On Memoir Writing: Do We Have to Call It Therapy?

March 13, 2020 § 15 Comments

Mary J BreenBy Mary J. Breen

I teach memoir classes with seniors. People who hear about these classes are forever telling me how much they approve. “Writing is such good therapy!” they say, one after another. But is it useful to call it therapy? I don’t think so, and I think it’s time we stopped.

My students tell me they want to write their memoirs for many reasons. Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren; sometimes they want to honour someone now dead, and sometimes they want to give voice to people whose stories haven’t been heard. Some people want the opportunity of taking a good look back at their lives. I’ve never had anyone say they were there because they thought memoir writing would be therapeutic. They’re there to write.

And they’re right. The focus of a memoir class is supposed to be the telling and the writing of true storiesnot judging the lives people have led. Keeping discussion away from psychoanalyzing keeps the focus on the page where it belongs.

Therapy is what we need when something needs to be fixed; physical therapy, for example, might help regain the use of a broken wrist; family therapy might bring a family together again. I don’t think we should suggest to our students that they are broken and need fixing in any way.

Framing memoir writing as therapy suggests students should be looking for problematic topics to be addressed. I want my students to feel free to explore and write about—or not—whatever they choose. There is no question that catharsis can result from thinking about and writing about difficult events, but catharsis isn’t a daily occurrence for any memoir writer. I don’t want students to feel disappointed when their writing doesn’t feel “therapeutic” or “therapeutic” enough. Expecting therapeutic change, for example, may be unrealistic for someone writing about the many ways she and her big sister had such a hard time getting along, or for the writer describing a relationship with a neighbour who showed him never-ending love and acceptance while he grew up in a difficult family. These are perfectly good topics for a memoir. I don’t want students or teachers waiting for the “therapeutic” moments, and rejecting those that are not.

In my teaching experience, many people—especially older people—do not want to delve deeply into the painful parts of their pasts. I’ve often heard students say they want to remember the good not the bad, and as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my role to challenge this. This is especially important because some memories are so painful that they should not be recalled without care, and certainly not in front of a class. I remember asking a student if she was going to write about what happened to her as a small child in Germany during World War 2. She looked at me with alarm and simply said, “Oh, but I can’t.” When I saw the fear in her eyes, I realized how deep this old pain was, and I saw that pushing her in any way would have been very wrong. I have since learned that returning to memories of extreme trauma can lead to re-traumatizing—a painful reliving or even re-inhabiting of a terrible situation and the trauma that came with it. Few teachers would be adept at dealing with this.

Therapy suggests an intervention by expert professionals whose viewpoint is, by definition, outside the client. Referring to memoir writing as “therapy” moves the expertise away from the writer and into the hands of those who are on the outside looking in. Of course, experts can sometimes perceive things about us that we’re unaware of, but I want the writer to be firmly established as the authority in his/her life. I want decisions about what matters and what doesn’t to remain with the writer.

Older people are bombarded with advice about what we need—exercise programs, proper diet, vitamins, medical tests—in order to enjoy “healthy aging,” and I’m unwilling to lump memoir writing in with these prescribed behaviours. Like music and yoga and spending time with grandkids, memoir writing can be interesting and useful and fun, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as one of the approved ways to grow old correctly.

I’m not saying that writing can’t be “therapeutic.” There is no question that writing can take us deeper into what we know and who we are and have always been. It can illuminate things and let us examine parts of our past we hadn’t known were there. Some say that writing their memoirs was how they reclaimed their past. Others even say it saved their lives. Writing about our past can help us figure out our motivations and our fears, and it can give us a stronger sense of ourselves. It can also help us live more easily with what hurt us. If these things are “therapeutic,” then great. Even so, I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be. Memoir writing is often enjoyable, interesting, illustrative, and even transformative. As memoir teachers, we have the privilege of helping people examine their lives—in whichever way they want. We are not therapists. We are teachers-cheerleaders-guides-coaches-listeners-witnesses, and I think this role is very important just as it is.

Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, and she has written two books about women’s health. She has taught creative non-fiction and memoir courses for the past 15 years.



§ 15 Responses to On Memoir Writing: Do We Have to Call It Therapy?

  • “I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be.” Mary, this is such a helpful article, and I think this line toward the end is just a fabulous way of thinking about memoir.

  • Neuman Gregory says:

    Memoir is “transformative.” Indeed! The chance to look back and to look forward makes the present moment much more meaningful.

  • mslabrat says:

    I agree. I have led writing workshops for my elders for the past 20 years. There is something inherently revolting about an outsider’s need to reclassify art as medicine. Workshop participants are writing for an audience larger than themselves. The effect their writing has on themselves is nobody’s business but their own.

  • R. F. says:

    Hi Mary, this is a lovely article. My only criticism (and I know I’m focusing on one very specific part of the piece, so this is not a commentary on the piece as a whole) is referring to therapy as “fixing something”. Yes, this can be accurate, especially like the case of your reference to physical therapy. But I think that referring to therapy as something that “fixes” us is dangerous, and can cause a strain against the concept of therapy as something that is required to fix us, when this isn’t something that isn’t possible for everyone embarking on any type of therapeutic journey. I hope you see my suggestion as helpful and not rude or overly critical. Thanks for putting your work out there and supporting people in their memoir writing, it’s so important!

  • I agree. Thanks for your post and its wisdom. It’s true that some past experiences are too traumatic to re-live in order to write, and yet a person can still write a memoir–about happier topics. I’ve taught memoir-writing to groups similar to yours for 14 years and also blog about the topic. Here’s an excerpt from a past blog post which I’m including in a book I’ll soon publish:

    Judith Barrington says, “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of her current knowledge. . . . The contemporary memoir includes retrospection as an essential part of the story.” Readers want to know “how you now, looking back on it, understand it.” (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)

    You might want to write about your heartaches in your memoir and that’s okay (a) if doing so helps you heal, and (b) if your goal is to help readers heal from their own painful pasts. But you must write your story with the correct perspective and honorable motives. It’s not okay to write your memoir to get revenge. It’s not okay to wallow in self-pity.

    Instead, seek to understand. Reevaluate people and events. Ask yourself if you should now come to a different conclusion than you did years ago. Maybe you must examine what you didn’t have the courage to examine before. Seek to offer forgiveness and extend grace.

    William Zinsser says this: “The marvel of Frank McCourt’s childhood is that he survived it. . . . The second marvel is that he was able to triumph over it in Angela’s Ashes, beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language. Those same qualities are at the heart of all the good memoirs. . . .”

    Zinsser mentions three such memoirs, A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. He continues, “Anyone might think the domestic chaos and alcoholism and violence that enveloped those writers when they were young would have long since hardened the heart. . . .

    “Yet they look back with compassion. . . . These books . . . were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the authors are as honest about their young selves as they are about the sins of their elders.

    “We are not victims, they want us to know. . . . We have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives. . . .”

    Zinsser offers advice for writing about people who caused pain: “If you must use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey.

    “What they won’t connect with is whining. Dispose of that anger someplace else.

    “Get your intention clear before you start and tell your story with integrity.” (William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life)

  • Memoir delves into, then openly shares stories of our human living: our dreams, failures, transformations; our courage and wisdom and ever present need of greater knowledge and spiritual growth. Writing about true moments arises from a hope to connect with our own selves and also others-just as any authentic writing. It is another chance to perhaps endure past our given time here.
    Such a concise and worthy essay, Mary J. Breen, and I thank you.

