Back in 2001 when I first considered writing my memoir, I was having lunch with my writing mentor one day, and he told me that in order to be a good writer, it’s necessary to be wounded in some way. He said, “You need to have suffered at some point in your life.” His comments inspired me to give more thought to the concept of being wounded as an inspiration for writing, especially when teaching others to write their life stories through memoir.
Over the years, while visiting bookstores and pulling modern-day memoirs off the shelves, I’ve come to realize that there is indeed validity to my mentor’s comments—most of the stories presented in memoirs are connected in some way to the writer’s trauma or loss, whether it manifests as an illness, accident, or the loss of a loved one. In actuality, there are not many memoirs depicting happy childhoods. After all, people want drama. And drama sells.
During graduate school I read Arthur Frank’s book The Wounded Storyteller, which further illustrated my mentor’s theory. When I teach writing for healing, I advocate the idea that one way to heal from trauma is to re-frame it into a sensible narrative. Sometimes this means writing your story over and over again until you’re able to make some sense of it. Frank calls this “meta-control.” When discussing the art of the memoir, he says that memoirists write to discover “what other selves were operating, unseen, in a story that is the writer’s own,” always keeping in mind that the writer has several selves simultaneously.
In her book The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde wrote about her breast-cancer journey, which left her with one remaining breast. She believed, as I do, that when encountering difficult times, it’s always helpful to hear the voice of others who are going through similar experiences. Also, when writing a memoir or a quest story, it’s a good idea to establish some distance from the event, as this offers a proper perspective. If a memoir is written too soon after a lived experience, the writer is unable to see it clearly. Journaling is a good way to put wounded thoughts down on paper, as they may be used later on to formulate a coherent narrative for a memoir.
Frank wisely stated, “The person living the chaos story has no distance from her life and no reflective grasp on it. Lived chaos makes reflection, and consequently storytelling, impossible.” This is one reason why most memoirs are written by those who are in middle age or older—a proper distance had been established so that they can write about their earlier years (if applicable) with some degree of objectivity.
Those who are writing quest stories are able to meet suffering head-on and can also accept their traumas or illnesses and use them as a way to realize growth and transformation. Wounded storytellers may believe that something positive comes out of their suffering, and thus, they have the desire to share this knowledge. This concept was part of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero’s Journey. The book begins with what Campbell called “departure,” which is the onset of the trauma, whether it’s finding a breast lump or having an unusual symptom. The second phase is the “initiation or first threshold,” where the symptoms cannot be denied and individuals seek professional assistance. The third phase is what he deemed the “return,” where individuals are no longer ill, but remain marked by, or find themselves identified by, the trauma or illness. People are able to look back at a pivotal experience and see that they’ve “made it,” and were able to navigate successfully through the challenge.
Sharing the hero’s journey with others through writing allows readers to navigate their own difficult times. In order to share stories, wounded storytellers first need to identify what they’re feeling, and then give voice to what’s going on in their bodies, both physically and emotionally.
For the most part, people write stories for two reasons. First, because doing so is way to heal themselves, and second, because it guides others in witnessing their own lived experiences. Frank said, “Because stories can heal, the wounded healer and wounded storyteller are not separate, but are different aspects of the same figure.”
Frank, A. W. (1995). The Wounded Storyteller. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Lorde, A. (2006). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books.