Is memoir writing therapy?

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 therapywith 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.

For interest, here’s a link to a memoir course that I run. And here’s a memoir that I’ve co-written.






Women’s lives, from tennis to Japanese fetish

In times of frustration I prefer reading memoir.  Other people’s complicated, potentially miserable, lives perk me up. I’ve been reading a fair amount of memoir, two of particular interest, lately.

Girl on the Net is not a misery memoir. I actually bought it because somebody called BookCunt had reviewed it, calling the book the ‘thinking woman’s filth’. Who can resist such an accolade from a person who calls herself that?

The problem with many memoirs (I know because I teach a memoir course) is that they frequently don’t have a plot. Girl on the Net gets round this problem by chronologically describing each of her lovers, from one to about thirty eight. Number eight gets about half the book devoted to him; number 24 to 28 get about a paragraph each. Such is life when it comes to our exes.

From BookCunt to Hilary Mantel. (I didn’t think I could get both those names in a single sentence, but I managed, admittedly with strain.) Mantel named A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt her Book of the Year in New Statesman. Mantel says: “…it’s a life seen from the inside, of a romantic, clever, mostly unsuccessful woman…For reasons that defy analysis, it is wholly absorbing and deeply entertaining.”

Maybe it’s entertaining partly because one has a real sense of reading something illicit. Pratt started a journal at the age of about 15 and kept going throughout her life, producing over a million words. They’ve only been published now, sixty years after her death. You’re really get the feeling you’re reading something private, although I’m sure she frequently imagined a reader, as most diarists do.

But what struck me the most is that the two memoirs are very entertaining to read consecutively, because they show you the wildly successful effects of feminism for certain women living in certain parts of the world.

Whereas Pratt, in about 1925, bemoans wearing glasses (“But there is still something lacking – just a boy. To take me to the pictures, to be teased about, to write me letters, to dance with me, to sort of fill Leslie’s place. But I must be patient. I know it’s my glasses, always has been. Leslie said once, ‘I suppose you’ve got to wear glasses? You know, without pulling your leg, you’re a pretty girl.’”), Girl on The Net revels shamelessly in her perversions, of which there are many – and enjoyably varied.

If you want to go between Japanese fetish sex clubs and the meanderings at the Tennis Club (“No one at the club cares where I go or not. It is too large for me – I fit in nowhere. I cannot somehow play tennis well enough to arrest the attentions or kindly regard of the upper sects. The bright young people boss me.”* – maybe because

beryl cook tennis

Beryl Cook – I think it’s called Tennis Girls. I can’t seem to find the name. Bloody useless.

she doesn’t wear her glasses?), I recommend these two memoirs. There’s something intriguing about reading a memoir that seems to converse with, even answer, another book, despite the fact that the authors are separated by so many decades.


* Yes, yes, it’s a bit like the lit scene.

Faults and Flaws

Another way to think about writing memoir is to write about the present or even the future rather than the past. I almost prefer this idea, because memory is shaky, and this makes memoirs hardly any truer than novels.

I took this, Happier at Home, out the library, mostly as a joke, a few days ago. The list on the cover – kiss more, happiness2jump more – hardly inspired confidence as a route to home happiness, but I do like the idea of a documented self-improvement project.  I think these make great topics for memoirs.

Take the guy who decided to follow the tenets of the bible. His book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, led him to tend sheep in the Israeli desert, battle idolatry and worst of all, tell the absolute truth in all situations.

I’ve been tempted to try small-scale self-improvement projects but not, so far, to write about them. Every now and again, I have a ‘faults and flaws’ day. Faults are entrenched personality deficiencies like neuroticism or pessimism – of course, I don’t have these faults, but if I did happen to have them, they would be impossible to change.  Flaws, however, are much more focused problems like being online too much or not putting the lid on the toothpaste. Again, not that these flaws are at all recognisable to me.

However, I’m thinking bigger than this for my next memoir. I don’t just want a touch-up job, like something you’d get at a shady panel beater; I want a complete engine rehaul, a new personality in 365 days. I just need to to think of the right experiment.