Writing Down the Soul: An Archetypal and Mythological Approach to Memoir Writing with Maureen Murdock, Ph.D.

Maureen Murdock is the author of the best-selling book, The Heroine’s Journey, which explores the rich territory of the feminine psyche. She was also the Chair and Core Faculty of the MA Counseling Psychology Program at Pacifica. She will be co-teaching Pacifica Extension’s “Writing Down the Soul: An Archetypal and Mythological Approach to Memoir Writing” with Jennifer Selig March 23, 2024 – December 8th, 2024. It seems appropriate to be putting this interview together for the month of March, which is Women’s History Month, when we will be focusing on the history of women in Depth Psychology. Maureen has certainly made history in that regard, and I’m honored to be speaking with her.

Angela: I think there is a misconception that memoirs are for people who are famous, people who have made a major contribution to society or somehow changed the course of history. Your work would seem to say the opposite, that memoir is for everyone, that every story has value. Can you speak about the value or power inherent in telling one’s story, even if, and especially if, one is not a world-renowned figure?

Maureen: Everyone has value in their life. You don’t have to be famous to write a memoir because each one of us is looking at our lives to understand the different patterns that have emerged through our lives, and each one of us learns from one another’s story. We’re all looking for a map. We want to see how other people have lived their lives. That’s part of the value. The other part is that memoir is not about one person. To be successful a memoir, it has to have universal appeal. The famous people memoirs often aren’t the ones that have the deepest wisdom. I find that comes from everybody who makes the choice to excavate their life. There’s so much value in doing that.

Angela: How does depth psychology view memoir? Is it part of individuation? To voice one’s story is to give it value, but is there a deeper process that occurs around the saying of what was? In particular, I’m curious about the effect of writing about moments of injustice or violence or abuse. Not to be overly simple, but if there were a person out there to whom nothing traumatic had ever happened, would they still benefit from writing a memoir?

Maureen: Sara Miller wrote Know my Name, a memoir about the fact that she’d been sexually assaulted by a Stanford student. She not only used her name but his name, to say, I have been assaulted by this particular man and our justice system wants to only give him a sentence of six months, but what about my life? Why doesn’t my life have more value than that? One of the functions of memoir is to heal, and I don’t know anyone who’s had a perfect life! There’s value to excavating life to understand your lineage, your purpose, what you’ve come here to do. So you don’t need to have been abused to look at those issues in your life.

As a psychotherapist, I think memoir writing is very similar to the process of looking at the different patterns in your life while you’re in therapy. It can help with individuation, but I wouldn’t say it’s a form of it. It’s a process of individuation. Not all memoirs do that. People who really dive deeply do that. And they don’t know what will emerge as they start to write their memoir, that’s not usually the reason they start. Psyche is calling them to look at some memory and what it is that they need to learn from it. Memoirs change as people write them, and it’s because we’re not static as human beings; memoir writing is always an evolving process.

Angela: Have you written your own memoir? And over time, have you found your writing style changed?

Maureen: I wrote a memoir under a pseudonym! It was to protect a family member’s identity. But the writing of it was very powerful. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to publish. The writing of it was very necessary for me and for my healing.

I lost my partner last year, so I’m currently writing about grief, and it’s much more free-flowing than my earlier work. There’s more self-reflection with memoirs in midlife and beyond. In my memoir group, we’re reading Suleika Jaouad’s memoir about her coming of age in her twenties, and I am surprised about how much self-reflection she has in that book; it’s brilliant. It really depends on what the writer wants to get out of it. Jaouad’s writing it from a 20-something year old perspective, right after college. There is no appropriate age at which to write memoir.

Angela: You wrote the bestselling Heroine’s Journey, and now have put out Mythmaking: Self-Discovery and the Timeless Art of Memoir, which has been described as being of the caliber of Joan Didion’s writing, but with a deeper understanding of memoir given by the inclusion of myth. Congratulations, first of all, on the publication of the book. Can you tell us what inspired it, and is it to be used as a guidebook for those wanting to write their own memoir?

Maureen: I started teaching creative writing through UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 1990, and that was the year that The Heroine’s Journey first came out. As I was listening to my students’ writing, it became clear to me that there were many mythic elements in their memoirs, whether they were writing about their journey or mother-daughter enmeshment or the search for the father by the son or descent and death. All of these were mythic themes that I’d been looking at. So I started presenting the idea that mythic themes often inform memoir. At that time, around 1994, there really weren’t memoirs on the shelf in any bookstore. There were autobiographies but not memoirs. There’s a big difference. Autobiography is linear, from a person’s birth to when they’re writing the book. Memoir is a particular slice of life, an angle of perception. In 1994, UCLA had a conference where they brought in agents from New York. I brought my students to the conference, and the agents told them not to bother writing memoir because there was no market. Then in 1995, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt came out, and The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and all of a sudden, everyone wanted to write a memoir.

When I came to Pacifica in 1998, I wanted to create a course called Myth and Memoir. So we did that in the Counseling program, and the fun thing was that I was co-teaching with Dennis Patrick Slattery. I had the first-year students, and he had the second year. We started to enact the myths, in particular, the Demeter Persephone myth. When the students saw the story embodied by their classmates, they got a sense of their own mythic patterns within their own bodies. So their stories became alive in the room.

