and listeners reported a sense of empathy.
I felt that their revelations were similar to the trauma debriefing method with a key difference. Because they were in a memoir writing workshop, they were attempting to turn their horrible trauma into a good story. By packaging their memories in a shape that would be understandable by others, they had to restructure their haphazard memories into an orderly sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. A story’s protagonist strives to achieve a goal, and along the way develops satisfying, philosophical insights. Memoir writers become philosophers of their own lives, searching for alternate perspectives and finishing with closure that would make sense to both the reader and the writer. By packaging their pain in the shape of a story, they gain control over it, masters of their own experience. For this reason, I believe combat veterans would benefit by attempting to convert their intense memories into the structure of a story, not to simply repeat the experience but to shape it.
In addition to helping themselves, they could help those who love them. After all, that’s what Homer did thousands of years ago, when he wrote the Iliad. We’ve been reading his account of battle ever since. By representing that world, so foreign to us civilians, combat veterans give us a deeper appreciation for their service, and we gain a more profound appreciation for the human costs of war.
Memoir writing is not for everyone. In addition to all the work and skill required to construct a story, memoir writers must also be willing to come out of hiding. When you first consider writing a memoir, the thought of divulging private aspects of yourself might seem horrifying. But if you stick with it, and add more and more anecdotes to your file, a story begins to emerge. Within that story, you uncover parts of yourself that had been forgotten or suppressed and you begin to forgive yourself for parts that you wish would disappear. As you find the words to explore these diverse aspects of yourself, you become more authentic and whole.
In the next section of this essay, I will explore more detailed ways that a memoir could help someone make sense of their experience in the military.
Click here for part 2 of this essay.
Inspiring interview between Bill Moyers and Maxine Hong Kingston about why combat veterans should write their stories.
Healing Combat Trauma website
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