Writing stories heals body and soul, and is a powerful way to change our perspective about the past. Not only that, it’s a creative way to learn about yourself. Dr. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smith published the first research on writing as a way to heal and recover from past injuries in the Journal of the American Medicine Association in 1999. Pennebaker states that writing stories is even more healing than journaling, and helps to heal asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Pennebaker’s site has a lot of articles about writing, healing, and the benefits of using certain language as a means for healing. Though we all have sensed that writing allows self expression and opens up awareness about our life, the research is a powerful testament to the power of words and story to create change.
For most of us, it’s easy and fun to write good memories, but most people have negative memories that linger and need release–the death of a loved one, depression, illness, or anxieties because of family dysfunction or various kinds of abuse. Society seems to try to get us to forget the past, but traumatic memories do not go away by will power alone, or even years of therapy. The ways we try to escape–through alcohol or addictions, for instance–only makes us more alienated from ourselves. Traumatic images and reactions disappear underground for a time, only to reappear when triggered by an event in current time–often called flashbacks. But these incidents can be healed through writing–and rewriting. Sometimes the same event needs to be written about many times in order to be released.
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in a different way than regular memories, but research continues to show that writing allows a new kind of processing to occur.
When you integrate the memories into your regular memory, you can move into a present and future renewed and with more energy–the pain of the past is put into perspective–perhaps not forgotten, but no longer seeming like an immediate and current injury.
Writing a story is different from journaling. When we journal, we spill out whatever we are feeling in a random way, and it doesn’t matter how we write it. Writing a story requires that we choose its shape and focus. This structuring and choice about scenes, dialogue, and characters opens up a creative space where writing can work its magic, where something new is created. Where we encounter the unknown. Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” We learn about ourselves throught writing story.
And there’s another exciting aspect to story writing in memoir: you are both the narrator and a “character” in the story. The narrator choosing what to write as an objective observer helps us to witness our younger self, and reveals a new perspective on the past. We weave a new place in the “now.”
In my book The Power of Memoir, I present an 8 step pathway to write a memoir–from researching your past to character studies, using turning points and the timeline to sort through your memories, and techniques of story structure. The research by Pennebaker and others is presented–and it’s quite exciting stuff. Writing really does help to heal physically–several writers I know with arthritis have improved functioning after writing for a few months, telling their truths, freeing themselves from the past.
The upcoming webinar at Writer’s Digest I’ll be offering a whole course in memoir writing in 90 minutes–which includes a recording, the live webinar, Q&A, and free critique. It will include techniques for writing freely and quickly, taming the inner critic, creating the arc of the narrative, writing powerful scenes, and much more.
Tips for writing a memoir:
- Make a list of the ten most important turning points in your life. Then choose a story from each one and write a new story each week.
- Write a list of the critic voices –either your inner critic or the voices of family or friends.
- Put the worry-critic list aside and begin writing using the turning point list.
- Capture your stories in vignette form without worrying about chronological order.
- Use photos to spark your memories. Think about what happened before and after each picture and describe the photo in detail.
- Create a sacred-space around you while you are writing. Don’t share your stories with anyone for a while. Protect them as if they were tiny plants in your garden.
- Write in the “I” voice in present tense for maximum intensity and immediacy.
- If you write in the past tense, you can easily move back and forth through time–using reflection as a way to create perspective.
- Think about your themes–asking “what is this about? What important message to I want to share with others?”
- List 5 things a reader will take away when they read your memoir.
- Create a writing schedule –writing 500 words–two pages–per day gives you a whole book in six months.
- Meditate on a mountain pool in France–see the above photograph. Linger in the reflections and start writing!