Ten years ago, I sat in my living room getting grilled by my writing group. They insisted part of the manuscript for my memoirBroken: A Love Story didn’t ring true. Specifically, they were unconvinced by the sequence of events leading up to me being assaulted in the Wyoming desert. I wasn’t raped or physically hurt, but had been so terrified by the episode that I’d stuffed it deep into a nice, deep, inaccessible psychic crevasse.

 

I rewrote it a couple of times, trotting out all my fanciest verbiage.

 

Nuh-uh, said the ladies.

 

They were tough. One of them was the former head of the Creative Writing department at the University of Colorado, where she’d been my professor about 25 years before. I wrote the scene again. Nope. And again. And finally on my fifth try — cursing my writing pals, weeping piteously and drinking wine from an open bottle in the middle of the day — I came out with it: I had stuck my finger in the ear of my assailant, flirtatiously, sending him into the over-reaction that hurt us both for years.

 

This satisfied my writing group. But that truth was going to cost me. Sticking my finger in the cowboy’s ear was not a moment I wanted to bandy about to the reading public, much less in my own home. It aggravated the state of emotional churn and awkwardness to which I, like most memoirists, succumb in the months before publication. This state has been compared to that of very pregnant women, only our baby is going to be immediately inspected and judged by thousands, or (and in our wildest dreams/nightmares) millions of people. Every tingle of expectation is accompanied by a greater slap of dread. We have a hard time swallowing

“I spent the the last few months before publication date lying in the fetal position under my desk, trying to break my contract,” said Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, the bestselling memoir of growing up with eccentric parents who were sometimes homeless.

Boy, could I relate. When my book finally came out, I felt like a hairless mouse. I’d meet people at readings who’d smile knowingly and say, “I feel like I know everything about you.” Terrified, I’d joke, “Then it’s only fair that you give me your journals right now. And your medical records! Ba-ha-ha!  Chardonnay, anyone?”

 

Happily, though, most readers I spoke to about my book were disarmed by the honesty in the assault scene in particular and my book in general. That felt good. It made them more likely to tell me the truth about themselves in return. Which felt even better. It put us both somewhere on the path of authenticity and spared us from suffering through a superficial conversation.

 

Writing a memoir, I came to realize, was a healing experience. And I’m not alone. As Jeannette Walls told me: “Writing the book was the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done in my life.” The poet David Whyte put it like this: “Articulate exactly the nature of your exile and you’re on the road home.”

 

Abigail Thomas’ memoirA Three Dog Life, concerned her husband suffering a debilitating brain injury after being struck by a car as he chased her dog in traffic. She claims the book released her guilt. “I had to face things about myself,” she said. “I felt guilty for 10 years and now (that I’ve written it all down) I just feel human. Regret and sadness are things you should not get rid of. Guilt is – ‘Look at me, how bad I was!’ It’s the sharing of ‘Here I am, just human, and there you are,’ and there are connections to be made.”

Writing about emotionally traumatic experiences has a surprisingly beneficial effect on wellbeing.

 

~ From the Journal of the American Medical Association, 1999

To my surprise, this wasn’t news to JAMA, which had recorded the link between personal writing and stress relief for everyone from cancer patients to caregivers.

 

I’m with them. Not just my stressful experiences but my whole life started making more sense when I finally just put it on the page. And I don’t think it really matters whether your audience is in the millions — like Jeanette Walls’ or Mary Karr’s — or if your audience is five people sitting with you in memoir class.

 

As Abigail Thomas put it:  “I think maybe memoir replaces the community feeling we used to get from living in the same place for 40 years.  As one of my memoir students put it: “the way the honesty spiraled deeper and deeper was extraordinary.”

I’ve been teaching for eight years now, and this sort of response doesn’t surprise me any more. We’re tribal people. We’re meant to share.