Is Memoir Writing Always a Healing Agent?

Earlier this week after reading a post on Marion Roach's blog by Jill Smolowe, author of Four Funerals and a Wedding , I felt I may have held my theory on the healing benefit of writing memoir a bit too tightly. So tightly in fact that I took a step back and re-read Smolowe's post, Finding the Message in Memoir.

The result of that re-reading and analysis on my part is this post. Granted there are more than two views on the healing benefit of writing memoir, but here I share only two with you, mine and Jill Smolowe's.

In her post, which I strongly encourage you to read, Smolowe points to a question that comes to many of us who write memoir, "Did you find writing the book cathartic?" There are multiple answers to this question depending upon whom is answering. For Smolowe, who obviously gave much thought to the inquiry, it was a matter of defining her message and it's value for her readers:

But before I can make the commitment to breaching my own privacy and spending considerable time revisiting a painful chapter in my life, I need clarity on two points: What is the lens through which I will tell my story? What is my message, the bit of hard-earned wisdom that I aim to share? For me, finding the answers to those questions requires detachment and emotional distance from the events.

Smolowe continues in the next paragraph:

As a result, I do not find the writing of a memoir cathartic. Nor do I approach the task with a hope or expectation that the process will heal me. Instead, what propels me is my belief that there is a book missing from the shelves—one that would have been helpful to me in my time of turmoil, one that I hope may now be of use to others.

For Smolowe, detaching from the painful events is accomplished through journalling:

That’s not to say that writing can’t be therapeutic. When I want to alleviate tension, stress or upset, I regurgitate my experiences into a journal. Raw and unfiltered, these entries provide an outlet to vent. Sometimes that act of writing helps to calm my roiling emotions. Sometimes the writing even serves, yes, a cathartic function. 

...

For me, the work of memoir writing is selecting, culling, honing, shaping, rewriting. Rewriting. Ruthlessly chopping. Rewriting once more. The driver is my intellect, not my emotions. Catharsis? For that, my journal will have to suffice.

Before I continue, I want to underscore my respect for Smolowe's choice in her handling of this particular theme. Her decision to write without baring her emotions will likely be more helpful to her readers. 

* * *

And this is where our paths diverge. Where Smolowe and I differ is in the relevant theme behind our writing.

Smolowe is dealing with unbelievable loss in her life and the emotions following them. Her writing is predicated on the hope of helping others cope under similar circumstances, but she is careful and, rightly so, not to characterize her writing with the emotional weight of her own losses. I applaud Smolowe for this consideration. And I understand and respect the detachment in her writing.

On the other hand, I am writing my memoir around a theme of a different type of loss--the loss of my inner child's voice during childhood abuses. In order to voice the still raw pain and confusion from childhood abuses handed out by my mother until I moved across the country in 1983, I began to feel a tremendous sense of freedom as I worked at my writing.

While drafting my memoir, I am at last allowed to have a voice and say what my young heart and mind experienced some six decades ago. Had I spoken at the time of these abuses, punishments would have been harsher and the imprint would have left deeper scars. I remained quiet and still, never fighting back.

Now, as I write, including letters to my mother after her death in 2001, I experience unimaginable release from some of those scars and pains. It has been extremely cathartic for me to feel the unbinding of emotions as the words flow.


The most important takeaway from this post, I hope, is that you are the master of your memoir writing journey. In the event that I have left the impression that writing a memoir is always healing, I want to clear the air: The healing benefit that some find in writing memoir is not necessarily the same for all. As mentioned above, it is dependent on your chosen theme.

Bottom line: Each life story is different because each life is lived differently. Each life is lived in a different environment, a different place, a different time, with different experiences.

You know the reason behind your writing. Write your truth. Write the story that you know.