Angela: If you could pick one key theme or point in the book that you would most hope the reader would walk away with, what would it be?

Maureen: What I always ask my students to think about in regard to Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, is Who am I? Who are my people? What’s my journey? What’s my purpose? If you think about that, memoirs answer those questions. Danny Shapiro wrote Inheritance as she was looking at “Who am I?” because she found out at age 54 that the father she grew up with was not her birth father. She asks, If he was not my birth father, then who was I? There are so many memoirs that reflect that question of origins. So many memoirs look at Campbell’s second question, Who are My People? and write about the search for the father or the enmeshment with the mother, so you get to look at the Demeter Persephone myth and see how that evokes you own story. Same thing with looking at What is My Journey and What is My Purpose ?  Most people don’t ask, What’s my purpose? But Joy Harjo did. I’ve found in writing the book that many poets have some understanding of what they were brought here to do. Joy Harjo says in her memoir, Crazy Brave, that she knew she was brought here to write poetry and she knew it would be a hard journey not only among her people but her family. She knew her purpose at an early age. So the one thing I’d ask memoir students, is What is your narrative question? As a beginning question. It will inform what you’re remembering.

“Jennifer Selig and Maureen Murdock have masterfully crafted a memoir course. As true professionals, ardent teachers, and skilled writers they braid the essential elements of memoir— technique, structure and voice—into a deeply resonant experience of one’s soul. Taking this course was a stellar gift to my writerly self.” ~Dr. Christine Flaherty

Angela: Pacifica Extension’s “Writing Down the Soul: An Archetypal and Mythological Approach to Memoir Writing” will be taught by you and Jennifer Selig March 23, 2024 – December 8th, 2024. This will consist of eight on-line classes culminating in a gathering in which participants will read their own work. What is that like?

Maureen: It’s the first time they’re being witnessed as a culmination of the nine months. They’ve sent their work to Jennifer and me, and I’ve critiqued it to some degree. Then each person has seven minutes to read their piece aloud. So it’s the first time they’re hearing their story and responses from their classmates. It’s very powerful. They get to say, “This is my life, what my soul wants you to hear,” within the support of their classmates. Having that community that understands the struggle to give birth to memoir is so important; everyone is rooting for them. It might be the only time they’ll hear their words spoken by themselves in a group. The witnessing is the important part.

Angela: Does someone have to have experience writing to join this class? What are you hoping people will come away with from it?

Maureen: No, you don’t need experience with writing, you just need curiosity about your own life and the willingness to learn the craft. Because each module focuses on different aspects of the craft of memoir writing. It really pushes people to put aside the judge who says, “I have nothing to say.” That’s what comes up for most people. “Who cares about my life? Who would read this?” Instead of understanding they’re a stand-in for the reader’s life. Over the course of nine months of study, people connect with each other on a much deeper level as they listen to each other’s words and questions. A real community arises.

Angela: February is Women’s History Month, and I wondered if you might pick one of your heroines in the field of depth psychology and highlight her impact on your own work and that of the field in general?

Maureen: There are so many. Chris Downing, Marion Woodman, Carol Christ, Mary Watkins, myself! I’m thinking of Carol Christ, who wouldn’t consider herself a depth psychologist because she’s a feminist theologian. She took women on pilgrimages to Crete. I was lucky to be on one with her. We went into the caves of the goddess. The Minoan culture was focused on a feminine deity and so the women there still go into the caves to pray for a safe childbirth. We also went to the mountain top shrines. This goes to embodied depth psychology. When you walk the land and do ceremony in the caves and shrines, you tap into the depth of your own feminine psyche. Embodiment has had enormous value for women. It impacted me in terms of my writing, certainly with The Heroine’s Journey.

In the 1970s and 80s, I lived in L.A., and all of us writers and artists were looking at what the divine feminine meant to us, creating writing, dance, visual gallery shows, it had to do with embodiment. Marija Gimbutas’s work on the Language of the Goddess was very important. Marion Woodman used to do Intensives at Pacifica focusing on the body and dreams.

Angela: Thank you so much for your wisdom and time. I look forward to reading more of your work!

Please join us for “Writing Down the Soul: An Archetypal and Mythological Approach to Memoir Writing” with Jennifer Selig March 23, 2024 – December 8th, 2024. Register here.

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. is a family therapist and the author of the best-selling book, The Heroine’s Journey, which explores the rich territory of the feminine psyche. This groundbreaking book, her response to Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, has been translated into 20 languages, including Farsi, and Shambhala Publications has issued a 30th Year Anniversary edition with a foreword by Christine Downing.  She was Chair and Core Faculty of the MA Counseling Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute and teaches memoir with Jennifer Leigh Selig in Pacifica’s program “Writing Down the Soul.” Murdock is also the author of Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory; Fathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward: Using Guided Imagery with Children; and The Heroine’s Journey Workbook. She started teaching memoir writing in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 1990 and edited an anthology by her students entitled Monday Morning Memoirs: Women in the Second Half of Life. Her new book, Mythmaking: Self-Discovery and the Timeless Art of Memoir will be published by Shambhala in March, 2024.Maureen will be leading a memoir writing workshop for women in Santa Fe from April 25-27th.  For info: www.maureenmurdock.com.


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.