This past weekend, I was at the California coast with a group of women I lived with in the dorms during college. We hadn’t seen each other since before the pandemic and there was a lot of catching up to do.

At one point, one of the women asked me what I liked best about my work as a memoir coach. Without thinking too much about it, I told her it was because my work allowed me to be nosy and peer inside the lives of other people.

Even though my response was true—I LOVE learning about other people’s lives, which is why I became a journalist all those years ago—saying I was nosy was a flip answer, one designed more to get a laugh than to reveal a deeper truth.

Had I thought about it more, I would have told her one of the things I like most about my work is that I get to bear witness to the incredible growth, understanding, and healing that occurs when people engage honestly with their life stories. And it’s true—it’s an immense privilege to bear witness to another person’s journey from confusion to clarity about their lives.

But the real, honest-to-goodness deeper truth—the reason I’ve been a memoir coach longer than any other work I’ve done—is that every day I continue to learn, grow, and heal from my own childhood wounds.

Neither of my parents were emotionally available, and for a good percentage of my childhood, my mother was physically absent. Coaching has allowed me to acquire skills I didn’t naturally acquire as a kid—things like compassion, empathy, generosity, self- and other-awareness, and yes… love.

Add to this all the things I learn from my clients about spirituality, grief, resilience, tenacity, forgiveness, and more, and well, it feels like I’m regularly interacting with humanity’s wisest teachers.

If my roommate were to ask me the same question again—what do you most like about your work?—this is what I would tell her. “Helping other people find healing through story helps me to continue my own healing journey.”

So… why am I telling you all this? Because my experience with giving a partially true reason (I’m nosy), followed by a deeper truth (because it’s a privilege to bear witness to another person’s growth), followed by the most resonant truth of all (because this work is healing for me) neatly mirrors the process all memoirists go through when trying to decide what an experience meant.

There’s often a first level of understanding: I was scared because my mother intimidated me.

 Then, a second level of understanding: She intimidated me because she was a perfectionist. My father was absent a lot and she thought if she kept the perfect house and raised the perfect children, he would stay home more.

 Then, digging even deeper, a third level of understanding arises: I now realize I became afraid of my mother because she was afraid of what was happening in her marriage, and that fear became a constant presence in our home.

 Obviously, it may not always take three levels of investigation to find the deeper truth. Sometimes, it may take only two levels of digging; other times, five.  The point is that your first attempt at explaining the ‘why’ behind an experience will often be the most superficial.

But if you keep asking why this happened and what this meant, you’ll hit on the emotional truth that vibrates deep inside, causing you to sit back and say, “Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly why I felt the way I did.”

Best of luck with your writing. May your own digging reveal the wisdom you seek.

PS: For those of you who’d like a humorous reminder about the importance of continuing to ask why, check out this video.