Through writing, I healed. By the fall of 2000, I’d gained weight and my asthma and allergies were under control. I got pregnant with my second child, began coaching school, and resumed my social and speaking life.
Many psychological and medical studies have shown that writing about difficulties and dreams helps people experience increased happiness, health, and productivity.
In the book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, psychologist James Pennebaker wrote about the multiple research studies he has done on the transformative power of writing.
He discovered that people who use writing to make sense of their traumatic life experiences felt happier and less anxious. Through the studies, Pennebaker found that those who made meaning out of their difficulty or gained insight from writing were healthier than those who simply wrote about the details of their day.
In another study by psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and K. M. Sheldon, subjects who wrote about their best possible future selves experienced health benefits as well as an increased ability to set and achieve goals.
No matter where you are in your journey through difficulty (in the muddle, emerging, healing, or living a new life), writing will help you cope. You may want to craft your story into a memoir that can inform, entertain and encourage others. Or you may simply want to record your story for yourself, so that you can examine, understand, and grow from the difficult events you have encountered. That has enormous value as well. But for all of us the starting point is the same: writing our story.
To write the truth of our lives, we need to shut the door, forget about the public, and write the story we need to tell. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.” Writing is a process for everyone and, it seems to me, even more so for those of us who must sift through the difficult events of our lives to shape our story.
This article will help you get your story down on paper, whether or not you want to publish it. It will cover the first three phases of writing a memoir: journaling, deepening, and drafting. The second article in this series will provide five questions to ask yourself before revising and publishing your memoir.
Phase One: But what if I’m still living the story?
I began to think about writing a memoir in the middle of the crisis. In the midst of the worst anxiety, imagining myself writing and speaking about my experience to help others provided a lifeline for me. My suffering had a purpose.
But it was too early to share my story with others. I did not have the perspective needed to write about the story I was living. Still, journaling about challenging events kept me sane in the midst of experiences I could not comprehend. Instead of ruminating, chewing over the events in my head like a cow chews cud, I recorded the events that puzzled me. Recording the “what” and pondering the “why” helped me cope with my anxiety.
I’m not alone. Rachel Reiland, author of Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder) wrote this about journaling, “I realize that I started writing my story early on—as I was going through it. Journaling for me was more than a way to delve into self-reflection—it was an outlet for me in the grips of irrational rage to avoid self-destructive behavior. I would write my raw emotions unedited, as I was feeling them at the time. When I’d get done, I’d toss the pages in a box underneath my bed.”
For Dean Paul Burton, author of Dreams Descending: My Journey To The Borderline And Back, keeping a journal was a key tool in writing his story, “I had kept a journal on my computer at work throughout most of my wife and my nearly two-year relationship. I also saved all of my wife's abusive emails and phone messages. This gave me a basis to draw from while I started to organize my thoughts and figure out how I was going to tell my story.”
If you are in the middle of your story—living through trauma, freshly grieving, or just healing—keep a journal. Put on your scientist hat and observe what is happening in your own life. Use your journal to record what you experience, including conversations with others, sessions with your therapist or spiritual leader, and the events you struggle with.
If writing a narrative of the events is difficult for you, try making a list of the things that happened or record just the dialogue. Do not judge yourself, the writing, or the experiences—just record them.
Phase Two: What does all this mean? or Deepening the Story
At some point in the middle of living through difficulty, we need help. We read self-help books, watch YouTube videos of people like us, call a friend, work with a therapist, or all of the above. We are still journaling about the crap that's happening, but we are also actively trying to get out, move forward, and be healed.
In this time, ask questions that help us deepen the story: why did this happen, what did I learn, what is the truth? With time and distance, writing to make meaning about what happened will help us deepen our narrative and be ready to draft our story.
Here are three exercises to support you in deepening your story:
1. Write to ask, “Why?” Many parents constantly ask their children, “Why?” Why did you color on the wall with markers, or why didn’t you study for your test? Some self-help books encourage readers to move beyond the parental why to more productive questions. But we do benefit from asking and answering the why questions for our own lives because asking why helps us make meaning out of our story.
When I began writing my memoir on both difficult and abusive experiences in the church, I also discovered that many of the difficult experiences molded me into who I am now. I could never have found this meaning had I not sat at the feet of my own life and asked questions of it.
Dean Paul Burton also found healing from asking why. He says, “After I finished my memoir I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. I felt that I had truly given my life back to myself and I also learned so much about myself. Lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Life is about self-discovery.”
