Writing as a way of healing

Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives opens with these lines:

“Writing has helped me heal. Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.”

She says that writing has helped her friends, students, and other writers heal from loss, grief, or personal tragedy. Writers who have endured personal trauma turn to their diaries, or write memoirs, fiction, poetry, and biographical essays as a means of making sense of what happened to them.

In fact, I have found that these are some of the life events that too often prevent writers from writing in the first place; we don’t feel strong enough in the face of life trauma to be able to get past the depths of our pain. The interesting thing is, if you think about it, most writing is about something truly awful that happened to someone; or it refers to an emotionally turbulent time in someone’s life, or it deals with an otherwise difficult subject, hard to understand, even harder to talk about.

Writers who find a way to broach their pain enter into terrain that often threatens to pull them under if they don’t express the emotions in some way.

You don’t have to rely solely on writing, though; painting, music, dance, or theatre, are all effective ways to crack open your creativity. No matter how you express yourself, the goal is to allow yourself to have these feelings, to get them out: “If we begin to value our creative urges, we begin to value ourselves. If we deny our creative urges, we deny that our lives have meaning and significance.” 

Yet we stop ourselves from expressing these truths, often for very good reasons. They are too painful, or too near, or too personal. Often, we can barely think about these things, let alone write about them, or tell anyone else what happened. For this reason, DeSalvo suggests having professional guidance to help you cope with your memories.

You can’t run the risk of re-traumatizing yourself without a professional there to guide you through whatever comes up. DeSalvo says “letting ourselves have our emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them as we work is an important (and all-too-often ignored) skill for us to develop,” but having our emotions is risky without someone who has traversed the terrain available during this process.

Because the piece of writing is “complete” when you read it (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Fitzgerald’s memoir of his nervous breakdown at thirty-nine, The Crack-Up),it isn’t immediately obvious that these famous writers were once in pain, struggling with life experiences, using writing as their “sturdy ladder out of the pit.”

DeSalvo, quoting Fitzgerald, says during the process of writing The Crack-Up, this multiply published author, already famous in his own time, learned “he’d led an inauthentic life, a non-reflective, reactive life.” He had done “very little thinking”… rather than knowing himself, he had allowed others to tell him who he was. He admitted to always feeling confused, which lead to his desire “to go out and get drunk.”

If the writing is to be a healing experience, though, we must rely on “nonjudgemental, self-reflective witnessing of ourselves as writers” which helps us “not ruminate about our feelings (a destructive practice) or to engage in accusation or self-blame.” Instead, as I will discuss in another entry, DeSalvo suggests keeping a process journal which “invites us to focus upon defining ourselves as active and engaged, not as passive, helpless and hopeless.”

Are women selfish if we want to write?

Through the years, I’ve read, over and over again, about Virginia Woolf’s quest for peace and quiet and a room of her own. I’ve read about her feelings of guilt for wanting to be left alone to write.  I’ve read about women being silenced. I’ve read about women’s schedules being more hectic than men’s.

The most compelling argument that women find it harder to write than men do comes from the school of thought that says that we are taught to undermine ourselves; that we are taught to doubt our voice, to doubt that anyone would find what we have to say worthwhile; and that our time and effort belongs to others.

I find these discussions about the differences men and women encounter in the writing life discomfiting. I hope they’re not true, at the same time I fear they (mostly) are. I struggle not to give into the voice of doubt in my head. These are the same doubts women writers have fought against for a very long time. From feminist writers such as Carol Gilligan and Louise DeSalvo I learned that we consider ourselves selfish to ask for time to write; selfish to take time away from our families, selfish to want something for ourselves otherwise unattached to personal relationships.

I wonder the extent to which this taboo still haunts women who want to write…. the taboo that whatever we do, we’d better not ripple the waters of our home pond; that if we’re going to ask for free time, it had better be worthwhile. If this guilt still exists, and I suspect it does, I hope women are willing to at least consider writing, and to take time for ourselves to accomplish what we need through the act of writing.

I don’t think these are “feminist” issues. I think these are humanist issues, in that it might be entirely necessary for one’s psychological and emotional health to write (or to create in some way). I think this discussion gets muddied by the feminist dialogue that tends to pull women away from the real issue, which is one’s personal values up against the values of society. If you value yourself, won’t you make time for yourself?

The logical answer is ‘yes,’ of course, but too often, we get dragged into time-wasting, diversionary arguments about feminism. These arguments then degrade into male-versus-female debates, not winnable by anyone, that obfuscate the point. The point is that women in particular do not value ourselves enough to take time away from everyone else to do what we want and need to do. Not without incurring a boatload of guilt, it seems.