Is writing memoir healthy?

Golly, it’s serious around here this week. Maybe it’s the somber, snowy weather. I promise to return to fluffy pop songs soon.

Meanwhile, this morning, an interesting article came across my Facebook feed, about a study that found that family secrets can make you sick. (Technically, I think, the study was saying that having been exposed to childhood trauma might be linked to future health problems.)

This reminded me of news that whirlwinded around my memoir-writing circles six months ago: findings that childhood stress (i.e., being exposed to various types of trauma) actually may alter the DNA of its victims. By doing so, of course, this trauma would impact not only the trauma victim, but the descendants of the traumatized.

As a memoirist, I find all of this fascinating. I’m especially intrigued by family stories and legacies. Something about this DNA-altering view of trauma makes family dynamics more poignant and viscerally more understandable.

In other words, my great-grandmother’s trauma might have made me (in some way) the person I am today.


The unavoidability of this dynamic can feel quite hopeless, which is probably part of what drives me to write, especially personal narrative—I seek to understand what happened, to me and to others, and to make it understandable even to strangers, who might then see and understand some of their own issues.

Medicine has even linked writing to helping heal physical wounds. This type of writing is NOT memoir writing, but journaling. (Let’s be super clear: Writing purely for therapy is not the same as crafting a work of art based in experience. I don’t want anyone to think I’m pulling a Boudinot—or really, a purported B’s student—by conflating the two.)

The medical research looks at writing journal entries about what happened. Millions of teenagers can attest that journaling really helps. But interestingly, perhaps it is crafting words, as one does with a memoir—making an attempt at a work of art from life—that does true healing work, even while the aim moves farther from the journaling impulse.

Tara DaPra notes in Creative Nonfiction:

… as reported in the Chicago Tribune, Joshua M. Smyth, [another] study’s co-author, cautioned, “It actually has little to do with raw catharsis, which, I think, is what people assume.” Smyth explains that the health benefits were a result of cognitive restructuring—learning to think about problems in a new way—along with changing levels of stress and anxiety. So while the initial writing—the first draft—may provide a cathartic effect, the lasting benefit comes from seeing the problem in a new light—the organizing, editing, and structuring of a piece of writing.

The timing is perfect on all of this thought for me. I’ve been thinking, organizing, and revising, not to mention revitalizing my process. I’ve been thinking that writing this book might kill me, but maybe instead it will make me stronger. Right? I’m sticking with that answer.

What’s your score?

At the NPR link, readers can take a quiz gauging how many issues might be impacting your health on a scale of 1-10. I scored 4.

I wanted to ask clarifying questions about a couple of the items, but I figured if you have to ask, the answer is probably yes.

I’m TOTALLY blaming my spare tire on these issues. Surely, the cause is either trauma or the process of writing a memoir about my youth. (With a special nod to chocolate.)


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