The Life Writing Progression
The graphic above is fresh out of my head. You have never seen it before. I came up with it this afternoon as I worked on the handouts for a program titled Writing for the Health of it that I’m presenting in a couple of weeks. For some time I’ve been cogitating about how to pull together all the information and knowledge (there is a difference) I have on this topic. I had identified the categories in this graphic, but not until this afternoon did the pieces fit together so beautifully.
Each of these levels has health benefits. The "Raw Writing", especially the rants, has the most clearly demonstrated physical benefits, according to the hundreds of studies that have followed the pioneering work by James Pennebaker, PhD. I summarized this research in a previous post. The work of Kay Adams and members of the Center for Journal Therapy have clearly demonstrated the value of journaling, using dozens of specialized protocols. Kay has an amazing series of internet radio programs you can download and listen to if you are interested.
As far as I’m aware, nobody has scientifically studied and documented the value of writing stories and personal essays for physical health, but testimonials about its value for healing resentments, increasing self-esteem, lightening depression and similar thing are well known to anyone who teaches in this field.
Far fewer people engage upon the more rigorous undertaking of writing memoir, at least not beyond simple vignettes. Until recently, most people have thought of memoir primarily as a project to be undertaken primarily for the purpose of seeking publication. Why else would anyone undergo such a rigorous exercise? Since I became involved in the early stages of writing a memoir myself, I’ve come to see that sharing the finished story with others is a minor part of the value.
The more important value lies in examining a large collection of memories in an organized way, looking for the common threads that tie them together, finding meaning in unexpected places, and seeing my life as an ongoing arc of story. I’m finding more continuity than I expected, and am delighted to report that several old scabs have fallen off long-standing grievances, leaving no evidence of scar tissue below. Insight enables forgiveness and personal peace. Now, isn’t that worth investing some time in?
I have no plans to seek publication of my memoir project, but who knows? Neither Heather Summerhayes Cariou or Karen Walker had publication in mind when they began their memoirs, and ultimately their stories have emerged between covers, to the benefit of a growing number of readers. Both shout the healing power of memoir from the rooftops.
This graphic shows that memoir begins small, and develops in a predictable progression. If you sit down to write a memoir with no previous journaling or stack of vignettes, you’ll be combing back through memories, searching old letters, calendars and anything else you can find. And you’ll write stacks of vignettes and essays before they coalesce into a smoothly flowing story.
But you don’t have to progress to the stage of memoir to experience health benefits from writing. Much of the value can be derived from the simple act of ranting on paper, according to Pennebaker’s guidelines.