For Merri Lisa Johnson, the author of Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality, writing her story helped her to notice patterns and modify her choices. She says, “The rough drafts of my book revealed some very useful things about the role I played in perpetuating my own distress, and about the inconstancy and unfairness of my reactions to intimate partners. I began to name my patterns which allowed me to recognize them when they started coming up again in new conflicts. Once I could recognize and name them, I noticed a new ability to be critical of my "usual ways" and to make more deliberate choices about my emotions, reactions, and coping mechanisms.”
Try: Write the narrative of a single difficult experience from your life. Ask how this difficult experience served as a noble friend, a term Caroline Myss gives to the challenging people and experiences that shape us. In other words, ask why this happened to you. What lessons did the event teach you about yourself? What changes have you made or will you make in how you live your life because of this experience? In what ways have you grown or deepened because of working through this experience?
2. Write to Rescue Subordinate Stories. We tend to edit our lives—creating stories about ourselves that are more like cartoon characterizations than rich characters involved in lifelong epics. Narrative therapist Michael White has said that we do not lead single-storied lives. Our lives are full of multiple realities, unique outcomes, and subordinate stories. Discovering and giving voice to these stories can help us to become more of who we want to be.
At the height of my anxiety, I was terrified to travel alone. One day, while dusting a shelf in the living room, I came across a photo album from a trip I took to Europe alone. At 27, I had not only flown to Germany alone, I had found lodging, made connections, and taken day excursions. In that story, I was not a fearful woman but a brave one. Recovering it reminded me of who I had been and who I might one day become again. The story gave me hope.
Try: Write a list of ten events that you think characterize your story. When you review the list ask, “What are the dominant stories I tell about myself?” Write these as headlines like: "falling for losers," "eating myself to death," or "gullible and gutted again."
Next, search for events in your life that tell a different story about you. When have you set boundaries, taken extraordinary care of yourself, or spoken your truth? Write that story using as many details as you can remember. What strengths or skills did you demonstrate in that event? In what other life experiences do you see yourself using similar strengths?
3. Write to affirm. Most of us have rich descriptions for our problems. We can talk endlessly about our flaws—physical, emotional and spiritual. We know the causes and can predict the effects of our problems years into the future. We also diminish our own role in achieving success and often attribute these hard-won successes to luck. But when we take a moment to look at the bright side—the moments when we have shined in the midst of life’s challenges—we can shift our beliefs about our selves and discover hidden aspects of our story.
Try: Write down ten to twenty of your successes. Choose a fairly recent significant success. Describe it in rich detail, using lots of juicy sensory words. What strengths did you use to achieve this success? (Strengths can be expressed in words and phrases like, “persistence” or “ability to connect.”) What difficult and positive events prepared you for this success? What strengths from this success can you recruit to write your memoir?
Phase Three: Drafting the Memoir
In the process of writing a memoir, time is your friend. With the passing of time and the hard work of therapy, we gain perspective. We are able to let go of the lion share of our anger, self-pity, and desire for revenge. We can see the story and its main characters in their cultural and emotional context. With time, we let go of our woe-is-me tale and begin to weave a story with the eyes and heart of an artist.
As Dean Paul Burton says, “I'll be honest. I originally thought I would write a book about this horrible person who suffered from a mental illness...as a way of getting back at her, a revenge piece. I was so angry at the time, that's what I thought I might do. After some time passed, I re-thought my motives and realized that I was an equal part of the problem...I had to approach my story with more compassion toward her because deep down I did care for her a lot.”
