The exciting research about the healing power of writing by Dr. James Pennebaker and others has been out for over a decade, yet people are still finding out about this important and significant reward from writing memoir–from writing the truth. Many of us have been pouring our hearts into journals, hoping to drop some of our burdens or vent enough to feel better. Writing in a journal gives us permission to write whatever we want without worrying about making sense. Most of us don’t look at the writing again, feeling a bit shy to reread the scribblings of our former selves. The research about writing has found that story writing helps to heal physically as well as emotionally, changing the immune system and altering neural pathways. I was so excited when I first read about it in 2001, I wrote my first book: Becoming Whole—Writing Your Healing Story.
Writing a story is different from journaling. A story has structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and in a story, we use scenes and other writing techniques to bring the past to life: characters, dialogue, and action. A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, taste. In a story, we are both the narrator and the “I” of the story—the main character. This dual point of view helps to create a witnessing experience of ourselves as we write from our current point of view about who we once were, an artful weaving of then and now, past and present.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, says that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process.
To start creating stories from your memories, list the ten most important things that happened to you, moments that changed your life in a profound way. Write each story or vignette one by one, focusing on your emotions and the meaning the story has for you. You will have a good start to a memoir or your memory book this way. After you have several stories, you can quilt them together in whatever order that makes sense.
Dr. Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.”
I love this idea—that a story has a life of its own, a story can teach us something. I have discovered this to be true in my own writing and coaching. I discovered that I could put my past into better perspective as I wrote my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. I began to have healing dreams, and by the end, my mother and I were riding the train together in my dreams. The train had been a focus of her visits, bringing her and taking her away, but finally we were together peacefully by the time I finished the memoir.
When we put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, something important starts to happen: as we write, new ideas meander onto the page, unexpected sentences arise out of us, thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t thought about in a long time. We wonder if we should delete these unexpected sentences. We may feel alarmed, ashamed, excited, even giddy. That is great! It means that you have allowed your true expression to come through. It means you burst out of your usual control, and allow an inner wisdom to speak through you.
Negative memories are stored differently in the brain than normal memories. We can stay stuck in the trauma, and even have flashbacks as memories are triggered—I see this in my therapy practice. But when we put our experiences into a story—even a fictionalized story—we can reprocess our memories and move forward. The researchers found that the immune system is improved by writing for only 15 minutes four times a week. I write a lot more about the new research in my new book The Power of Memoir—How to Write your Healing Story.
As you write, make sure you capture the positive stories of your life too. You need to keep a balance between dark stories and the lighter ones of happiness and joy. I learned to balance the stories of the beauty of the Midwest plains landscape and the friends who had saved me with the painful stories of missing my parents. Readers told me that this balance helped them to read my book, and not be caught up too much in the painful parts.
If you write only ten minutes a day, you can begin one of your vignettes. There I predict you will find new meaning and appreciation for who you are. It takes courage to write our truths, but the rewards are great. Begin today!
Tips for Writing to Heal
1. List 10-20 important turning points in your life. Create a timeline and plot these events on your timeline so you can see how the events cluster.
2. Choose one or two new turning point stories a week to write. Be sure to use sensual details and write scenes.
3. If you write a darker story, follow it up with a lighter one for balance.
4. Genealogical and historical research can help to create understanding and compassion for your ancestors. You can write from the point of view of your father, mother, or grandparents after you discover some of the details of their lives.
5. Write from old photos—describe the photo in detail, and then imagine what happened before and after the photo captured that moment in time.
6. Write freely—don’t listen to your inner critic.
PS The photo you see is me, Keith, who’s in my memoir, and Mr. Brauninger, my music teacher and witness, important healing friends in my life, rehearsing for a cello duet — about 1957.