Memoir Writing Prompts: Surprising Clues for Memoirists from Science — Happiness

by Matilda Butler on August 15, 2011

Writing Prompt LogoPost #100 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler



Kendra and I often turn to the social sciences for new and surprising insights for memoir writers. We have many examples in our forthcoming book: Writing Alchemy: Turning Your Words into Gold. But there is much we simply don’t have room to include. We’ve decided to share nuggets from time to time in our blog.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiography, memoir writing promptsLet’s start with a positive example — happiness.

Did you know that women who suffer from depression are 29% more likely to have a stroke than those who are not depressed? Depression has serious consequences and not just in stroke statistics. Martin Seligman, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with a group of extremely depressed individuals — people who had a difficult time even leaving the bed. In his study, these individuals were asked to recall and then write three positive things that happened in their life that day. To ensure this was done, each person wrote the three statements into the study’s website. In results that surprised even the researchers, within 15 days, the severely depressed individuals had become mildly to moderately depressed. An amazing 94% experienced relief from the severe symptoms of depression.

Following is a video that will tell you the results of other research on happiness.

Memoir Writing Prompts

Okay. Now how does a memoir writer use any of this information? Let’s explore two ways. But first, you need to read the other part of this blog post that I shared on Telling HerStories. Then return here and try one or both of the prompts below:

1. Think of one person in your memoir. Not you. Another person. Is that person a Tigger or an Eeyore? How does that person handle situations? Happiness isn’t about being a Pollyanna and ignoring life. It’s about resilience, calling on friendships during both the good and the bad times, managing stress, living in the present so that you can let go of those parts of life that were bad. Since research shows that 40% of our state of happiness can be determined by us, in what ways does the person in your memoir make good or bad use of that part under her (or his) control? Write about the person for five minutes giving examples of how the person expresses happiness or unhappiness, what the person does to find more happiness.

I remember once saying to my mother when she was in her 80s that I just wanted her to be happy during the rest of her life. She looked at me and said, “I never asked to be happy.” I wonder what that conversation might have been like if she knew more about current research on happiness. Maybe she should have asked to be happy.

2. Now, focus on yourself. Beginning today and for the next two weeks, replicate Martin Seligman’s research. At the end of each day, write three things that were good about the day. Start today. These can be small or large details. Much needed rain arrives. You read a good article. You write a paragraph or a page on your memoir. Find a specific time of each day — perhaps just before you go to bed — to write your list of three. See how you feel after two weeks. Are you beginning to notice more happiness in the moment? Do you feel more positive?

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ABC’s of Writing: H is for Happiness | Telling HerStories: The Broad View
August 15, 2011 at

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kendra Bonnett August 15, 2011 at

Matilda, I love what you’re doing bringing so much of your social science background to the “art” of writing. It’s exciting material.

Matilda Butler August 15, 2011 at

Hi Kendra: We’re both learning so much from science as well as from other writers. It’s fun organizing this in ways that bring insights to memoir writers.

Pamela Jane August 22, 2011 at

Matilda, thanks for sharing this fascinating research; it’s interesting as well as heartening. I love the gratitudes; we all tend to take many things that are going well for granted. I look forward to future posts!

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