Drafting a memoir is different than keeping a journal. A journal can and should contain everything you think and feel in its grittiest form. When writing a memoir, writers take the rough draft of their life and craft it into a narrative arc that shows how they were transformed through difficulty. This structure, along with well-developed characters, vivid settings, universal themes, and good writing, will help readers engage with you and your story. Yikes! That sounds scary! Yeah, it is—when you think about it as a huge step like that: write a moving memoir. But let’s break it down into several smaller steps:
Read: Every memoir is structured differently. Find five memoirs with stories like yours and study how the writers told their stories. Look for a structure that will support your story. Start with the memoirs mentioned below. Those with stars are by loved ones of people with BPD; the others are memoirs of recovery from BPD:
Try writing a logline: A logline is a two or three-sentence description of the story, the main character, and his or her central conflict. In screenwriting, a logline tells potential buyers (studios and eventually ticket buyers) what the movie is about. For writers, the practice of creating a logline helps us discover the central story and keeps us focused while writing the book. Here are two examples:
In this memoir, an irascible journalist battles MS and two bouts of colon cancer with grace and humor while working and raising children with his television host wife. (Blindsided: Lifting Life Above Illness by Richard M. Cohen)
In this memoir, a young woman travels halfway around the world to escape a challenging family and a broken heart and discovers wisdom and love in unlikely places and people. (The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith by Stephanie Saldaña)
Create a timeline with scenes: Most memoirs are told chronologically (with some variations). A timeline is a visual representation of what happened, broken down into scenes. List an event like this: “1999—wedding.” Under that event, create a list of scenes that you need to write in order to move the story forward such as engagement party fiasco or dress shopping drama.
Although this process sounds painful—looking back at the whole story—the process of creating a timeline can be incredibly healing. When Rachel Reiland wrote Get Me Out of Here, she noticed how much she had grown and changed through her experiences.
Rachel Reiland says, “One of the first things I had to do in writing the book was to go through all of those pages and put them in some sort of a timeline order. This meant I had to read them. Yes, they were painful, but what they also showed me is that my way of looking at the world and coping with life had been fundamentally changed.”
Try: Using your old journals and calendars, create a timeline of your story. Add scenes for each event on the timeline. Don’t worry too much about where you start and where you end or even what you include—you can always cut, add, and rearrange scenes later. When you are finished, you will have a chronological record of your story complete with a list of scenes to write. I used a paper timeline that I could hang on my office wall, but you could just as easily create a timeline in Excel or Word.
Note conflict and emotion. In Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he recommends that writers add two additional notes to each scene description: the conflict and emotional change in the scene. So for a scene on buying a wedding dress, the conflict might be between a mother and daughter who want different kinds of dresses (e.g., mom wants virginal, daughter wants sexy). The emotional shift for the daughter might be from combative and angry to resigned. These details will make writing scenes easier and it will add both vibrancy and depth to your work.
Try: Write the core action of each scene on an index card. Note the conflict and the emotional change. If you discover a scene that does not have either an emotional change or a conflict, then it is probably best to leave it out of the story.
Ready, set, draft!
You are now ready to draft your memoir—write the story from beginning to end. Here’s how to get it written:
- Set a deadline. Deadlines help writers get work done. Give yourself a date for finishing your first draft, setting aside extra time for days off and life emergencies. I often tie the deadline to something I want to do—such as attend a writing conference or go on a vacation with my family. Having a fun reward at the end inspires me to work harder!
- Do the math. Count up the number of scenes you have to write. Estimate how many scenes you can write during each writing session. Once you have that information, you can figure out how many writing sessions you will need to write your book. Now open up your calendar and schedule your writing sessions. Be specific—note when and where you will write each day.
- Write. This might be the hardest step in the whole process: showing up and doing the work. But I guarantee you: if you put your butt in the chair and write, you will finish the book.
- Practice self-care: Shirley Hazard said, “It's nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of.” Writing about the terrible events of our past stirs up our emotions. No matter how much time has passed or how healthy we are, when we write our story, the writing will trigger emotional and physical symptoms. Do what you need to do to stay physically and emotionally healthy as you write. That might include connecting with friends, talking to your therapist, getting a massage, or taking long walks.
Finally: I wrote a book, now what?
Give yourself a pat on the back and that treat we talked about above. Then plan to take at least two weeks off before looking at the book again. Just like a good lasagna, your book needs to rest for a bit before you can revise it or show it to anyone, even your therapist. Don’t forget to check out the next blog to discover what to do next!
- Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise
- DeSalvo (Beacon Press, 1999).
- Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem Making by John Fox (Tarcher, 1997)
- Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker (The Guilford Press, 1997).
- Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval by James Pennebaker (New Harbinger, 2004).
- Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006a). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 79-80.
- Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman. (The University of Georgia Press, 2009).
- Maps of Narrative Practice by Michael White (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).
Next: go to Part 2 of this blog piece.
Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It).
Rochelle teaches professionals how to write good books fast, use writing to transform their lives, navigate the publishing world, and get published! In addition, she is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop to help at-risk tweens and teens in Milwaukee write about their lives. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon, visit her online at www.writenowcoach.com