by Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction
“Good memoir is, of course, the opposite of self-absorption. While it seeks out the unique aspects of the author’s experience, it also links to bigger issues and taps into the experience of readers, offering perspective and insight.”
“She’s just writing for therapy,” we sometimes say, meaning that the work seems self-indulgent or self-pitying or self-absorbed. But using writing to merely wallow or vent is not, according to research, all that therapeutic. It is writing to find meaning that, it turns out, boosts immune function and promotes healing.
Nevertheless, I feel like I’m breaking a taboo when I make the shamefully unartistic admission that I find writing to be therapeutic.
Many years ago, a stranger broke into my house at 3:30 one morning, aimed a flashlight into my eyes to wake me, then ran when I screamed.
For months afterward, I woke at 3:30 every morning. My life felt derailed, haunted by an ever-present fear. Gradually it occurred to me that I was going to be stuck until I wrote about it. But writing about an experience can feel a lot like reliving it, so it took me a while to muster my courage.
Late one night, I finally got started. I wrote for hours, becoming so absorbed in finding the right words that I forgot to be afraid. And in the process, I began to understand the sources of my fear, embedded in memories from childhood, glimpses of the fragility of loved ones, and trepidation about the future. Gradually, over time, as I revised and shaped the story, I saw how my experience connected to larger issues—violence against women, our inevitable confrontations with mortality. Writing about the Flashlight Man drained away his power, restored control to me, and helped me free myself of fear.
Only a few months after my own encounter with the therapeutic possibilities of writing, I taught a freshman composition class in which a student wrote an anguished personal essay about the death of her twin. Her classmates praised her honesty and consoled her and then the floodgates opened: one described with great emotion her mother’s cancer, another detailed his recovery from a brain injury, another poured out the story of her struggle with anorexia. In small groups, students read aloud with tears streaming down their faces and at the beginning of the next class they’d ask eagerly, “Do we have group today?”
I smiled weakly. I was horrified. I was supposed to be teaching writing skills. I was not a licensed therapist.
My students wrote in the evaluations that it was the best class they’d ever taken. I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d succeeded wildly or failed completely as a teacher that semester.
In the branch of therapy that uses writing as a technique, the objective is not to produce a work of art, but instead to give “silent but meaningful expression to that which has not been, or cannot be, spoken aloud,” “to make sense of the past. To examine it from various angles rather than. . . to try to shift blame onto others.”
In her essay “Writing Memoirs and Writing for Therapy: An Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection,” Tara DaPra references the work of biobehavioral health professor Joshua Smyth, explaining that:
“while the initial writing—the first draft—may provide a cathartic effect, the lasting benefit comes from seeing the problem in a new light—the organizing, editing, and structuring of a piece of writing. . . . writing is just another form of problem-solving. Like psychology or medicine, it’s a drive to understand the human condition experientially. . .”
The key, according to researcher Gillie Bolton, is revision. It’s digging deeper into the experience so that the writing becomes a conduit to growth and change. James W. Pennebaker, who originated the form of therapy referred to as “expressive writing,” says that it’s the use of cause-and-effect words like “because,” “realize,” and “understand” that ultimately leads to redemption and healing.
Good memoir is, of course, the opposite of self-absorption. While it seeks out the unique aspects of the author’s experience, it also links to bigger issues and taps into the experience of readers, offering perspective and insight. A memoir may initially be motivated by catharsis (or revenge), but somewhere in the revision process, it requires the courage, honesty, and generosity to reach out in meaningful ways to others, to remind readers that we are not alone in our struggles.
The goals of therapy and writing often intersect, it seems to me. Writing well in any genre forces us into active engagement, roots us in time and place, helps us to carve out the impact of one event on another, understand the relevance of details to events, gives them voice, color, order. But even suspending our inner critics and allowing ourselves to write what Anne Lamott refers to as the “shitty rough draft” is a first step toward making connections and bringing grace to our clumsy worlds. Descriptions and metaphors force us to put names to what is nebulous and appreciate the interconnectedness of the world around us, how forks of lightning are like tree branches are like veins and arteries. The wrong metaphors can make us laugh at ourselves. The right ones can lift us out of ourselves to find points of similarity with others.
As for the unsettling year when I encountered the Flashlight Man and then taught a freshman comp class that spiraled out of control: I don’t know if any of those students are still writing. I do know that my own writing about the Flashlight Man transformed significantly, starting as a journal, turning into fiction, then, eventually, ten years later, becoming an essay. While it had undergone a great deal of change over the years, it did, I hope, retain its original emotional energy. It won a Pushcart and become the first chapter of my first book.
As DaPra writes, “Perhaps the only recompense for tragedy—for death and loss of innocence—is the chance to create some measure of beauty.”
Nancy McCabe’s novel Following Disasters was released earlier this month. She has also written four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood.