When I mentor clients in memoir writing, I explain this can be a three-stage process, depending on their goal.
Stage One involves writing the first version of your story for yourself. This is the time to put everything on the table. Don’t hold back. Maybe there are repressed experiences that have shaped and influenced your life. Perhaps they have been hiding within for years. Release them now. The mapping of your story requires complete honesty with yourself, above all. This is important.
Stage Two is about creating the second version for people whom you know and trust such as family members, health professionals and friends. This stage involves refining or reshaping those rawest parts of the first version that you don’t want to share with anyone but yourself.
Stage Three is relevant if you want your memoir to be published for the world at large. That is, for “unknown readers”. You may be unfamiliar to readers, and so the context of the second version may need to be reframed and remapped to enable the readers to connect and travel with you. For example, readers may not have heard of the town or suburb where you grew up, or the schools you attended, or be familiar with the cultural or religious beliefs and values of you or your community.
The writing and redrafting of each of these three versions is significant. Each version provides an opportunity for self-learning and self-healing. Epiphanies may occur, especially when you share and reflect on your story with understanding others in a supportive and non-judgmental environment.
After keeping my “inside” story about an eating disorder and childhood trauma a secret (due to shame and stigma) for 44 years, and then “coming out” and releasing my inner story publicly for the first time at age 55, I experienced a surge in self-belief. The ensuing years have been what I describe as “a magic carpet ride” in self-discovery. My outside and inside stories have become one.
Outwardly, through my 20s, 30s and 40s, I presented as a wife and mother with a full-time career but within, my diaries revealed a desperate struggle to honour daily lists and pledges, for instance, having a strict weight limit, running a set distance, and noting every calorie.
Thoughts of suicide after 17 years with anorexia nervosa drove me to break the silence and reveal the thoughts hitherto confined to my diaries, to a doctor. He and other doctors tried their best to understand my struggles but my eating disorder was so entrenched they could not help me.
However, upon learning I kept a diary, the doctors encouraged the continuance of diary writing as a tool for expression. Unfortunately, like me, they were ignorant of the diary’s potential to play a pivotal role in my illness, and of its ability to be a foe as well as a friend.
Eventually, in my 30s, a psychiatrist gained my trust and suggested I could use the diary to assist the healing process by drawing on it when engaging in written communication with him. He noted that I had difficulty expressing my feelings verbally. I felt safer and more secure connecting through the written word.
Gradually, aided by patient, therapeutic guidance that involved sharing my private writing with trusted members of my treatment team, a transformation began to be recorded in the diary. My writing began to reflect a re-connection with my healthy-self thoughts and feelings.
Self-abuse and self-harm gave way to self-care as my body and mind progressively reintegrated. Decades later, at age 55, upon healing sufficiently to re-enter life’s mainstream, I departed a journalism career to reflect on these decades of diary-writing and write a memoir.
As I “came out” and began to share my story publicly, the diaries “came out”, too. For instance, besides providing the main data source for my memoir, A Girl Called Tim (2011), the diaries became a resource pool of documented “lived experience”, assisting the dissemination of science-based knowledge and evidence-based treatments in books for health professionals and mainstream readers.
In another outcome, the creation of a website as a companion to the memoir led people with experience of eating disorders to write to me. They shared had “connected” with my story in a way that gave them “permission” to share their stories until now revealed only, if at all, in their diary. Many adult readers wrote at length, explaining they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorders a secret for decades, but upon reading and identifying with my story, felt able to share and externalise their thoughts and experiences for the first time.
Reflecting on these reader responses sparked unexpected realization and recognition that perhaps my friend the diary had been destructive as well as constructive throughout my long illness. This revelation, in turn, became the catalyst for my PhD research project, investigating how diary entries might be used in writing not only a memoir but a book exploring how the process of diary-writing can be a tool for self-healing and renewal.
In January 2014, at the age of 63, I set out on a literary journey with more than 70 people I had “met” on the Internet. These people had responded from countries around the world to an invitation I posted in a blog, asking if diarists with experience of an eating disorder would like to participate in a book. I was amazed at the enthusiastic response. I had met none of the diarists face-to-face and was unaware of their ages or countries of origin. However, due to the universal “language” of eating disorders, and our respective use of the diary as a coping tool of sorts, we shared an immediate bond and rapport. Over the ensuing 30 months, my work with these diarists formed the basis for a creative work and an exegesis that explores the process and challenges associated with writing a non-fictional book about diary writing as a therapeutic tool.
This narrative engagement in turn led to more epiphanies, more moments of self-growth, more self-healing and more self-discovery. This exciting ongoing process of self-exploration and creation is ongoing.
If you think your story is not worth writing about, let me assure you, it is. Writing your story can be helpful for you and for others, too.
Thesis details: Alexander, June (2017): Using writing as a therapy for eating disorders: The Diary Healer and the process of using personal diary excerpts to assist people with eating disorders. CQUniversity. https://hdl.handle.net/10018/1211443 or go to: