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Reflective Writing and the Memoir

Updated on January 18, 2015

I’ll Tell You Mine If You Tell Me Yours

We all need to have a cathartic experience occasionally. Taken from the Greek word, κάθαρσις, it is the purification and purging of emotions, especially self-pity, and fear. Both of those emotions and attitudes can prevent us from writing about our lives in a therapeutic reflective manner. Memoir writing helps us make sense of specific periods of our lives. For some writers, it describes painful times.

For others, it is a way to shed light on aspects of ourselves that we are ashamed of, in the hopes that healing can occur.

Confession: It Is Not New, Nor Only For The Soul

“The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” ― Augustine of Hippo, a Romanized Berber Philosopher, November 13, 354 - August 28, 430 ACE, who combined philosophy and religion during his life. His most famous work: Confession. That was eye opening to me that the idea has been part of the philosophical understanding for this long.

Socrates' statement that "The unexamined life is not worth living”, demonstrates early understanding of the benefits of examining our nature to change our actions. In this review of action, we may be preventing what another philosopher, Santayana predicted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

When I combine other theoretical concepts into my recovery work with others, I become willing to share my story. Sharing it, in the hopes that my admissions will allow another to write about theirs, fostering the concept of, "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours" and we create joint healing.

When we look, what do we see?
When we look, what do we see? | Source

Judge Not, Least It Be About Yourself

Consumed with fear of judgment, rejection and reproach, we often hide our shortcomings. We cloak our actions beneath a veneer of nice, important or helpful, presenting images to the outside world that help us manipulate their impressions of us.

We can get sanctimonious and comment on the misdeeds of others, attempting to put them in their place while elevating our own. We can reprimand our children, families, spouses and co-workers in a tone that leaves no doubt as to our displeasure at their actions.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Those masks and fronts publicly work, but what do you see in the mirror?

For years in the treatment field, we peeled the onion; in effect forcing people to remove the layers of deceit, assumptions, resentments and manipulation so they could see the less than stellar aspects of themselves.

I now believe it is more important that I disclose my failures, shortcomings and character defects first, so that someone may learn to accept theirs and recover.

Why This Change In Attitude?

Nearly every alcoholic and addict I have ever worked with over the last twenty-five years, felt shame and guilt over their actions. Too often, they felt this about themselves, not just their actions. In some cases, they used alcohol and drugs to cover up these feelings. Therefore, ripping off the layers only makes them more vulnerable at a time when they are the most prone to a relapse.

By acknowledging my actions and reinforcing that I did not die of embarrassment, nor did I have to relapse over the admissions, I found others who had done or said the same type of thing. I find that people are willing to reveal their secrets to my understanding, compassionate ear because I've examined my own secrets.

Why Is Writing About Our Life So Important?

Our memories do not fade so much over time, but can become distorted facts, shaded by other experiences, or stories we tell to elicit responses and reactions from others. We do not necessarily remember what happened, we remember what we present or wish happened sometimes to validate our feelings and thoughts today. Memoir or reflective writing allows us to “...taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin

Reflection: Writing Begins And Ends The Dilemma

“I don't know where to start," one [writing student] will wail. Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O' Connor said that anyone, who has survived childhood, has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if it is well done. Don't worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I was four and beginning to understand the concept of writing. I loved books from a young age. I knew that the black squiggly lines represented words that told me the story, or described the picture. I could not read all of them but knew the word, “cat.” Each person begins learning somewhere.


Earliest Writing

My mother took me to visit Santa at L.S. Ayers in Indianapolis, Indiana. Before we went to see him, we ate in the tea-room, a highlight of trips downtown. I ordered the chicken; served in a covered milk-glass casserole dish. The bottom of the dish, filled with mashed potatoes and chicken, with fresh peas neatly ringing the edge, was reminiscent of grass and eggs.

For dessert, I got The Snow Princess— a scoop of ice cream formed the princess dress, decorated with whipped cream and sugar flowers, then topped with a china half-doll figurine and a tiny paper parasol. At forty-one, I vividly remembered this meal.

I also remember my Santa list; squiggly lines on a piece of paper and put it in the pocket of my coat. I did not want to forget anything when I visited Santa. After lunch, I got my list for Santa out of my coat and went for our appointed visit.

When it was my turn, I got out my list, by now all sweaty, and wrinkled, but my first attempt at writing something down. Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him all of the things, with the most important being a puppy. Santa asked me if I had been a good girl, and in that self-serving voice of all, regardless of age, I informed him, “I have been very good.”

He told me that since I had been very good, I would get everything on my list.”

I got down and returned to my mother. For weeks, after this visit, my parents asked me what I had told Santa I wanted for Christmas. A straightforward child, I informed them that I had already told Santa what I wanted.

Only when writing and this memory surfaced, did I wonder about a few of the situations from that day.

  • Why was I so angry at Santa?
  • Why did I distrust the whole Christmas experience?
  • Why was I so resentful at my mother?
  • Why did I stubbornly refuse to cooperate?

Do you still operate from self-defeating patterns from childhood?

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Stubborn Assumptions Set Up Disappointments

On Christmas morning, I ran down the stairs; I could smell bacon cooking and knew that my mother would want us to eat before we opened presents. I remembered feeling angry at that imposition on my desire to open the presents and find my puppy. Furthermore, my sister was in her high chair at the table, and without food, would not be content very long, yet another nuisance to me.

I went into the kitchen and asked to open my presents. My mother gave in and told me I could open one and then we would have breakfast and open the rest after our meal.

