Here’s an observation to chew on: A few times in my career as a writing instructor, I’ve coached retired therapists in writing their memoirs. These are people who have worked with their personal stories over decades; they’ve had extensive experience in therapy and have continued to explore their stories through supervision groups and continuing education. And yet, when they sit down to pen their life experiences, they’re shocked. They remember details that have never before emerged. They pair memories in surprising ways, revealing new perspectives on events. They discover recurring themes that bring unity to their story they never knew existed.
This phenomenon is not unique to therapists. Many authors who have done extensive therapy or told their stories multiple times in twelve-step groups make the same observation: writing an experience down changes us in different ways than telling it aloud.
Here’s my theory. When keep our stories to ourselves, they roil around in our being and exert tremendous control over our lives. Events from our childhood, conscious or otherwise, dictate current behaviors. A shameful secret held close over years can eat away at our sense of self; it can govern our choices; it can cause us to generate more shameful secrets. Unshared, our experiences yield a terrible power.
Once we begin telling the stories of our life experiences, even with a friend, something changes. The events that shaped us lose a bit of their control. When a friend hears our shameful secret and laughs at how silly it is, the shame dissipates. Or if the friend shares her shameful secret in response, we feel less lonely in our short-comings. Sharing our stories aloud can diffuse their power.
Part of the reason therapy works is that the therapist offers him or herself as a forum for working with our memories. The therapist hears our story, holds it, reflects on it, and helps us to see it in new ways. In other words, a professional makes room for our story to exist outside of ourselves and helps us to work with that story. Done well and over time, this can radically change our relationship to events from our past.
As anyone who journals knows, the blank page works similar magic. A piece of paper can transform a memory, insubstantial and powerful, into a thing that exists outside of ourselves. Even a first draft can diffuse that power, because the memory now has form and the writer has gained some authority over the memory. As we take a memory through revision, however, a remarkable transformation happens. We make a thousand miniscule choices about how to tell our story—the order, the pacing, when to reflect and when to describe the scene, which themes to pull forward and which to relinquish… We can use the same tragic childhood to wallow in self-pity or to explore the nature of suffering or to ask, “What gave me the resilience to survive?” And as we make these choices, we become authors of our own identity. The act of creating a story essentially becomes an act of creating ourselves. The power exits our memories and enters our being. We gain authority.
The page provides a container more solid than a good listening ear. Written words stay put. They mirror our stories back to us. Our stories exist outside of ourselves as things, and the more we write, the more we understand exactly how malleable these things are. This process is lonelier than therapy and by no means a substitute. My point is that something different happens in us when we write memoir—the difference between being a self-aware person and the author of one’s life.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew