The Healing Power of Memoirs

I am a huge fan of memoirs and tend to gravitate toward the genre more often than not. Some of my favourite books are memoirs—Love Warrior, Educated, The Glass Castle, Wild, Eat Pray Love, When Breath Becomes Air, and Untamed, of course.

There is often a misconception that memoirs only do well if famous people write them, but I beg to differ. Sure Michelle Obama and Trevor Noah sold a few books on name recognition, but until their books were released, Tara Westover and Paul Kalanithi were not household names.

The memoir is a powerful healing tool for the reader, and it can also be healing for the writer as long as it is being written at the right time for the right reasons.

Healing for the Writer

I will not imply that writing your memoir replaces proper counselling. In fact, I prefer that my writing coaching clients have a therapist they’ve unpacked and processed some of their emotions with before or during the writing process. Reliving trauma is not a walk in the park, and while I am a kick-ass writing coach, I am not a psychologist.

That said, walking through your life’s journey will undoubtedly allow you to examine your emotions at the time and how things might feel and look different now. Because I am a huge advocate for putting the reader first, I am not one to suggest writing a book merely for the purpose of healing. However, there are journaling exercises you can do instead of embarking on the mountain climb that is writing, publishing, and promoting a memoir.

But, even if you are writing a memoir to publish one day, the first draft is for you and your healing journey.

Healing for the Reader

It bears repeating that the purpose of story is to feel emotion. With that in mind, why do we want to feel the emotions of a memoirist? I have a theory that it helps us process and heal from our own trauma in a safe way when we can feel the emotions of someone else’s story.

But first, let’s look at how a well-written memoir takes the reader on a purposeful journey. In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron talks about the emotional drive of a story. She calls it the third rail—meaning the trolly car needs the electric current driving the train forward while the trolly car sits on iron rails that guide its direction. The plot is the direction—this happens, then this happens, then this happens. But if you sit your train on the iron rails and don’t have the emotional energy to drive it, your train and plot go nowhere. You need the emotional journey to push the story along.

Each memoir is a train on a different track, but a common emotional theme often drives each story. For example, coming of age, self-actualization, love, redemption, good vs. evil, courage and perseverance. The theme is what gives the entrance point for the reader and makes your story relatable so that they can come along for the ride.

Processing life’s ups and downs from minor to more significant trauma is not something we get to check off a to-do list and say, “I’m done my healing.” We’re constantly healing. When I read a memoir, I feel a duller version of my pain because it’s a different circumstance.

The gift of writing your memoir is offering the reader enough distance and safety to process the emotions they vicariously feel by reading your book.

It’s the same reason we all listen to sad songs when we’re going through a breakup! It gives us that distance but allows us to feel the feeling.

Memoir isn’t a direct way of advising on how to process trauma. You’re saying, “Look at what I went through and how I overcame, and you can too.” And your reader says, “Oh, I can feel this because I’ve been in these situations in different circumstances.” They’ve been feeling that electric current driving their trolley. They were just on different rails.

Not sure if you’re ready to write a memoir? Take the Memoir Readiness Quiz here. Know deep down it is the right time to jump in? Discover Everything you need to know to finally write your memoir with my weeklong Memoir Masterclass event starting Monday, November 7th, 2022. Sign-up here.