I ran to the living room and checked out the presents. In our family, only parents wrapped presents, Santa’s were without trappings, so it was apparent immediately that there was no puppy.

He told me I would get everything I wanted, and I specifically told him a puppy, and there was not one. That jolly, fat, cheerful favorite of children everywhere was a liar.

When I asked my parents about this memory, it was not for their interpretation of my feelings, but their remembrance of the situation. My mother told me that she and my father tried numerous times to get me to tell them what I wanted for Christmas. Desperate, they even had my aunts, uncles, and older cousins try to find out what I wanted.

I apparently told everyone who asked that I had told Santa. It struck me at that moment, that stubbornly held assumptions had probably set in motion many situations in my life where I felt disappointed. If it could happen at four, the likelihood of this pattern continuing in my life seemed like a safe bet. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to explore my life as the child writing, and the adult reflecting. I believe that reflective writing helps us understand ourselves better with the added benefit that it will probably help another person come to terms with their life as well.

Do you write in a journal or have you ever examined your life in writing?

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Memoirs Grant Us Hindsight And Foresight

"All that is left to bring you pain are the memories. If you face those, you’ll be free. You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding from yourself; always afraid that your memories will incapacitate you, and they will if you continue to bury them.” ― J.D. Stroube, Caged in Darkness

Many people write on websites and have blogs. If you are one of those, memoir writing or a journal may be yet another way for you to tell a story that inspires, enlightens, and helps another in their quest to get better, and I guarantee that in the process, you will experience healing as well.

© 2013 Marilyn L Davis


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    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, ocfireflies; thank you for the comment. I think we all share universal themes in our memories and glad this brought back some for you. By the way, I like your image. A silent movie star? ~Marilyn

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 2 years ago from North Carolina

      Dear Marilyn,

      I agree with Bill. You are an excellent writer. I look forward to returning and reading more. Just reading this piece brought back memories for me.

      V+ for sure! Thank You!


    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, MizBejabbers; thank you for the comment and reinforcing that self-examination is therapeutic. However, I made a decision 26 years ago to not be anonymous when writing about the redemption of recovery. Addiction carries enough stigmas. Recovery does not. ~Marilyn

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 2 years ago

      Self-examination is a good start. Many people don't want to look at their own shortcomings. I once took a metaphysical class that required us to look at our shortcomings as a human being. It was very enlightening to say the least because it made us own up to our failures, which gave a perspective for a whole new attitude on life. You are a good writer, and your subjects could give you a lot of material, anonymously, of course.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Gypsy Rose Lee; thank you for the encouraging words. You are correct that we have to write concisely so that readers relate to the thoughts and feelings. Since they are universal, a good writer lets a reader effortlessly slip into their mind and heart. Hopefully, this article did that for you. ~Marilyn

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 2 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. This was inspirational. I write and often when I write about thoughts and memories I know I must make it so that the reader can imagine how it all was. Passing this on.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, FlourishAnyway; thank you for the kind words. Also, from your comment, " Santa personifies miscommunication patterns that we adopt in our family lives -- secrets and lies, exaggerations, overblown expectations, masked identity". While we may both see the correlation, it will probably take more than just us two for some to see beyond. Then again, I'm not sure that our family's choice to label Santa a nice concept to my children and grandchildren has made a significant difference.

      I read an article this past year where a wealthy family limited the number of presents that Santa brought, letting the parents give the bulk. Their rationale was that Santa should be fair to all children while parents with more resources could provide more. I thought it was an interesting concept. ~Marilyn

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      You are a superb writer. Santa has taken the brunt of a lot of bad feelings from childhood, some of it earned and some of it undeserved. In many ways Santa personifies miscommunication patterns that we adopt in our family lives -- secrets and lies, exaggerations, overblown expectations, masked identity.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, Mel; thank you for reinforcing the therapeutic value of reflective writing. The refuge and release from writing can't be emphasized enough.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Writing is an extremely therapeutic place to be, and the word catharsis is the same term I always use for it. Not only is writing an emotional release, it is also a refuge. Whenever I'm feeling depressed or worried writing always takes me to a safer spot where I forget about everything. Great hub!

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, Deborah-Diane; what a kind thing to say. I appreciate the encouragement. I also want to read many of your articles on Ala-non. That is a great subject and I'm glad to see that you did a series.

    • Deborah-Diane profile image

      Deborah-Diane 2 years ago from Orange County, California

      What an interesting and thought-provoking article. Excellent.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, aesta1; thank you for adding to the article. Good point about journal writing being helpful.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      There was a time in my thirties when I did a serious reflection and it helped me immensely. There are still many things I need to look into but I am now happy with who I am. I wish I can be more disciplined in my journal writing because it helps a lot to write down one's reflection.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Crystal; thanks for confirming that "positive, I'm only trying to cheer you ups" are not what a person needs sometimes. ~Marilyn

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 4 years ago from Georgia

      A lovely and insightful hub. I especially love the quote by Stephen King. It is difficult to find someone to listen and just be with a person, in that person's pain. Sometimes that can be more valuable than all the "Cheer ups" and "Hang in theres" and "It's really not so bad, come ons" in the world.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, Billy; thank you seems so inadequate, however, my grandmother always said start there. This comment means so much to me, coming from you. I have followed you, read your articles, made an effort to pay attention to your sage advice on writing, and been encouraged by your comments since I came back to Hub. Again, thank you. ~Marilyn

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I could write in length about every aspect of this article, but I think I'll just simply say you are an excellent writer. :)