The writing I do falls into three broad categories: (1) blog posts; (2) pieces that might someday be published (personal essays, poems, fiction); and (3) things I write only for myself (and I suppose the writing I do for work is a fourth category, but that’s a whole different animal). Today, I’d like to talk about the third category. What’s the point of writing things that no one else will ever read?
Last spring, when I began writing creatively after a 15+ years hiatus, I had in mind that I would write a memoir. I read William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well, which offers a lot of great advice for beginning memoirists and personal essayists. In the book, Zinsser suggests that a writer begin working on a memoir without a particular theme in mind. He instructs the writer to write about a different distinct memory every day for a period of time, and then review the writings and see what theme or themes emerge.
I took Zinsser’s advice and began writing every morning, focusing on a new piece of my childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood each day. These writings were incredibly revealing. Events that initially seemed like snapshots in my mind became windows into forgotten experiences. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. Old emotions came flooding back. Some days, I cried as I wrote.
The process of writing uncovered feelings that I had never processed. It also provided great insight. Consciously reflecting on buried memories allowed me to see the connections between events and reactions, to better understand how certain occurrences had shaped my sense of self and influenced later decisions. In some cases, writing about a series of events after the passage of time allowed me to view those events almost as a neutral third party, to witness the events unfolding in a less biased, less emotional way. I came to feel greater empathy for the other players in these stories, to better understand their actions and reactions. I grew more forgiving and less critical of myself for the things I had said and done.
Five or six years ago, I saw a counselor while I was going through a difficult period in my life. I found counseling to be immensely helpful. But I’ve delved deeper and have come to understand more about myself through writing about my past than I ever did through counseling (though I recognize that the counseling likely got the introspection ball rolling, and for that I am so grateful). Now, when I find my mind returning several times to a particular person or situation from earlier in my life, I know that I need to write about it. I set aside my other writing projects and go straight to the place that hurts, nags, or confuses me. I almost always finish with a sense of clarity, and often a sense of closure. Having re-examined what happened, I can now take the lessons I’ve learned and put the rest to bed, at least for now. And if I feel the need, I can even write an alternate ending.
Most of these pieces I’ve written are deeply personal. To be as honest and raw as I need to be, I sometimes portray others and myself in a very unflattering light. While I admire memoirists who are able to put their whole selves on display and illuminate the dark sides of those in their lives, I do not feel comfortable sharing certain parts of my own story. But I also don’t feel the need to put these writings out there for the world to read and analyze. The benefits are derived from the process; the product is secondary.
I believe this exercise can be valuable for just about anyone. Set aside an hour today and write about a memory. It can be any memory — happy, sad, frustrating, beautiful, traumatic. Don’t worry about whether you have enough to say. Just start writing and see where the writing takes you. I bet you’ll be surprised.
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Note: If you have a story that you feel should be shared, but you aren’t comfortable with attaching your name to it, send me an email. I’m open to publishing guest posts anonymously (subject to my editorial discretion).