Why memoir is as good for you as push-ups

Seven years ago, I sat in my living room getting grilled by my writing group. They insisted part of the manuscript for my memoir, Broken: A Love Story didn’t ring true. Specifically, they were unconvinced by the sequence of events leading up to me being assaulted in the Wyoming desert. I wasn’t raped or physically hurt, but had been so terrified by the episode that I’d stuffed it deep into a nice, deep, inaccessible psychic crevasse.

I rewrote it a couple of times, trotting out all my fanciest verbiage.

Nuh-uh, said the ladies.

They were tough. One of them was the former head of the Creative Writing department at the University of Colorado, where she’d been my professor about 25 years before. I wrote it again. Nope. And again. And finally on my fifth try — cursing my writing pals’ names, weeping piteously and drinking wine from an open bottle in the middle of the day — I came out with it: I had stuck my finger in the ear of my assailant, flirtatiously, sending him into the over-reaction that hurt us both for years.

me, prior to the publication of my book

me, prior to the publication of my book

This satisfied my writing group. I was glad it worked for them, those dominatrixes, but that truth was going to cost me. Sticking my finger in the cowboy’s ear was not a moment I wanted to bandy about to the reading public, much less in my own home. It aggravated the state of emotional churn and awkwardness in which I, like most memoirists, lived during the months before publication. This state has been compared to that of very pregnant women, only our baby is going to be immediately inspected and judged by thousands, or (and in our wildest dreams/nightmares) millions of people. Every tingle of expectation is accompanied by a greater slap of dread. We have a hard time swallowing.

“I spent the the last few months before publication date lying in the fetal position under my desk, trying to break my contract,” said Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, the bestselling memoir of growing up with eccentric parents who were sometimes homeless.

Boy, could I relate. When my book finally came out, I felt like a hairless mouse. I’d meet people at readings who’d smile knowingly and say, “I feel like I know everything about you.” Terrified, I’d joke, “Then it’s only fair that you give me your journals right now. And your medical records!” Time to head for the Chardonnay.

There was no way to know that post publication I would greet that statement with relief. More often than not, the readers I meet were disarmed by the honesty in the assault scene in particular and my book in general. This felt good. They’re more likely to tell me the truth about themselves in return. Which felt even better. It put us both somewhere on the path of authenticity and spared us from suffering through a superficial conversation. Writing a memoir, I’ve come to realize, is a healing experience. And I’m not alone. As the poet David Whyte put it, “Articulate exactly the nature of your exile and you’re on the road home.”

Abigail Thomas’ memoir, A Three Dog Life, concerned her husband suffering a debilitating brain injury after being struck by a car as he chased her dog in traffic. She claims the book released her guilt. “I had to face things about myself,” she said. “I felt guilty for 10 years and now (that I’ve written it all down) I just feel human. Regret and sadness are things you should not get rid of. Guilt is – ‘Look at me, how bad I was!’ It’s the sharing of ‘Here I am, just human, and there you are,’ and there are connections to be made.” Her confession booth served its beautiful purpose.

“Memoir, when it’s done correctly, is almost like making a friend,” said Jeannette Walls.  “You would not believe the number of people who will start telling me about their own lives,” she said. “Usually it’s an amazing story of strength and survival, and my heart goes out to them, but they’re ashamed. Sometimes people who were raised in great privilege, or had an alcoholic dad or a slightly loopy mom or felt like an outcast have approached me and poured out their hearts.” Writing the book “was the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

donna and emily                                                                    a pair of memoir students, happy in Boulder

Debra Marquart, who won the PEN-USA award for nonfiction with The Horizontal World, says of her memoir about growing up on a North Dakota farm: “The more of the material in A Horizontal World that came into focus, I talked about how hard we worked and got to how hard my mother worked, and then I realized she had not willingly moved back to the farm. My dad had made that decision when I was in the womb. Every single cell of my body clicked, and I had to reassess everything I knew about her. I realized my mother started to look better and better in the rendering, and I started looking more like a little shit.”

Or, as Mary Karr put it: “The convenient sound bites into which I store my sense of self are rarely accurate –they have to be unpacked and pecked at – warily, with unalloyed suspicion. You must testify and recant, type and delete.” Ultimately, she said, memoir is about loving.

So I wasn’t surprised when I recently came upon a 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article entitled “Effects of Writing about Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction on Patients with Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis,” which reported “writing about emotionally traumatic experiences has a surprisingly beneficial effect on symptom reports, well-being, and health care use in healthy individuals.”

To my surprise, this wasn’t news to JAMA, which had recorded the link between personal writing and stress relief for everyone from cancer patients to caregivers.

I’m with them. Not just my stressful experiences but my whole life started making more sense when I finally just put it on the page. And I don’t think it really matters whether your audience is in the millions — like Jeanette Walls’ or Mary Karr’s — or if your audience is five people sitting with you in memoir class.

As Abigail Thomas put it:  “I think maybe memoir replaces the community feeling we used to get from living in the same place for 40 years.  As one of my memoir students put it: “the way the honesty spiraled deeper and deeper was extraordinary.”

We’re tribal people. We’re meant to share.
me laura bethany hanne coffee                                                                                                   tribal people

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