I’m a huge advocate of journalling for memoir, whether you want to be published or not. And the research is in that writing your personal story can benefit your health in numerous ways.
BUT you do need some good writing prompts to get you on your way. In this piece I want to share with you my top three journalling prompts that I use for memoir. But first, here’s a little recap of some of the great benefits of journalling for memoi!
Why journal for memoir
Journalling is such an excellent writing practise for self development and self growth. But did you know it has physical benefits as well. This study showed that writing about stressful experiences resulted in a reduction of symptoms in patients with arthritis and asthma! But you know what was most surprising about on the effect of personal writing? Patients who wrote about neutral (or happy) experiences had far less health benefits than those who wrote about the most stressful experiences in their lives.
It reminds me of this quote by Joan Didion, which I heartily agree with:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
The quote sums up the empowering aspect of writing, particularly reflective writing in a journal using prompts about our painful experiences. it’s as though by writing about these things, we gain some narrative control. We dissect and see the story clearly. We have the objective view. We can make sense of it – we can literally give things meaning. And that’s what’s so empowering.
How to feel empowered when you’re writing about stressful experiences
You might baulk at the idea of returning to something traumatic to write about it, and I don’t blame you, but by asking yourself certain questions as you’re journalling, you can regain control of your narrative. Which, in effect, is regaining control of your life.
When to use these prompts
If there’s something stressful in your life you haven’t completely processed yet, it’s a good idea to spend some time with these prompts.
Which brings me to my favourite memoir journal prompts. These prompts aren’t for bullet journalling or writing a to-do list or a gratitude list at the end of each day, they’re deeper than that. These prompts are designed to produce a radical shift in how you consider the most intense experiences of your life. And, by reconsidering your life, you’re reconsidering yourself. I’ve always had a little problem with the whole ‘gratitude’ journal trend. I do appreciate that we need to be thankful for good things in our lives, but the gratitude needs to come from a place of authentic understanding of why and what makes something good…. which is where these journalling prompts have come from. not every life is sunshine and roses every day, and nor should it be! But like the beautiful Japanese art of Kintsugi – or, golden repair – it’s this consideration of the breaks and lines and cracks in our lives as threads of gold. But we need to pay attention to them.
So get your favourite hot beverage of choice, pen, journal and play some jazz piano in the background if you like, and settle in to journal using these prompts. If you can, aim for at least 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted time. More is always better – you might find things come to you later on when you’re not actively thinking about these questions, too.
Are you ready?
Memoir journal writing prompt one:
Without thinking too hard about it, write about the most recent event that “knocked you for six”. By this I mean, something you just didn’t see coming. Something that forced you to reckon with an entirely new set of circumstances or obstacles. Something that shocked you and frightened your lizard brain into thinking you might not survive. And then journal about why it was so scary and shocking. Were there phrases said? Was it a legal threat? A financial crisis? A health scare? Something that happened with a loved one?
Write as much as you can remember about the specific set of circumstances – the day, the washing, how you felt before, during and after the event, what you remember about the evening of, etc etc. What idea or belief did it turn on its head?
Memoir journal writing prompt two:
Still writing about that specific event, think about how you dealt with it. Did you drink? Did you cry? Did you go for a very long walk? All of the above? Write down every single thing that you can think of that you did upon hearing the news or experiencing the event. Who helped you, did you have anyone around you and how did they react, did this help? What about the next day – what did you do then…?
Journal as many things as you can remember about how you dealt with the feelings and circumstances raised by the crisis event.
Memoir journal writing prompt three:
Now, assuming some time has passed since this event (one month? Two? Twelve?), here’s where you’re going to reflect on all the ways your life has changed because of what you learnt from this event or problem.
Say it was a job loss, in what way have you reconsidered your skills and talents? Have you retrained?
Say it was a marriage breakdown, do you have a newfound appreciation of your sister or your best friend? How have your goals and priorities shifted? What, specifically, have you done to grow and improve and change because of this obstacle or event?
In what ways are you most surprised or proud of how you’ve changed or dealt with it? What may have looked easy to others but was actually tough for you? What has become easier? What has this taught you about the specific event or problem?
In what ways has all of this changed your personal values and the way you see yourself?
Lastly (I know I only said three, but this can be tied into prompt three), if you look at the grand scheme of your life, is there a way that this event or crisis could have actually been working in your favour? Perhaps it’s forced you to become a savvy saver. Perhaps you’ve learnt just how little you can live on and need to be happy when you decided to pay off your $45 000 student loan…? How great it is to exercise outdoors and watch that debt go down and not get caught up in the maelstrom of consumerism and cheap disposable purchases?
Whether you think you’re being overly romantic or not, what is the best possible reason this could have happened to you? And how could this also be the best thing for others, too?
The reason journalling is such a powerful tool, I think, is because it can completely change our perceptions. Journalling is just writing, and memoir is reflecting on your memories. So when you consider the experiences and events of your life through the lens of journalling for memoir, you begin to appreciate the extraordinary life that you’re living, all the ways things could have gone differently, all the things you achieved despite circumstances, all the ways you bravely opened your eyes and your heart to a new day, put on the kettle and fed the cat, gave money to the homeless man despite being walloped by a bus the day before. And you can appreciate how extraordinary this human experience really is. And that’s real gratitude, if you ask me!