I’ve learned a lot from psychotherapist Linda Joy Meyers, who is president of The National Association of Memoir Writers and author of The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story.
One of her astute observations . . . “Forgiveness through writing can lead to a lightening of past burdens.” She continues, “This, of course, can be beneficial and healing for the writer.” In her book, Meyers demonstrates, through exercise and example, just how multifaceted and true this seemingly simple observation can be. Accordingly, she observes that “re-membering” means to bring together different parts of ourselves to become whole.
Once you start writing a memoir, particularly if you set a daily time and stick to it, the act of writing becomes a habit, which some writers ritualize and further dignify by calling a practice. The benefits Meyers offers can multiply over the months and years of maintaining your practice.
Linda offers these suggestions and inspirations for the process:
- Writing your deep truths frees you from the past and creates meaning out of chaos.
- Telling your truth frees you from shame and guilt.
- Your stories on the page will be different from the ones in your head.
- Writing a memoir can be a transformational and spiritual path.
- Creating a narrative where you are both the “I” character and the narrator can help integrate your past and the present.
- Writing and sharing your story breaks you out of isolation and connects you more deeply with others.
- Your story can help change your readers’ lives for the better.
The Science of Healing Through Writing
Memoirists who write to find emotional healing now have science on their side to demonstrate the effectiveness of this self-healing technique. In her book and in webinars she hosts as president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, Meyers discusses newer research that demonstrates how a life writing practice can bring improved physical and psychic health. One of the pioneering investigators she heralds is Dr. James W. Pennebaker, who, as chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, has performed a series of experimental psychological studies to prove it.
In one study Pennebaker found that college students who wrote expressively for fifteen minutes a day over four days about matters of emotional significance showed better vital signs and lower stress levels in hormonal tests compared to the control group.
The control group wrote daily, too, but theirs were mundane assignments-for example, reminders and “to-do lists. The difference was that the experimental group used their hearts and their heads, while the controls simply tapped the latter.
The parts of our brain that control memory (hippocampus) and emotions (thalamus)-key parts of the limbic system-use the same neural circuits, which is thought to explain why memories containing a strong emotional flavor tend to stick in our minds more than those less emotional experiences. This makes finding those memories more likely, if one is looking, providing opportunities for their “use” in both memoir writing and healing.
One Memoirist’s Experience of Discovery and Healing
As a memoirist who uses psychotherapy and writing to identify and come to terms with unresolved feelings from my past, I can attest that it’s a powerful process, one that can help you uncover previously unknown parts of yourself and change your impressions of other people. One way this happens is by entering the point of view of another person in your life and reliving an event that occurred involving the two of you.
For example, with the help of a skilled therapist using the psychological techniques of EMDR and hypnosis, I allowed myself to enter the point of view of the neighbor who had molested me when I was nine. The molestation occurred in the attic of the house across the street from my own. Approaching the memory, I re-experienced my fear and confusion as I recalled the smell of alcohol on his breath and the coaxing tone of his voice. To my surprise, when I switched to my perpetrator’s point of view, my feelings changed radically. I felt this man’s self-disgust and weakness as a human being. My fear immediately turned into pity as I saw how pathetic this previously scary person really was.
This breakthrough in my understanding allowed me to take the power away from him and give it to myself, something that occurred through the threefold process of remembering, switching points of view, and “owning” this experience with the help of my therapist. A few years later, my healing became complete when I wrote about it in my memoir, allowing me to let go of the vestiges of the original trauma through the act of sharing it with others—especially those who may be afraid to remember and share a similarly difficult memory.
I highly recommend Linda Joy Meyers’ book The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story,” as a guide for the life writer who is seeking to deepen the process of discovery, healing and writing. She is one of several published memoirists I feature in my new handbook for aspiring writers titled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir.