Instant memoir as a treatment for trauma?


For the past decade, subsequent to publishing Your Life as Story, I have been interested in developing a form of instant memoir, a new form of diary writing that incorporates the narrative structure of memoir with the immediacy of journal writing. A cross between diary and memoir that offers the benefits of both. In Your Life as Story I distinguished between diary and memoir this way: “the difference between diary and autobiography is that elusive partner in the process, time. The diarist writes from an ever-moving present. Autobiographic writing is written from a later point in time, in retrospect. The autobiographic writer, to a far greater extent than the diarist, re-members the past to find within it thematic continuity and coherent meaning.”

What if, I’ve been asking myself, one could write significant episodes, particularly traumatic ones, without waiting for the alchemy of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility?” What if, still in the heat of spontaneous emotion, you could use the tools of story structure to move yourself along, as on a bullet train, to the release of the climactic conclusion that comes from telling a story: beginning, middle, and end?  What if you could do this without waiting the months and years necessary to be able to get the distance to see your life as story?  What if you could in a journal entry, days after an event or series of events, see your life as story?  A form of narrative therapy that would not require waiting for an appointment with a therapist, but could be written in your blank book or on your computer?  A way of framing a disturbing, unsettling or traumatic event with, at least, the partial resolution that comes from giving it narrative structure?

Might that help prevent the groove of mental repetition that comes from unresolved trauma?  I don’t presume to know. The latest research on PTSD suggests that getting a person to repeat the incident too soon may only make the trauma worse. It’s better to give victims of natural disasters and war, for instance, a pill to help them forget.

Memoirists report that by framing their experiences as a story and writing it down, they are able to finally move on and leave behind emotional flashbacks from which they could not otherwise find release. But that is generally years, often decades after the events, when they can be observed from the distance of time. I am trying to speed up that process for myself in my journal writing by using the steps of story structure. I have the benefit of knowing story structure in my bones from having written films and other narratives and from guiding others to shape their stories. My experiments take the form of rough, first draft autobiographic short stories written in my journal about incidents of the previous days or weeks. I do not stop writing until I have reached a climactic realization, the story’s conclusion, even if it means I only have time to outline the story in short phrases.

If you would like to try this for yourselves follow the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” on page 78 of my book Your Life as Story, but skip steps one and two.  Allow your intuition to carry you to the end of the recent experiences, making sure that you conclude with a prompt such as “and from all of this I now I realize…”

I suspect that many of the benefits of people sharing their stories at Twelve Step meetings come from the formula practiced there of participants’ recent experiences being framed to conclude with a spiritual realization in concordance with the healing principles of the group. What I’m suggesting is similar, using writing, but not confined to any preconceived principles. Here your conclusion/realization is a surprise that comes out of the writing, is specific to you, and may be non-canonical. Hopefully it is healing and followed by release.

Of course, using the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” in my book will only work if you have read, practiced and absorbed the principles of narrative structure explained in the preceding chapters. Otherwise the formula won’t make a lot of sense to you. It’s a lot of effort; not nearly as easy as taking a forgetfulness pill or speaking in a group for five minutes. Still, for those of you who want to give writing instant narrative memoir in your diary a try, I’d love to hear how it worked, or didn’t work, for you. At least, after trying it, you may have an outline for a short story you could fill in later with more finesse, and, quite possibly, with a different conclusion.