I’ve worked as a writer ever since I graduated with a journalism degree in 1982. For almost every piece of writing I’ve done, I’ve had a contract to write it ahead of time. I’ve known the topic, the length, the audience, and how much I’d be paid for my efforts.
With one major exception: my memoir.
I didn’t write a memoir because someone asked me to or because I sought publishing fame. I wrote a memoir because I had to write a memoir. I could almost feel the hand on my back pushing me forward, the voice in my ear whispering, you must do this. I didn’t know what the story would be about. All I knew was that I was solidly in the middle of mid-life and didn’t want to screw up my future the way I’d screwed up my past.
(Not to put too fine a point on it.)
In short, I wrote a memoir because I knew, on some level, that writing would help me heal.
I’ve taught memoir writing for well over a decade. In that time, I’ve worked with somewhere around two thousand writers who were driven to write about difficult experiences that caused some kind of internal split between how they’d acted and who they really were. In other words, they wrote because they were in pain, and a great many of them were able to write their way out of it.
Compassion. Understanding. Love. Forgiveness. Confidence. Courage. I’ve seen writers gain all of these characteristics—and more—through the relatively simple (though not always easy) act of putting pen to paper. But this isn’t just true of my students. The transformative power of personal narrative has been well-documented in research that has shown reflective writing can ease depression, boost confidence, improve health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits, and even enhance memory.
Storytelling changes us because storytelling forces us to not merely recount events in a this-happened-and-that-happened sort of way.
To tell a story, we have to examine those events and help the reader understand why those events occurred. We need to link the events of our lives using cause-and-effect sequencing. We have to understand that when “this” happened “that” occurred as a result.
This means we have to examine motives, emotions, our environment, and other people. We also have to challenge our own perceptions, and then challenge them some more, to see if our remembered perspective is accurate. In our daily walking-around life, the stories that loop through our minds tend to perseverate on single themes: blame, shame, embarrassment, anger, guilt. But writing forces you to pause the tape at various intervals to see if you can discern subtler themes and plot lines you may have overlooked. In short, writing causes you to call yourself on your own bullshit to see if maybe, just maybe, there is another way to view a difficult experience.
Hint: there is always another way.
By giving us a more well-rounded perspective on our lives, personal storytelling is the avenue through which we heal painful internal splits and come back into unity with ourselves and others. When we take time to learn and honor the truths of our lives, we are able to connect more readily with our divine nature, that essential spirit self that remains unbruised by human experience. This, in turn, can’t help but make us less wary of the world and others. In the process, we move from feeling like an outsider to feeling that finally, thank you God, we belong.
It’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me, which is why I took almost two years out of my life to write my book. Writing certainly healed me. But my hope, more than anything else, is that writing will give you new insight and perspective as well.