Writing Will Save Your Life

I’m in a mood today for dramatizing. Will writing save your life? All I know is that it saved mine and I’ve made it my business to try to understand how writing saved me, and how it can keep saving me. Louise DeSalvo has been one of my mentors–not that I know her, personally, but I’ve read her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, about 100 times. DeSalvo doesn’t flinch from the difficult, in fact, that’s exactly what she goes after:

Writing about traumatic or troubling life experiences initially unleashes difficult, conflicting emotions. In the long run, though, we feel better emotionally and are healthier and achieve a level of understanding of our lives that only writing can provide. Safe writing–writing what we already know or understand, writing that is superficial–won’t help us grow, either as people or as writers. For our writing to be healing, we must encounter something that puzzles, confuses, troubles, or pains us. (p. 93).

And that’s why you don’t get to go back to bed and sleep through the next six week news cycle.

I recently came across this KUOW story about poet Colleen J. McElroy and wanted to share it–she’s a walking, breathing example of writing’s power to sustain us. (Click on the link to go to the story/video.)

Hunkered down at 85

Colleen J. McElroy

DeSalvo continues:

An outgrowth of the kind of writing that digs deep, that takes risks, that arises from our desire to explore the unresolved emotional puzzles or ongoing pain in our lives is that we “gain greater psychological freedom” (as Albert M. Rothenberg, M.D., has observed) and greater range and depth in our artistic expression… (p.92)

I can’t imagine living any other way.

Writing — guilty pleasure or basic need?

So here it is, January of the New Year. I have a few resolutions I’m working on, and someone suggested that I reframe why I set them, and that conversation got me thinking.

Then, at Writing Lab today, one of our writers admitted that she doesn’t write very much, even though she’d like to, because taking time for writing feels self-indulgent. Others chimed in. She wasn’t alone.

I kind of want to whine here. If, instead of writing, you are busy finding a cure for cancer, or homelessness, or world hunger, maybe you have a point. But, frankly, I don’t think any of us at the table today were doing anything stop-the-presses-newsworthy instead of writing.

And of course I’ve heard this from so many people over the years that it shouldn’t be jaw-dropping any longer. To illustrate, I have one friend who, in all the years I’ve known her has never been able to sustain a writing practice. It isn’t that she wouldn’t love to write; plus, she’s got the know-how — she has advanced degrees in writing. I asked her once why the heck she wasn’t writing, and she told me an amazing story about a teacher of hers who wrote despite having “crazy needy children.” Then she continued, “And I don’t want my children to go crazy.”

She was not trying to get a laugh; she was sincere. And although it seemed absolutely bizarre at the time, now that my friend has grandchildren and I’ve seen her in action for a number of years, I think I understand. She’s busy with work and keeping body and soul together, and when she does find any free time, she wants to spend it on her family.

For the record, I approve of people lavishing attention on the young’uns in their lives. But I don’t think that’s quite the problem here. You can substitute your non-negotiable here (unless it’s checking Facebook or watching Criminal Minds). At this point, I’m not even sure it’s about making the time to write (I’ve tried before to address how you might do that). So maybe, for you, like me with my New Year’s resolutions, it’s time to rethink your why. 

all pictures from

And since we’re talking about writing here, which is — at least some of the time — about making stuff up, let’s talk about re-imagining why you want to write. (And I don’t mean so that you can pull down the big bucks. I mean why it’s important to you.) To get really really clear here, the belief that writing is self-indulgent is a belief, just like the belief that being a writer = crazy offspring is a belief. Not one of those beliefs like believing in God (let’s not mess with that) or not (or that). It’s not even a belief like your political beliefs, which I think we all know by now are troublesome enough.

No, this belief is simply something that you made up at some point in your life. Maybe at that point it helped you cope with some difficulty or other. Maybe it kept you alive.

