One morning in mid-August a few years ago, I stood in my small condo in Denver paralyzed by fear and inertia. My beloved older sister had died of cancer ten months earlier, my mother died two months after that, and my father decided that very morning he didn’t want to go to dialysis.
“Is he going to go tomorrow,” I asked my younger sister on the phone.
“He says he is.”
We both knew he would never go to dialysis again, and that it would only be a few days before he passed away as well.
As if all this loss wasn’t enough, I’d spent the previous four years dealing with the end of a 15-year relationship (for which I felt enormous guilt), massive financial upheaval (which caused paralyzing fear), and had just broken up with my boyfriend for the tenth time (which made me question my very sanity).
Not knowing where else to turn, I started writing…
As a journalist, I’ve written stories about other people all my career. As a professor and writing coach, I’ve helped countless other writers get their stories onto the page. But it wasn’t until I began writing my own story that I truly understood the life-changing power of personal narrative.
In writing a memoir, I gained qualities I’d long been seeking: self-compassion, forgiveness for my younger self, and a deep in-the-bones understanding that all the self-limiting stories I’d been telling myself were patently false. Writing helped reveal my inner truth, and inner peace has been the result.
As it turns out, such benefits are common for people who write their stories. I recently surveyed 30 of my long-time memoir clients, all of whom are writing about emotionally charged experiences. They told me writing gave them such things as understanding, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, confidence and courage. Although they wrote because they were in pain, a great many of them have been able to write their way out of it.
This isn’t just true of my clients, however. The transformative power of personal narrative has been well-documented in research that has shown expressive writing can ease depression, lower blood pressure, boost immune function, improve health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits, enhance memory, and elevate mood and well-being.
James Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is well-known for his research on expressive writing as a route to healing. His work—which has been popularized through stories in U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, and many scholarly articles—has shown that short-term focused writing can benefit everyone from people with powerful secrets to patients with terminal illness to someone who has experienced massive life change.
Best of all: You don’t have to write a book-length memoir in order to experience these benefits. Short bursts of writing over several days are enough to change a person.
How to start writing
1. Commit to writing for at least 20 minutes five days in a row. For the next five days, write your deepest thoughts and feelings about an emotionally charged experience. Write quickly—I suggest writing in long-hand—and go where the writing takes you. You might connect the experience to your relationships, your self-concept, your past, or your future. Don’t censor yourself. Follow the muse.
2. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or what someone might think. You’re the audience for this work—not anyone else. As Stephen King suggests in his craft book, On Writing, “Write with the door closed.” Consider this sacred time you are spending on yourself.
3. Dig deeply for the emotional truth. How did you feel when your husband left, or your child was caught shoplifting, or your father threw you out of the house—angry, relieved, sad, surprised, amused? Don’t write the story you’ve been telling others; tell the honest truth to yourself. What were you feeling? Why did you feel that way? What might you be too afraid or ashamed to admit?
4. Go beyond what happened in an effort to understand why it happened. To tell a story, we have to examine events and understand why those events occurred. We need to link the events of our lives using cause-and-effect sequencing. We have to understand that when this happened that occurred as a result.
5. Challenge your own interpretation, and then challenge it some more to see if your remembered perspective—about yourself and other people—is accurate. In our daily life, the stories that loop through our minds tend to perseverate on single themes: blame, shame, embarrassment, anger, guilt. But writing forces us to pause the tape at various intervals to see if we can discern subtler themes and plot lines we may have overlooked.
6. Write the before, during and after. To assess the true impact of an emotional experience, write about who you were and how you felt before the event occurred, while the event was unfolding, and how you changed as a result of the experience.
7. Mine for meaning. In personal storytelling, it is not enough to simply report what happened. You have to understand why those experiences mattered and what they meant. Ask yourself:
–Why does this experience matter?
–What’s the point?
–What’s the real story here?
–What does the story say about life, love, relationships, people, the world?
7 ½. Enjoy the journey. By giving us a more well-rounded perspective on our lives, expressive writing is the avenue through which we heal painful internal splits and come back into unity with ourselves and others. When we take time to learn and honor the truths of our lives, we are able to connect more readily with our divine nature, that essential spirit self that remains unbruised by human experience.
It’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me, which is why I took almost two years out of my life to write my memoir. Writing certainly healed me. But my hope, more than anything else, is that writing will give you new insight and perspective as well.