When I'm not working on my own writing projects - or lost within the pages of a spellbinding best-seller - I spend a lot of time helping other people write their memoirs. Since I live in South Florida, there are plenty of baby boomers (and even quite a few members of the greatest generation) who want to put the events of their lives in perspective. Now I have a treasured stack of 20 bound copies of my students' published memoirs, and I've enjoyed working on every single project.
The Wall Street Journal published an article that highlighted the benefits of writing a memoir, even if nobody else will ever read it. Evidently, writing about one's own life narrative can not only foster personal growth but also help the author reconcile and come to terms with painful and traumatic events. Viewing life as a series of challenging and hurtful random events can have harmful repercussions both emotionally and physically. So when we allow ourselves to evaluate what has happened to us and how we have responded or reacted to those events, a sense of order gradually emerges. And order, rather than chaos, opens the doorway to forgiveness, gratitude and pride in our ability to overcome and survive adversity.
According to researchers, taking the time to write your life story will result in several positive effects. Writing about difficult, painful or traumatic events can actually boost immunity, improve cognitive functioning, lessen depression and reduce stress levels.
The reason for this is that incrementally putting our emotions and images into words forces our brains to organize and restructure our memories, especially the ones that are painful or that we simply cannot accept, comprehend or overcome. After all, it's easier to absorb challenging events when we break them down into small pieces, which is what happens when we create sentences, paragraphs and (ultimately) chapters.
According to Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, this type of writing has a hidden benefit. Not only are we better able to recognize and address our own behavior patterns but we are also able to look at our life events from the perspective of other people in our lives. In other words, writing our life story helps us gain an objectivity that we would otherwise overlook.
After I'd helped about a dozen first-time writers compile their life stories, I buckled down and forced myself - at the age of 65 - to do the same. I was inspired by the need to understand where I'd been, what I had done and what I still wanted to accomplish after I'd reached the once-official retirement age.
In addition to the personalized emotional and psychological benefits for the author, a memoir has the added bonus of letting others know things about you that have probably slipped through the cracks over the years. For example, my Ivy League-educated son hadn't realized how many newspapers had published my work until he saw a masthead graphic in my memoir after it went on sale on Amazon. I don't think that it changed our relationship, but it did spare me the onerous task of reminding him that there were plenty of things about his mom that he had yet to discover ...
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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