Students in my “Writing Your Life Story” and “Autobiographical Writing” classes, as well as my personal history clients, often ask me, “Is writing your life story therapy?” I usually respond, “Well, it may not be therapy but it can certainly be therapeutic.”
The healing benefits of telling our story can emerge at any time, often when we’re not even expecting it. I’ve witnessed many students plunge into the process of writing about their past with enthusiasm and dedication, expecting nothing more than preserving their memories for their children or grandchildren. Then, somewhere along the way, they reflect upon a life experience, often from childhood, that prompts them to slow down. They take further inventory. Hold the experience up to the light of day. See it through a new lens. They remember parts of the story they had long forgotten, and they find themselves looking upon the role they played, and the roles played by others close to them, in a different context. They make discoveries, experience an “aha.” Maybe they smile, or shed a tear. They tell me and their fellow life-writing students of a feeling that something has been cleansed. They had a new realization or felt a sense of completion about something large or small from their past. Often the experience stirs them to dig in for a further exploration of memories from around the same time, or that may be somehow connected to the story that touched them. Whether they would call it that or not, these life-story writers are having a therapeutic experience.
Some of my Writing Your Life Story and Autobiographical Writing students intentionally seek the therapeutic benefits of writing our life story. They carry a degree of sadness, anger or discontent about a part of their past, and even if they have sought healing in actual therapeutic environments previously, they believe that writing about the experience might take them another step down the road of healing. Often it works just that way. They write about something painful and report that it feels a little lighter. Maybe they forgive a loved one, or themselves. Maybe they gain a fresh perspective. At times I’ve seen students wrestling with strained relationships with a parent in their writing tap into a happy or even joyful memory of a shared time with that mother or father. And invariably, when one student is writing about painful memories in a way to help their healing, their fellow life-story writers listen respectfully, supportively, and even admiringly.
When clients contact me to write their life story for them as ghostwriter, or ask me to coach them in writing their memoir or autobiography themselves, facing a difficult experience from their past is often part of the plan. When John Thomas began writing about his past, he knew he would be focusing on his grief from losing two wives to breast cancer nine years apart. In his therapeutic life-story writing experience, he also found himself paying tribute to these two loves of his life in new and heart-stirring ways. His book My Saints Alive: Reflections on a Journey of Love, Loss and Life. is a profound testament to the many therapeutic benefits of writing our life story. Recently I was contacted by a man who had lost his beloved almost two years earlier. While he knew it wasn’t going to be easy, he wanted to go back and chronicle their entire relationship. It was just something he had to do, he told me.
Perhaps that is part of what is calling you to write your life story or to reach out to a ghostwriter or personal historian to write your memoir or autobiography for you. Maybe you are seeking discovery or even healing about your past. You might find it, even if it doesn’t come in the form you would expect. And if the idea of having a therapeutic experience is not even on your radar in wanting to tell your life story, don’t be surprised if it pops up along the trail anyway. Most likely, you’ll appreciate the added touch. And if the memory coming forward feels too painful to re-visit at this time, simply back away and focus on the many other dimensions of your life story. You will know what’s right for you.
For those of you who have already had therapeutic moments in writing about your life story, feel free to share those experiences with me in an email. I’m always appreciative of hearing stories about how writing our life story helps us in new and meaningful ways.
– Kevin Quirk, Life Story Ghostwriter and author of Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It! An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story