Memoir writing is good for the brain, and the heart

January 25, 2018 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, teaching memoir, writing prompts by

In the dozen or so years I’ve been leading memoir-writing classes, I always pretty much assumed that getting life episodes down on paper is good for your brain. Now studies are starting to prove it.

A Creativity and Aging Study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that writing memoir can result in the formation of new dendrites, the brain’s communication channels. Other studies show that the social engagement writers get by sharing their life stories in memoir classes like mine can prolong life and enhance healthy aging. Arts programs like writing classes for older adults have been linked to lowered blood pressure, reduced levels of stress hormones, and increased levels of endorphins — a “happiness hormone.”

Photo of three friends.

Memoir can reunite people.

But who knew writing these little life episodes for class might serve to reunite people with family and old friends, too? Not me.

Early on in my memoir-teacher career a writer named Jean told me she had lost touch with her only brother. Nothing nasty had happened, they just didn’t feel they had much to talk about anymore. “But once I started these classes, I needed to call him every week to make sure I was remembering everything the way he did,” she laughed. “Now he calls every week to ask me what the assignment is.”

Seems any essay read in class about an old school chum or a long-lost relative is greeted with a chorus of, “Are you going to send that to them?” Most writers listen to the chorus. They send the essay. Weeks later, we hear stories of a get-together, or back-and-forth letters, or a series of phone calls exchanged with the person in the essay.

Four years ago our Safe & Sound blog published a post here about an essay a writer named Mary wrote when I assigned “Feeling Homesick” as a prompt. Mary had spent her junior year of high school on a study abroad program in Japan, and in her homesick essay she mentioned an American friend she met in Japan that year.

Mary had heard that her friend had developed Alzheimer’s disease, and on the urging from her fellow memoir-writing students, she sent a copy of her essay his way.

“He was still able to send me an email, and he told me my essay sparked a memory for him,” she told us later. Mary’s essay motivated her friend to write his own piece about an experience during his year as an exchange student in Japan.

After he finished his essay, his wife sent a letter telling Mary that her Japan memoirs had not only motivated her husband to write, but also motivated him to try using a computer again. “She said it was the first time he had used the computer in two months,” Mary told me, reaching over to pat me on the thigh. “So look what these memoirs produce!”

This week I got word about a new PBS series that debuted Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Hosted by Ann Curry, We’ll Meet Again is all about the value of reuniting with people from the past. Airing on PBS on Tuesdays from 8:00-9:00 p.m. Eastern time until the end of February, 2018, the show is described as “reuniting people with someone they crossed paths with during pivotal moments long ago.” Gee whiz. The memoir-writers in my classes could have written the script!

Mary Rayis On January 25, 2018 at 3:54 pm


This is such a wonderful and life-affirming post. I am not surprised at all that you inspire such happenings in your classes because your own story and willingness to share it have such an impact on others.

Beth On January 25, 2018 at 8:34 pm

Ah, you are sweet to say that I am the inspiration, but really, it is the stories they write that inspire so many….

Nancy B On January 25, 2018 at 4:24 pm

I agree with Mary! I can’t cite it, but I know that there is a study that looked at major life limiting issues: smoking, cholesterol, obesity, etc….and the most important factor of all was if the person had someone to tell their daily life issues to….be that a relative, guy at a bar, coffee shop get together, best friend, partner or pet. Seems like we spend so much time and focus and meds (!) on this other stuff, when the contact between people is the most important!

Beth On January 25, 2018 at 8:40 pm

You are so right, Nancy. In the end, it’s lonliness that will do us in .

Maria LaPlaca Bohrer On January 25, 2018 at 7:45 pm

I agree with Mary and Nancy! Beth, you are an inspiration to many. As a result of your books and your memoir classes, you have touched more lives than you could imagine. We are all blessed to have you in our lives, Beth. xxxooo ~Maria

Beth On January 25, 2018 at 8:51 pm

Ah, shucks.

Loia Baron On January 25, 2018 at 8:16 pm


Benita Black On January 26, 2018 at 4:48 pm

Wonderful! And just to let you know that “We’ll Meet Again” is a real tear-jerker (but in a good way) and is available to watch streaming on demand as well as on Tuesdays. It’s not to be missed.

Beth On January 26, 2018 at 5:52 pm

Oh. You’re the first I know who watched it/heard of it. Thanks for the positive review. I may just have to give it a listen.

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