Why Your Memoir Is Worth Writing For Medicinal Purposes, Even If Nobody Else Reads It

I used to hate being asked “What do you do?” I learned that if I told people I was an OB/GYN, the next half hour would result in people telling me about how their vagina got ripped all the way open during childbirth or asking me for free medical advice. When people found out I was a doctor, they made up a lot of stories about me, some of them accurate, some of them not, about where I fit on the wealth, power, and privilege continuum or whether I should be admired or disdained. Their tone of voice would change as many people automatically assumed a “one down” submissive stance, as if they both respected me but also felt intimidated by me. I did not like it.

It was much more interesting if I answered, “I’m an artist” or “I’m a writer.” But even then, people made often inaccurate assumptions about me, casting me as a poor, starving, angst-ridden, pot-smoking Bohemian who probably suffered for my art and would die unnoticed, when in reality, I was making a lot of money making a lot of art for high end hotels like the Ritz Carlton.

Either way, what I do is not who I am. So I decided to begin asking new people I met, “What’s your story?” That way, people could choose to engage with me however they wished to engage, and I could do the same. We could begin a conversation not so much about how we both make a living and where that positions us in the social strata and power hierarchy, but about who we are as people.

So I ask you, “What’s your story?”

Every single one of us has a story worth telling. How we choose to tell our story and orient to what has happened to us significantly impacts the state of our nervous systems. When our nervous systems are firing “Threat!” because we’re in a sympathetically-driven “fight or flight” or when we’re collapsed into a dorsal vagal “freeze or fawn,” the stories we make up about ourselves, other people, and the world can become quite paranoid and pessimistic.  If our nervous systems feel threatened, even when there’s no real threat, our minds understandably try to make stories that are coherent with our dysregulated nervous systems. This partly explains how conspiracy theories take hold.

The way we tell our stories tends to change as our nervous systems relax into a more ventral vagal parasympathetic state. Stephen Porges, who founded polyvagal theory, teaches that “state creates story.” If we are frozen, we will tell our story one way. If we are sucking up to our abusers and defending them in a Stockholm syndrome-like way, we’ll tell it another way. If we’re fighting or fleeing, the story will be different. And when we’re no longer in survival mode, when we’re with safe people, feeling worthy, knowing we can trust those around us to validate, mirror back, and attune to our story, the way we tell our story will shift, and how others hear our story will be impacted by the state of our own nervous system.

If we understand this even before we start to write our story, we can be intentional about tending to our nervous system before we even sit down at the computer or pick up the pen. It’s worth finding our way delicately to our truest story in a way that both empowers us and humbles us. Discovering our truest story is no small task, because not only will the state of our nervous systems impact how we tell our stories; it’s also true that different parts of us will have different stories to tell.

Some parts might tell a horror story of helplessness, powerlessness, and victimization at the hands of those who mistreat us, evoking pity in the reader. Other parts might tell a grandiose, smug, self-righteous story that elevates us and positions us as superior to others who might have hurt us, inciting outrage in the reader, hatred towards the abuser, and sympathy for the storyteller. Some parts might position us as somehow having chosen our traumas, as if our soul picked a growth curriculum. We might sometimes be the perpetrators in our own stories- because hurt people hurt people. And then other times, we might write the story as the vulnerable grieving little child who experienced loss and pain.

The best stories don’t leave any of the stories out. When all the stories land on the page, they become the silky threads of a woven tapestry of story we weave together to help us make sense out of our lives. Sometimes, the art of writing our “hell and back” story becomes medicine when we choose to make our story public, in hopes that it might help someone still in hell, now that we’ve made it out. The act of telling a story in service to others who are suffering begins to alchemize our vulnerability into our strengths.

But we don’t have to be out of hell to make telling our stories a generous act of service.  If you’re all the way onto the other side of your trauma, that can feel inspiring to people who are still stuck in the muddy morass of a dysregulated nervous system. But sometimes, we write our stories as we’re clawing our way towards the sunshine, claw mark by claw mark, and that too can be an inspiring act of service, to see the sausage being made before it’s ready to toss on the barby. There’s something about giving ourselves and each other permission to still be mired in the messy that can be a permanent cure for perfectionism.

Sometimes we write our story just for ourselves. We might need to rage and cuss and blend with our victimized parts, lashing out at those who hurt us and getting secret, private revenge, letting it all hang out and not editing ourselves one bit or worrying about who might one day read it. Doing so can be the best, cheapest therapy ever.

But we don’t necessarily need to make those drafts public. We just need to get what’s inside out onto the page, and maybe, if we’re lucky, we can share those drafts with one or two safe, trustworthy, open-hearted people who will validate our stories and won’t judge us or humiliate us or share our secrets with anyone else or- worst yet- tell us to get out of our victim stories. And then sometimes, the truer version of our story will emerge as the next step after what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” Shitty first drafts are medicine for sure.

Once we write our shitty first drafts, the next step in healing involves having our stories witnessed, not by the people we’re writing about, who might become defensive, minimize our story, deny the truth of it, attack us, or abandon us, but by people who can keep their own nervous systems calm so they can validate our stories, telling us they’re beautiful and worthy and true and gorgeous and soul-touching for those listening. Having someone say “I believe you” is one of the best medicines that has no known side effects.

All of these principles I learned from my writing teacher Nancy Aronie, author of Memoir As Medicine, who I studied with in 2007, three years before I ever published my first book. Nancy helped create that safe container for me to find my truest story, and the other people in the class held the most beautiful space for me to share my story, long before I wrote my first of two memoirs. Nancy and I are joining forces to teach a six week Zoom Memoir As Medicine writing class, and you’re invited to tell your story!

Join us for Memoir As Medicine here

For now, you’re also invited to write your own story. If you could boil your story down to a couple of paragraphs, what would you would you write? You’re also totally welcome to post your story in our private Facebook group with the Memoir As Medicine class. You’re totally welcome not to share anything also. You have full permission to simply write your story and hold it close to your chest for now.

And for the record, whatever you write, I believe you, and your story is beautiful.