Since I was a little girl and my mother gave me a Khalil Gibran journal to help me cope with the loss of my grandmother, I have always used writing as a way of healing. Acting as my best friend and confident, my journal held all my deepest and heartfelt secrets. It did not talk back to me, nor was it judgmental or opinionated. My journal contained all the sentiments and feelings that were most important to me. Writing was my way of being heard, since my parents often claimed that children should be "seen and not heard."
My colleagues and I would not be the first writers who write to dissipate pain. Fiction writer D.H. Lawrence sat at his mother's bedside while she was dying and wrote poems about her. He also began an early draft of Sons and Lovers, his novel which explored their complicated, loving, painful and close relationship. Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past while sick in bed. Flannery O'Connor wrote some of her best stories while suffering from the symptoms of lupus.
May Sarton and Anaïs Nin wrote in their diaries to get themselves through difficult times. Nin was a writer whose writings deeply resonated with me because we were both avid journal-keepers. Like myself, she transformed her traumatic experiences into art. Anaïs Nin used her journals to address her deranged father who left the family when she was young. Nin's journal entries became a four-volume collection of published books. In her book Recovering, May Sarton chronicles her battles with depression and cancer.
Journaling is a cathartic and safe way to spill your feelings. My attitude is "Direct your rage to the page." I have a writing colleague who says, "If it hurts, write harder," and for years those words were posted above my computer, until they simply became a part of my literary life.
James Pennebaker, the author of Writing to Heal , says, "Writing dissolves some of the barriers between you and others. If you write, it's easier to communicate with others." Pennebaker believes that there's a certain type of writing that erupts when we're faced with loss, death, abuse, depression and trauma. He does have one rule, however, that he calls, "the flip out rule," which proclaims that if you get too upset when writing, then it's probably best to stop.
Learning to open up about issues and traumatic experiences, even when writing only for oneself, does not happen over night, but it is all a part of the healing process. Author Louise DeSalvo, an advocate of writing for healing, began crafting her own memoirs, Vertigo and Breathless, as a result of coming to terms with her own pain. Her book, Writing As A Way of Healing embraces all the basic concepts about using a passion for writing to help cope with life. In a section called, "Why Write?" she concludes, "writing is cheap, writing doesn't need to take much time, writing is self-initiated; writing is flexible, writing is private or you can share it, writing is portable, writing can be done whether we're well or ill, and writing to heal requires no innate talent."
Whether affected by change, loss or pain, finding the time and courage to write can support the healing process. Some people prefer to write nonfiction, while others may choose fiction or poetic modalities to help them express their thoughts and feelings. Each writer must choose the genre most compatible with their stories, sensibilities and personalities, choosing what liberates and empowers them. In the end, this is what healing is all about.
A writer friend recently forwarded me an article from the New York Times Magazine (March 23, 2012), called, "Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise," by Steve Almond. Coincidentally, I met Steve at a writer's conference a number of years ago, where he was on a panel. I remembered his compelling story, and that after the panel, when everyone was approaching the other panelists with questions, he stood at the side of the podium giving away copies of his newly-released book, an unusual gesture for writers. As the son of two therapists, he truly understands what he is talking about. In his recent article, he defends writing as a cure, particularly in this boom of memoir and biography and the idea, as he states that, "artists should be forged by the fires of 'real life.'" Almond is teaching a workshop for those in their 50s and 60s, and admits that it does not really matter whether they become published writers or not. The important thing is that the students "have found a way to face the toughest truths within themselves, to begin to make sense of them, and maybe even beauty. In a world that feels increasingly impersonal and atomized, I can't think of a more thrilling mission," he concludes.
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