Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 10 of 12: How do I Write about the Hurts?

Pattie Mallette
10: Give yourself permission to write about painful memories.

I have no nasty secrets that, if revealed on the front page of a newspaper, would bring great pain to my wife, my children, my friends, or me. Embarrassment perhaps, but not pain.

I’m not a therapist, licensed or self-proclaimed. Therefore, I can’t speak from personal experience. But I have learned from students, clients, friends, and professionals that writing a lifestory can be healing. If you are haunted by memories and secrets which have become burdens to your happiness, then writing your stories can bring release from your haunts.

Claim your experiences
“Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them,” says Linda Joy Myers, therapist and author who founded the National Association of Memoir Writers. She says to release yourself from the past you must  claim your own truths. “Your story is about you—told from your point of view. Your experiences belong to you, and are unique to you, and you have a right to claim them, even if others disagree.”

Author Jeff Goins says when we write about the painful parts it helps heal us, helps heal others, and helps heal the world. “Don’t avoid painful writing,” he says. “Don’t procrastinate sharing your scars. Take an honest look inward and begin today. It may be the most courageous thing you’ve ever done.”

In her memoir Nowhere but Up, Pattie Mallette tells of her alcoholic and abusive father, her drinking and drugs starting at age fourteen, her attempted suicide, being sexually molested so many times she thought it was normal to feel dirty and unloved, giving birth to an out-of-wedlock son and raising him in low-income housing. A neighbor helped with babysitting so she could get her high school diploma. And she found hope in Christianity, even though her faith is a bit shaky at times. Not familiar with the name Pattie Mallette? This should help: The full name of her memoir is Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom. Bieber is now eighteen, her age when she gave birth to him.

"Writing the book was part of my healing process," she told an interviewer. “There are parts that are still painful to go over."

Don't censor yourself
Write the painful parts of your life. Don’t try to get it right the first time, just write. Don’t censor yourself as you go along or you will end up talking yourself out of writing about the hurts. You can decide later whether to edit or include them.

Caution: Writing about your pain in itself is not a substitute for the guidance of a therapist or other professional, including a support group. Memoirist Sue William Silverman was in therapy much of her adult life, the result of sexual abuse by her father when she was a child. Her therapist repeatedly advised her to write about her experiences, but she could not until her parents died.

You have options. One, keep the painful memories locked inside so as not to hurt others and keep hurting yourself. Two, reveal and risk further pain to those you love who might think less of you or take their love from you. Three, write from the perspective of love and forgiveness rather than a victim; you will get through it, you will better understand who you are, and you will have greater respect for yourself.

Photo courtesy Revell Books.

What methods have you used to write your painful memories?


  1. Great post. I agree that writing about painful experiences is an excellent way to heal from them. It has helped me tremendously. However, crafting your writing for the consumption of others is a tricky process. Being candid is imperative I think but, as I'm sure you know, the story must move along. Certain critics seem to despise "self pity" so to be candid and yet not wallow is the trick. I'm not sure I have figured it out yet but hopefully my editors will. It's subjective, of course, like all art forms.

  2. Thanks, Grace. Writing personal experiences definitely goes better when the writer has a clear understanding of why he/she is writing. Many times a purpose is not to please others but to satisfy self.

  3. I always suggest to people that they give themselves permission to write the story just for themselves,to make it ok not to share the writing. What can happen is that accepting one's right to privacy can open the writer to the truth of the experience and its deep pain. Without committing to privacy the writer may say, "Oh it wasn't that bad. Many writers after writing privately for weeks, months and even years come to feel that they can share their story. But, even if they don't come to being able to share, the writing has often been therapeutic. We are often frozen by our sense of audience. Write without a commitment to audience. later, it can be useful to begin to write specifically for an audience--but that's for later.

  4. Thanks for your insights, Denis. Therapy is a great motivator for writing memoir.