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. 

* * *

Via Google Images
Via Google Images

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.

16 thoughts on “Is Memoir Writing Always a Healing Agent?

  1. Yes, both viewpoints are valid and necessary. I find writing healing as well–although it can also bring up raw emotions. But Smolowe’s point about rewriting and honing for audience are also important and helpful. We write for ourselves and for our readers and we have to find that point of balance between telling our story as we need to tell it and sharing it in a way that speaks to readers. Excellent post, Sherrey!

    1. Hello, Stephanie! Thanks for weighing in with your opinions on this topic. Your comments are valid ones and I especially appreciate the words, “find that point of balance between telling our story as we need to tell it and sharing it in a way that speaks to readers.” Appreciate your sharing here.

  2. I was just on my way to bed when I caught your post. As you know i don’t do memoir writing but I do relate to you on losing the inner child due to Mother. I’ve come to terms with it through a different route than writing. I found the comparison of your view and the other view fascinating and can see merits and downsides to each. And of course as you say – tell your story.
    The wonderful thing about being a writer though, whatever we write, is that through writing catharsis does take place. And healing. this was especially true for me when my dad was dying.
    ok I will go to bed and stop babbling
    I hope you and yours are well
    (it’s Sue by the way – using my author blog since too lazy to change it)

    1. Sue, so good to see you here. I’m impressed that you stopped on your way to bed to read this post! I know that you relate to losing the inner child, and I remember that you found writing helped when your dad was dying.
      We are doing well since Bob’s back surgery in March was such a huge success! However, the IV vein developed a blood clot and we were in the ER four days after surgery for that. Now we’re doing the coumadin routine. Hoping you are doing well and writing lots.

      1. Glad to hear about the surgery – I had been thinking about him. Sorry about the vein but on the road to recovery which is what matters. Not writing mostly just doing the A-Z challenge on this blog. My G word was a haiku for dad 😀

  3. Another Susan here Sherrey. This was an important post for me (all of yours are) in the distinction between different types and reasons for memoir writing.Personally I see the value of detachment in memoir writing but not overly so for then the emotion is lost. I see no reason why both can’t be employed each enriching the other. I like the idea of venting in journal writing.
    Similarly, while writing about abuse at the hands of a significant other, shape and form is given to the experience which may yet still be ill defined, especially if one was young at the time. Young emotions are precisely that and do not yet have the gift of maturity and need especially to be brought to the fore. Loss of the child’s voice needs to be regained and expressed; memoir writing can accomplish this by being raw and real.
    Thank you and have a restful weekend.
    Garden of Eden Blog

    1. Hi Susan! I’ve been trying to keep up with you and your partner on the A to Z tour this year, but not much time for reading lately. Bob had back surgery in March and although it was a huge success, we returned to the hospital four days afterward due to a clot in the IV site. All is improving, but one’s focus immediately shifts.
      I’m so glad you came by to read this post. For some reason, I was thinking of you and how similarly our thought patterns run as I wrote this. Wondering how would Susan react to my thoughts and beliefs. I very much appreciate your paragraph relating to the loss of the child’s voice. I cannot imagine writing my story without bringing in that lost expression of emotion.
      Enjoy your weekend!

  4. I think that memoir writing is like telling a secret to an unnamed best friend. It releases the pain and the suffering from being your burden and allows you to share parts of your life and your story that might not come up in casual conversation. Excellent post.

    1. Ionia, it’s been a long time since we’ve chatted. Now that I no longer review books, I don’t circulate to your blog or other book reviewers. No time as I am trying to complete my manuscript. Your first sentence really touched me — “like telling a secret to an unnamed best friend.” Thanks so much for stopping by and lending your wisdom and thought to the process.
      Hope you are well these days. I think of you often.

  5. As I wrote and now rewrite my memoir, I have found forgiveness, deep peace, and acceptance of the abuse I went through as a child and more recently while being a caretaker for my mother during her last years of life. When finally allowed to let it all go and speak my truth, I was filled with emotion that I had stuffed in a huge trunk I’ve carried around with me for years. I feel ever so much lighter now, happy, and grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to rid myself of the burden and hope the resulting book will help those who find themselves in similar circumstances.
    We all deal with life’s circumstances differently. I deeply respect Jill Smolowe’s way of getting her message out into the world her way and look forward to reading her book.

    1. Joan, thanks so much for sharing this snippet of your story here. We have many similarities in our lives, and like you, once I began writing my memoir and began telling my story, the emotions and hurts I had held back surged forth like a tsunami. Today I’m a feel much freer than in all my life for having written out the words I could never share before. I appreciate your contribution to the conversation.

  6. Catharsis is a process that can provide relief. Healing, or healing completely through one’s writing, is not exactly the same as achieving a sense of relief. The author may have been detached to a degree she felt comfortable with, but she must have put some emotion into her memoir. It may be a question of degree. In the process the writer is trying to comprehend, to understand and through this comes catharsis, relief, call it what you will. The post and threads have been very helpful..

    1. Mayta, thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I agree there must be some emotion, but just a question of the degree. I’m glad you’ve found this post helpful.

  7. Sherrey,
    I especially enjoyed this article because it helped me come up with a better answer to the questions that readers and radio hosts have asked, “Explain how writing your story affected you.” And “Why did you write your story?”
    Writing for personal healing is a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve found much relief to particularly frustrating, bewildering, or hurtful situations through journaling. And as I wrote my memoir, a door opened to events in my past, allowing me to see them with greater clarity and understanding. At certain points, I was aware of the pulling out of slivers of forgotten pain, the applying of soothing balm, and a gentle, loving healing.
    When I decided to take on a memoir, my goal was to help others through it, and I was delighted by the unexpected blessing of freedom from forgotten pain.

    1. I’m so glad this post was helpful in finding a way for you to answer certain questions about your writing. I haven’t completed my memoir yet, but the process has been as you say an unexpected blessing of freedom from forgotten pain. I’m so glad you’re finding something worthwhile at my blog. Hope to get to know you better.

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