In my hours of research on ‘how to write a memoir’ last year, I often came across articles criticising memoir writers for using it as a form of therapy. I have pondered over this in recent times, since my memoir did actually end up being very therapeutic, albeit ‘accidentally’. It showed me how I had been constrained by the bounds of stigmatisation and it was liberating to free myself from its chains.
Tips on writing a memoir…
I never set out looking for memoir to be any form of therapy, in fact from the many blogs out there on how to write, I had learnt how I should stay somewhat ‘detached’ from my story to write in a style that would be welcomed by the reader; put yourself in their shoes so to speak. Also, a top tip here to any new memoir writers… take care not to recall your story in a ‘chronological’ fashion or journalistic-style. Reporting on your story is boring. I learnt how it is better to use a similar structure to that of fiction. ie use a hook to draw the reader in, and structure scenes to maintain interest. Another import new skill to learn is to show and not ‘tell’ your story.
Don’t settle old scores
I think if a memoirist’s intention when they set out is “I’m going to write a book about my life story because I have so much angst in me to release” or even “I’ll show everyone how it was from ‘my’ point of view” in the form of a revenge memoir, they run the risk of writing something that will result in a book that will just be a flop. Don’t use it as a way to settle old scores. I would suggest finding a counsellor!
Getting things off your chest
Writing to get your feelings off your chest can be incredibly healing and a great way to untangle certain thought processes. I know… I’ve done it! In some instances, it can even lead to transformational change. However, keep it in a pretty journal to look back on… you don’t have to publish it!
The word ‘therapy’ suggests someone with the need to ‘fix’ something about themselves. If the memoir is going to highlight a difficult period or subject in their life, I believe the writer needs to have completed a certain amount of healing before writing. They will then reflect on it with more objectivity. A far greater story will emerge if it is not based on negative feelings.
Catch me if I fall
So back to how I stumbled upon some therapeutic benefits when I wrote ‘Catch Me if I Fall’. I learned that to write a good memoir the writer needs to become honest and vulnerable. This got me thinking about my story. I was telling the reader that I had experienced a psychosis because of a BWRT therapy appointment which had resulted in my accident. True. Why did they need to know any more? The story would hold with just this information.
However. It crossed my mind that I was holding back from telling my reader that it wasn’t my first bout of psychosis. Why? Because it was too scary. I feared what people would think if they knew I had suffered from psychosis before. It was my deepest darkest secret. This was my vulnerable spot. Consequently, it showed how my mental health episodes were a subject of ‘stigma’.
I broke my silence
Well for anyone who has read my book, you will know that I did indeed reveal the full extent of my psychosis experiences. It was like a huge weight came off my shoulders and I experienced many weepy moments talking about it with my ever-patient husband. I realised that I had bottled up and stored this secret unconsciously, forcing him and my daughters to join my silence and denial about the previous episodes. I even wonder if releasing myself from this stigma and releasing the fear may mean it won’t ever happen again. Let’s hope so!
I cannot deny how therapeutic this revelation was, and how grateful I am not to carry this burden anymore. It brought about great transformation for me and a new passion to help reduce the stigma of mental health and share the message that others can be brave and find their voice too.
So yes, in my experience, the memoir did have some therapeutic benefits but then my question is this: don’t all authors gain some sort of therapy from writing? Don’t fiction writers sometimes release their inner child, their fears, hopes, passions or secrets within their storylines? I think the answer to this is a resounding yes.
I think what we need to ask ourselves therefore, before setting out to publish a memoir, is ‘are we writing with the intention of making ourselves feel better; to fix something?’ Or ‘are we writing to give our reader a great book?’
Anybody can of course write anything they want and self-publish if they wish. However, any professional writer of any genre knows they should always be writing for their audience, not for themselves.