People who want to write a memoir often compare the process of writing that memoir to therapy. They say things like, I need to tell my story, I want to feel better about what happened to me, I want others to know my experience. But is writing a memoir like therapy? Are there ways in which the two processes are similar?
I am a memoir and fiction writer who trained as a psychologist and worked as a therapist for a number of years, so I find the links between writing a memoir and experiencing therapy fascinating. I can see two kinds of similarity.
The first has to do with the content of the memoir. With a memoir (or therapy) you can write (or speak) about whatever you want. You can mention whatever events you choose and also how you felt or thought about them, even if those feelings were embarrassing or humiliating. There are no constraints – the therapist often refers to therapy as ‘your time’ and the memoir is clearly ‘your space’.
But perhaps the more interesting similarity between therapy and memoir writing has to do with the process of doing both these things. Therapy, at least therapy that aims to reveal unconscious content, works a lot with something called the transference. The transference is the relationship that develops between the therapist and the client. Because the therapist is largely unknown, the client will – so the theory goes – project a whole lot of things onto the therapist based on previous pivotal relationships, almost always the parents.
For example, if you grow up with a critical mother, the therapist comes to seem harsh and judgemental to you. Alternatively, if your relationship with your mother or your father is overly enmeshed, therapy, and perhaps even the therapist herself, comes to seem constraining and claustrophobic. Perhaps you end therapy a few minutes early every time just so you can get away from her.
With an experienced therapist, the transference is given the chance to develop and then interpreted at the correct moments. The transference develops because you are projecting your inner world onto the therapist.
Is the blank page that different? I think there is transference happening in how you approach that empty page. For example, you might think that what you write is absolute rubbish and you’ll be judged harshly for it. Or you may be reluctant to edit anything you write, because it’s all so amazing. You may write extremely fast or painstakingly slowly, because the empty page has assumed all kinds of characteristics which are, of course, not objectively there. You’re projecting aspects of your inner world and your relationship dynamics onto that page. Of course, with memoir writing there is nobody analysing that transference, unless you choose to reflect on it yourself.
In short, memoir writing can be very therapeutic, particularly if you think about not only what you’re writing – the free expression of your thoughts and feelings – but the writing process as well.