The Atlantic published an article today, titled “Why You Maybe Shouldn’t Write a Memoir”. The author, a Harvard professor who writes about how to be happier, uses scientific research about self-referential SPEECH to try to dissuade people from WRITING about their lives. This is really sloppy work, Prof!
He writes that people’s lives are boring and not worth reading about. He says that telling our story will make us less happy. He strongly insinuates that people get addicted to talking about themselves and it could be a sign of a mental illness.
What if writing and publishing articles that tell people their lives are boring and mis-use science to “prove” that writing about their life is bad for them…what if *that* is a sign of a mental illness? (I’m not interested in flinging diagnoses around, but seriously…what is healthy about discouraging people from creative pursuits?)
If you want to write about your life, write about your life! Don’t even worry about whether you will publish it or not: the act of writing about your life can INCREASE your happiness and self-understanding.
This goes doubly for every neurodivergent person reading my words. Write your Autiebiography. Write your ADHD memoir. Write your Tourette’s tales. The world is just beginning to realize how much it does not understand neurodivergent people and the more of us who write about what it is like to live in our neurotypes, the more people will be able to offer us the levels of understanding we need and deserve.
So, I’m going to comb through this article and talk about some of what is very wrong about it.
WHY IS THE ATLANTIC ARTICLE SO WRONG?
The author’s first piece of evidence that it would be bad for you to write a memoir is that your life is boring. My counter: says who? Good writing can make anything interesting. And you are never required to try to publish your memoir anyway.
Who are you writing your memoir for? If it’s for yourself or your family, it will not be boring because the only people reading it will be people who care about you. They will want to know how you feel and what you have experienced because they want to know you.
If you’re writing a memoir for the world, to help them understand something about your life or lives in general, you can hire developmental editors and polishing editors and book doctors to make sure your story gets the telling it deserves. You can join writing groups and swap stories with other sensitive writers and help each other workshop your writing.
There is no reason to assume your memoir will be boring! If someone (like this Atlantic author) tries to convince you that your life is too boring to write about, just say something like, “thank you for your input” and then cheerfully ignore what they said. Their opinion of your life is what is boring to me. I would rather read 50 pages about what you like to eat for breakfast than read another article that tells people their lives are too boring to make good stories from.
So he segues from telling you how boring your life is, to saying maybe while you’re at it, shut up. The entire rest of the article is about TALKING about yourself. What a bait-and-switch that is: the title of the article lies. It’s not at all about writing a memoir! But the author frames his article about not TALKING too much about yourself as an argument for why you should not WRITE about yourself and that is just flat-out wrong.
So I’m not going to engage with his study of people telling their stories on social media. I’m not going to engage with his descriptions of what parts of the brain are activated when you talk about yourself. If you actually worry that you talk too much about yourself and would like to curb that habit, his article is probably fine.
But do not let his article dissuade you from WRITING about your life because that is a healthy and good activity that will enhance your self-understanding and, yes, your happiness. Instead of continuing to focus on the bad Atlantic article, let me tell you a little bit about why you *should* write your memoir, if you’re feeling like that’s something you’re interested in doing (or are already doing. Or have already done!)
MEMOIR WRITING CAN BE TRANSFORMATIVE
Dr. Diana Raab, author of Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life, writes in her Psychology Today blog: “Writing our memoirs can help us reclaim our voice after it’s been taken away or silenced by difficult circumstances or traumas.”
While autobiographical writing is not the same as therapy, it can open our eyes to new perspectives within ourselves. Writing the stories of our lives can help us find threads of meaning in what seems like swirls of chaos.
MEMOIR WRITING CAN BE HEALING
Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has extensively researched “the power of expressive writing in helping people cope with upheavals” (quoted from his Amazon bio page). Pennebaker says: “Months after people had written about traumas, over 70 percent reported that writing helped them understand both the event and themselves better.” (From pages 139 and 140 of Pennebaker’s 2016 book, “Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”)
Pennebaker writes that one potential cause implicated in the development of PTSD is the inability to “translate traumatic experiences into language” (145). Pennebaker cites the research of Jonathan Schooler into language and memory, writing, “when we convert an image in our minds into words, it fundamentally alters the way the image is stored.” (145)
According to Pennebaker, writing about our traumatic experiences helps to dissolve them in a way, loosening their grip on us. I have experienced this effect in both writing and speaking: when I put words to my suffering, my suffering is less.
MANY PROFESSIONALS ENCOURAGE MEMOIR WRITING
While I’m not digging into the research presented in the Atlantic article, I feel like the author cherry-picked the studies he put forth. Many more studies say that writing AND talking about your life can help you heal and become happier. Not only do many professionals encourage autobiographical writing, there are several professional organizations dedicated to promoting healing through writing.
The Center for Journal Therapy (CJT) promotes the use of journaling as a tool for healing and personal growth. They offer training and certification programs for professionals and resources and support for those who journal. CJT emphasizes the power of the written word to help people process their emotions, explore their experiences, and develop greater self-awareness.
The National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) encourages autobiographical writing through the art of poetry, applied in a therapeutic setting. NAPT also offers training and certification programs for professionals and resources and support for people who want to use poetry as a tool for personal growth and healing.
Additionally, the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) emphasizes the healing power of memoir writing on their website. If you’d like to dig into their resources, I recommend starting with this free e-book, Memoir Writing as a Healing Journey.
DON’T STOP WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE
My bottom line, with respect to the Atlantic article: don’t let the author’s negatively stop your writing. It doesn’t matter whether you publish or not, keep writing. It is good for you to write about your life: past, present, and future. If you’re not sure where to start, pick up a workbook, attend a workshop, hire a professional, look for free programs (your local library branch is a great place to start looking.) Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado has an ongoing writing workshop called Hard Times that has some meetings online. It might be a good fit for you.
But whether you seek help in writing, look for a group of people to write with, or take the page on alone, don’t stop writing. It does you good! And if you choose to seek publication, your words could help so many people feel less strange, less alone. And never mind that Atlantic article, because there is far more research pointing to the opportunities for autobiographical writing to make you happier.