  • thewritegrrl says:

    Bravo! I gone to many advanced workshops and even writing groups to improve my craft and every time I hear “I am here for therapeutic purposes” or “my therapist recommend I write about it,” my stomach drops. I begin to make an escape plan. Call me selfish but don’t accuse me of being unsympathetic. I sympathize and even empathize with many a trauma survivor. But I am there to become a better writer, not a peer counselor. I did that for 20 years. So join me in empowering all workshop leaders to approach these interlopers and tell them they’re in the wrong group. Please. You know you want to.

  • Andrea Carol Anderson says:

    Yes, Mary Breen, yes. I like how simply and cleanly you say, “They are there to write.” Thank you for this.

  • Margaret says:

    I loved your article. It helped me realise that I have been avoiding writing memoir because I didn’t think my life was interesting enough for other people to bother reading about. I haven’t overcome any significant trauma, I’m just an ordinary woman who’s interesting in exploring (at long last) how I think and feel about the world. You’ve given me a very different perspective on this, so thank you.

  • Tricia says:

    You give important perspective on the subject of memoir, Mary. I love that you mention “Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren. . . ”

    How deeply I wish I knew more about my Irish grandparents’ lives in Ireland, when and why they emigrated to the U.S., and their thoughts and feelings about their experiences in both countries. I do have a copy of a poem written by my grandfather, published in his local (U.S.) newspaper of the time, which tells of his longing to visit his home country. This came to light with a death in the family, and is truly a jewel.

    Of course, it’s too late now, but I also wish I’d asked them about these things when I was young and it was still possible. Alas, the young seldom think about these things. I sometimes wonder why my mother never suggested I ask them.

  • Nancy T McGlasson says:

    Thank you for your essay. As a mother of a son who died by suicide, people often say to me, when they hear I am writing a book, “Oh how wonderful that must be. How therapeutic for you to write.” Now yes, in part, they are right. Writing did help me pick my way through the debris and find the clear path back to my life. But from the first day I began thinking about the CNF book I would write, some days after my son’s death when I found clues he’d left behind to encourage me to take what happened to him to a larger audience, the purposes were (among others) to open secrets to and for others, help them understand mental illness and unnecessary and cruel stigma, change health insurance policies, equate suicide and mental illness with other deadly diseases more socially acceptable such as cancer and heart disease, or describe the sometimes battling problems (e.g., freedom of speech and that words can kill) inherent to the internet, or when, sadly, another death occurs, to help those who survive it. These goals were there with the first word and remain still. Many thanks, again.

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  • Regan Burke says:

    Mary Breen is so wise. Memoir writing for me has, in fact, been therapeutic. Bibliotherapeutic. I came to it for that reason. For therapy. It has helped me enormously. But from the very beginning I’ve wanted to improve my writing. I want feedback from my teachers and fellow writers about the writing, not tips on how to relieve the angst in my life–just as I don’t get writing tips from talk therapy. The process of writing brings up memories I’ve forgotten, truths I’d not known, from the moment I have a prompt until I edit the last word. Breen does a brilliant summation of this process. Writing is writing. Therapy is therapy. In my life, they intersect. I am all the better for it.

    After 7 years of memoir writing classes, I wrote a soon-ro-be-released 250 page memoir, In That Number. Tortoise Books plans a release date in August 2020.

  • Laura V. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Mary. I agree with so many of the things that you’ve said. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic qualities of memoir a lot lately as my husband and I face a challenge. I wrote an essay about it that helped me make a difficult decision. In tandem, I’ve been writing memoir for the past ten years and the process of working on this book has given me different rewards at different times. At first, it was about documenting. Then, it was about processing. Then, it became fun. Now, it’s about completing what I’ve started and creating something hopefully unique enough to be worthy of a reader’s time. At each phase, it’s given something different to me and I’d be lying to myself if I were to say that these gifts haven’t helped me evolve (like therapy). Anywho, I don’t gospel to others that they should write memoir as therapy. But I do think that writing can be an incredible tool for self-discovery and identifying purpose, whether that’s tied to the writing life or not. I’m just rambling at this point, but, again, thank you for prompting more contemplation around this topic.

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