But it’s just a belief, and you can replace it. Here are a few suggestions, all of which are true for me:

  • I write because writing is good for my brain. (This is also my piano lesson argument.)
  • I write because writing is healing. (See Louise DeSalvo.)
  • I write so I can be a better __________ (teacher/mom/pastor/committee member/friend).
  • I write to gain objectivity.
  • I write because I want ____________  (your students? your children? someone else?) to see that it’s possible to balance a busy, even over-full life with one’s passion.
  • I write so _____________ (my daughters) will see that having a passion is important.
  • I write to find out what matters to me.
  • I write because writing keeps me sane.
  • I write because writing gives me joy.

There must be other good reasons to write that you can gin up, and one may very well be to make a living (kudos for you), or bringing joy to others.

Writing is a guilty pleasure and a basic need. If you want to write, that’s a good enough reason to write.

Too Busy to Write?

Life has had me caught up in it of late, a whirlwind of activity — you know about the graduations, the party — and this week, worries about my mom and visits with my wonderful sisters and their families. More is on the way, as it’s birthday month at our house. “I haven’t written in a month,” a friend said at Writing Lab last Wednesday. Another: “I’ve got that beat — I haven’t written in years!” I suspect this is an exaggeration, but I get it: too busy to write; too many other things to do.

No matter how busy I am, I write every day. Even back in the day — when on top of everything I deal with now I was teaching full-time — writing every day kept me grounded. I did not always write anything of substance, but every day I opened my notebook and I wrote. I wrote letters to God. I wrote about my headache or my heartache. I wrote down a tantrum some charming little person had whipped up, or the adorable thing some other little person had said. I wrote about what a terrible mother I was. I wrote teen-tiny encouragements to myself. (You are not a terrible mother; wanting to be a better mother is a great goal; look at you, despite everything, writing!) 

Writing every day is what brought me out of that wilderness, and, as I know from long experience, it will lead me through this wilderness, too.

I am a great re-reader of books, and one book that I reread almost every year is Louise DeSalvo‘s Writing as a Way of Healing. 

Recently I misplaced this book. I saw it in a used bookstore, didn’t buy it (I was sure I’d find my copy soon), had to go back (to two different bookstores) and search for it. Found it, bought it. Later that day my old copy turned up. Interesting, how that works.

I suspect that it’s time to revisit the book. I open it and I find these questions, which lead me…back to my journal.

  • What else can I say?
  • What else am I feeling?
  • What else might have been happening?
  • Why did this happen?
  • Why else did this happen?
  • Is this really how it happened?
  • Is this really what I was feeling?
  • Is this really how they were?
  • Can I say even more here?
  • Would someone who didn’t know me or what I experienced understand this?
  • Is this as clear as I can make it?
  • What [other] connections can I make here?

In my journal from last year — which I’ve been thumbing through because I just know I wrote down a story there — I found this scrap of poetry. Something else that shouted out loud to me.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

Robert Hass, “Faint Music”

Writing as a Way of Healing

I have been rereading Louise DeSalvo‘s Writing as a Way of Healing. The first time I read this book, I bought extra copies and handed it out to friends. No interesting conversations resulted, which I think means that no one read it…so I’m here again, this time virtually handing out copies.

I’ve underlined a gazillion passages, like this one:

This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. But to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness, to claim your voice. To tell your story. And to share the gift of your work with others and, so, enrich and deepen our understanding of the human condition. (9)

Or this:

I didn’t know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write. And that your writing will help you unravel the knots in your heart. I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while you’re learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labor. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are. (31)

Or this:

For our writing to be healing, we must encounter something that puzzles, confuses, troubles, or pains us. (93)

There is so much more here. DeSalvo has read widely in the lives of various writers (she is a biographer) and in psychological studies in order to explain her discoveries and insights into how we must write in order to heal. A key idea for me is that keeping a journal isn’t helpful if it is only complaint. One must link memories to feeling in order to get the full benefit.

Well, one must read the book.

DeSalvo has a blog, too — Writing a Life — which I am also happy to recommend.