By now, many people have heard about the power of memoir writing to help the healing process in mind and body. As I mentioned in a previous post, because of my book The Power of Memoir, I receive many questions about memoir writing and healing, and I’m answering them here through a series of posts.
Writing to heal yourself is a very powerful process. If a writer has a deeply personal and painful story, how should he begin to get it onto the page?
Start by considering the special moments in your life, the turning points that changed the direction of your life in a significant way. Make a list of these moments, at least ten to twenty, and write down the significant event and when it occurred. Memoirists can feel overwhelmed by the large number of memories they have, so the turning point and timeline tools that I talk about in the book help to organize memories. We need to sift through to find the most important stories as a spine around which to build a longer work.
I also suggest that writers keep track of the “dark” and the “light” stories so they are not so overwhelmed by the more painful memories, and make sure they follow a “darker” story with a happy one that allows them to sink into the fullness of a delicious pleasant memory.
Learning about story structure and scenes is another way to contain and put in perspective the events of our lives. A story, unlike a journal entry, has a structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and is constructed with a goal in mind and a plot with dramatic action.
When we write a scene, we find ourselves in the places and times of our lives in a kind of creative hypnosis. A story uses scenes to bring the past to life. A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, and taste, along with characters, dialogue, and action. 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, said that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process, and points out that while we need others to witness us and our stories, we can witness ourselves by becoming self-aware.
Writing allows us to witness the stages of our lives, and when we read others’ memoirs, we witness and empathize with them, thus deepening our connection with humanity and giving us new ways to think about our own lives.
If you have memories you don’t want to detail in your memoir, create distance. Write about what happened in the third person: “she” or “he” instead of “I.” Write as if you are watching the event unfold in a movie. Write a scene about a difficult incident, but make it turn out the way you wanted it to, ending it positively. Tell what happened before and after a difficult incident. Write around it, but not about the event itself. These techniques are protective–when you are ready to go deeper, you can do it later.
To tune into this powerful work, keep adding to your list of turning points. And remember this: the researchers that explored writing to heal found that writing happy stories was nearly as healing as writing about painful moments.
Remember that when you write your memoir, you are weaving a new tapestry of your life one story at a time.