How Writing a Memoir Can Help You Heal

While it may be painful--and at times, feel like it will kill you--writing a memoir can be key to your own personal healing process from a difficult time in your life.
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The idea of writing a memoir formed slowly: after reading The Glass Castle and thinking I too have a family story; hearing Joan Didion say writing The Year of Magical Thinking helped her stop reliving the moments of her husband's sudden death. And then there was my unflappable hope, that if my father would only remember the person he once was, the relationship we once shared, he would let me back in his life after not speaking to me for twenty years. My memoir would help him remember.

This guest post is by Cindi Michael. After moving from Maryland to Switzerland to Texas to Michigan, Michael now lives in rural New Jersey, not far from where she spent the golden years of her childhood. She’s happily married to an Englishman and is a die-hard football and swim team mom. Her day job as a technology and big data expert takes her to clients around the world, and she is the author of five business and technology books. She holds a BA in English from the University of Maryland and an MBA from Rice University. She has won two creative writing awards for her short stories. Her memoir, The Sportscaster's Daughter, is available now.


So I started writing the happier scenes from my childhood, imagining one day mailing my father the memoir. I wrote about our best Christmas together, the year my father lost his job as the country's top disc jockey at WABC in New York. He was disheartened that Christmas, but our family was closest that year. As I wrote my cherished chapter nine, The Richest Christmas, in the fall of 2009, I didn't know then that my father was battling cancer. He died one month later, Christmas Eve, without saying goodbye, without having ever met my two children or husband. Worse, nobody bothered to tell me. A friend heard about his death over the radio: George Michael, Washington DC sportscaster and host of The Sports Machine dead at the age of 70. Needless to say, it wasn't the happiest of Christmases.

I kept some relative composure through the holidays, aided by lots of wine and a nightly sleeping pill. After the initial shock, I shed my tears in silence in the deep of the night, for my children's sake, who still believed in Santa, and miracles, and love being stronger than hate. Was I really going to let my father take that away from them too? It was after the holidays, though, when everyone was back at school and work that I gave into my grief. I wrote more furiously then, as a way of spending time with my father, as a way of grieving. The happy scenes comforted me. The difficult scenes reawakened nightmares that had long been dormant.

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

It was hard enough for me to survive being disowned at eighteen, a freshman in college, once. Reliving the scene in which my stepmother had my car towed and walking home in the bitter cold night along a street where a girl had recently been raped was a chapter I put off as long as possible. The secrets, too, that I had never shared with another living soul, I would rather leave out altogether. But those are the things readers most want to know, aren’t they? And there is the writing professor from UCLA, Maureen Murdock, who said at a writer's conference, "Memoir is not for sissies." Indeed not.

But probably the worst part of writing my memoir was confronting the truth, challenging beliefs that had been the basis of my entire life. My father was awarded sole custody of my brother, sister, and me when I was eleven, after our mother neglected us. But did she really neglect us? Was it that bad? Or did my father try to punish her for looking at another man . . . the same way he was punishing me? I tracked down court documents, hundreds of pages, spanning years, searching for the truth. I reread my diary entries going back to the age of eight. My father did need to get custody of us, but the transcripts resurfaced details of a painful childhood with our mother that I had worked so hard to forgive her for. Another belief I had to investigate: that my father had once been a good father, that we had had our golden years. Had I just imagined that time? I tracked down our babysitter from that period and was relieved to have her affirm my memories were correct. She mistook the joy in my voice for a present happiness instead of what it really was: relief that my whole life was not a lie.

But she reminded me of my father's cruel streak and how hard he had been on my brother in those years. It seems incongruous that I would forget my father's cruelty when denying my existence should have been a constant reminder. Yet his absence in my daily life allowed me to forget his temper and to remember only his good qualities. Writing my memoir forced me to see him more fully, and this harsher light burned my soul. And of course all these investigations did unearth some lies. Could I still love him in this new light?

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Writing a Memoir Presents Many Challenges

I have always been a writer, but in college, I fictionalized our family stories. I hadn't known the form of memoir. There were techniques I had to learn. I like the way Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, describes it as stringing the pearls, finding the scenes that matter and cutting the rest. And in fiction, the mantra of "show, don't tell" still rings fresh in my mind. But memoir isn't fiction. It is not only a story. It is a revealing of how the story shaped the person, the weaving together of then and now. Experts on this approach seem to disagree. One editor ruthlessly cut every reference to my thoughts, saying they interfered with the story flow. But I sided with my Gotham Writer's teacher and New York University professor Cullen Thomas, that the "now" perspective is what makes memoir different from fiction and packs more emotional punch. This editing part of the memoir writing process was so much easier for me than that painful first draft of getting all the memories out and reliving events that I barely survived the first time around.

I know I'm not done here, either. Facing publication is a scary prospect. Last summer, I went to the New York Writer’s Digest Conference, intent on finding an agent. Instead, I connected with Sheila Levine who advised me on the importance of a legal review before even sending my manuscript to agents. I have no concerns about libel—the truth is on my side; but it seems the whole invasion of privacy aspect is a grayer area. It was inspiring to hear Regina Brooks, author of You Should Really Write a Book, in person as her book had been another resource in my writing process. But it was discouraging too; memoir is a tough field in which to publish, no matter that I had already published other books the traditional route. Hearing Kristen Harnisch, author of The Vintner’s Daughter, speak of her dual publishing approach for traditional in Canada and hybrid in the U.S. was yet another eye opener. If I continued to pursue the traditional path, it might be another three years, if at all, before my book made it to print. My memoir wounds had already been open and raw for five years; how much more could I take?


Beyond the publishing process, I know, too, there will be the those readers who lash out at me for the mistakes I made or for tainting a celebrity they once idolized . Publisher and author Brooke Warner talks about how cruel people can be about women’s memoirs, in particular, in her blog, Memoir Bashing: An Examination of an Emotionally Complex Social Phenomenon. . Some close friends have told me not to publish the book, thinking it would spare me from more trauma. But there are others who have read it and say it inspired them, helping them find their own inner strength. They speak of unresolved family conflicts and how perhaps they should let go of some of old grudges; they learn from my family’s mistakes; from my story. So I like Maureen Murdock’s explanation, that memoirists our modern day mythmakers: we write to find meaning and to help others, even if it nearly kills us in the process.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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