The experience of writing a memoir is unlike that of writing any other book, not least because writing a memoir can be transformative. As long as you take it seriously, memoir will allow you to go deep into your life experience and take distance from it at the same time; reflect on your life and see its arc; and heal wounds you didn’t even know you had.
Clueless but eager
When I started writing my own memoir, I had no clue, of course, about any of that. My goal was to share a message that was really important to me: that we always have a choice, even when we think we don’t, and that even feeling like a victim is a choice. I wanted to use my experience as an example of what’s possible, both as an inspiration and a cautionary tale. I was driven by the desire to inspire and empower my readers, both women and men in similar situations, to take charge of and transform their lives, just like I did. I had no idea that, along the way, I’d be going through another transformative journey myself.
I started working with a book coach and, to be fair, she warned me right from the start. My first assignment was to make a list of all the resources I had available to support me through the time that I’d be writing. I wrote down: my husband Michael, my close friends, my bi-monthly therapy sessions.
Would I really need all that?
“I know people with years of therapy behind them, who still were blown away by what came up for them once they started writing,” my coach said.
I nodded—and at the same time was convinced that would not apply to me.
I was wrong.
The transformative power of writing
Why is writing about your life so transformative?
The reasons I lay out below don’t just apply to writing a book-length memoir. Any writing you do that makes you reflect on your life and how you show up in the world—your thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, patterns of behavior, and relationships—can have that effect on you. It can be in the form of a journal, a letter, or even a note to a friend.
So based on what I’ve learned over the years, here’s what happens when you sit down to write about your life:
1. You understand yourself better
Writing a memoir pushes you to look at your life as a whole. Even if you’re only writing about a particular period or incident, you usually put it in the broader context of your life. You see the big picture. You get an overview of your lifeline, its arc and turning points; you gain insights into patterns—in your behavior and your relationships; you uncover underlying stories and beliefs, motivations, and even wounds (this is part of the reason why support and self-care are so important during this process) you may not have been aware of, but that have been powerfully driving your decisions and turned you into the person you are today.
Maybe it’s the fear of abandonment stemming from a childhood experience; the belief that you always need to work harder than everyone else; or the message you received early on that in order to be deserving of love, you have to put everyone else’s needs above your own. When you see your story from this new lens, you may come to understand behaviors that previously had been a mystery to you. This may lead you to be kinder and less critical towards yourself. I know that’s what happened to me.
2. You are forced to take distance from your emotions
One of the key “rules” of writing memoir is that you should respect the intellect of your reader: allow them to make their own assessments and form their own opinions without trying to sway them one way (usually your way) or another. This means that even if writing this memoir is your golden opportunity to trash everyone who has ever upset you (like that idiot who dumped you by text when you were sixteen or the narcissistic jerk of a boss you had who passed on your work as their own at the board meeting), you should resist the temptation. A good memoirist shows and doesn’t tell. You state the facts—albeit the facts as you experienced them since you are telling the story—with no added judgment. If your ex-wife was self-centered and vain, her behavior can do the talking. Your readers will surely come to that conclusion without needing to be told.
Writing that way forces you to take distance from your emotions and, again, see and understand patterns more clearly. Eventually, you notice that you get less triggered or “hooked” by events of the past and the emotions linked to them. You are empowered to respond rather than react and align with what matters to you. You are able to heal.
3. You see yourself as the hero of your own life (which you are)
Memoir is a lot like fiction, except that the protagonist is a real person: you. Going through your life stories and gaining a deeper understanding of events and patterns that shaped you in ways that you weren’t necessarily aware of, doesn’t only lead you to be more connected and kinder to yourself (as I mentioned earlier), it also empowers you to choose how you want to go forward. Now that you see clearly how what happened to you in the past impacted your actions and choices, you can make different choices—and conscious ones this time.
There’s stuff that came up when I was writing my memoir that took me by surprise. I saw things I had done in the past—that I had a hard time understanding or accepting until then—in a completely different light. I relived joyful moments I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time and got to process unresolved grief that had been stored in my body for decades. Sometimes the writing flowed and other times it was a struggle. Some parts were so painful and triggering that I had to take a break, often for several weeks, and take care of myself so that I could get back to writing. In the end, I was able to understand, forgive, accept, let go, and most important, heal.
If you ask me whether I’d do this again now that I know, my answer will be “Hell, yes!”
Have you ever written about your life—or thought about it? What was your experience like? I’d love to compare notes.😊
If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, I highly recommend enlisting the support of a qualified therapist whom you trust to accompany you through the process, especially as you’re working on your first draft. Even if you don’t believe there’s anything traumatic in your past (you may be surprised), it’s good to have help available to process whatever comes up.
Don’t hesitate to reach out—I’m happy to discuss my experience and share relevant resources with you.
 This is the equivalent of practicing emotional agility. Some of you may have noticed this is one of my favorite concepts😊.
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