The heroine of The Shade Under the Mango Tree decides to write about her terrible experience in a foreign country. Not only to tell the world about it, but also as a form of healing. But can writing heal what ails you?
Many studies show you can write to save your life.
I started writing my thoughts and feelings in a little notebook when I was a kid. I think it was my way of coping with the loneliness and unhappiness of a girl with three rambunctious brothers who couldn’t be bothered with a sister because I refused to fish tadpoles out of dirty little ponds or ride astride a water buffalo. Though they ignored me, I did tag along when they flew kites. They were irresistible—those colorful, lighter than wind inanimate birds my oldest brother crafted out of paper and flexible bamboo sticks. Those memories live on because of that little notebook.
I’ve been reflecting on what writing has meant to me since I came upon a book in my study that I bought more than ten years ago. I can no longer remember why Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing interested me at that time. Maybe, I was contemplating writing more for myself and the title suggested some reason that could push me to do so. Strictly speaking, I’ve always been involved with writing, but in earlier years, I dealt with factual stuff.
Ms. DeSalvo is a memoirist, an “acclaimed” one. The list of her books on Amazon proves this: several are about memories of her experiences. Memoirs seem to be “the thing” nowadays. Or biographies, particularly of celebrities. As readers, this fact attests to our voyeuristic tendencies. Or, maybe, we need to know that someone else has gone through experiences like ours and we could learn from reading about them. As writers, the need to rid ourselves or at least make sense of our psychological baggage finds expression in words on paper (real or virtual).
We probably all have a life story to tell. Potentially, everyone can turn into an author by writing a memoir. While having a juicy story can get you readers, even ordinary problems or issues can sell if you use an appealing spin and the right buzzwords (crucial for ebooks). I’ve wondered if I should write one.
Can writing heal what ails you? It definitely can, in a certain form. That form is “expressive writing.” It can take the guise of Journal Writing or, more formally, Writing Therapy. Many helping professionals may include it in their arsenal of psychotherapy/counseling techniques, along with art and music therapies.
Good research supports the use of Writing Therapy (see here for the first definitive studies). Many clinical therapists take its effectiveness for granted, particularly in treating post-traumatic stress disorders. But like all other forms of therapy, its success depends on many things. Specific techniques used, the client-therapist relationship, how engaged the client is in the process.
But do you need to go into writing therapy for the act of writing to help you cope with trauma, emotional pain, grief, loss, or anything else that bothers you? Clearly not. If I remember right, Ms. DeSalvo did not have formal therapy. Other well-respected writers DeSalvo quotes might not have, either—writers whose works have become classics. They might have found sufficient resolution or even renewal from their writing. Two that DeSalvo quotes:
a matter of necessity and that you write to save your life is really true and so far it’s been a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.— Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.
The more I wrote, the more I became a human being … I was getting the poison out of my system. — Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer
A memoir seems suited to expressive writing, particularly when you have something painful to recount. It is cathartic. Better still, even the process of turning your first draft into a work worthy of publishing and sharing with a broader audience will help heal your psyche. The very act of going over a painful experience poured on paper (or a computer), in order to rework it and polish it, is similar to transformational tasks in writing therapies. More detached from the experience, and you see it in a different light. Your perspective can change and the experience may teach you a useful lesson.
Nowadays, my will to write is rather strong, not because I have any trauma or psychological pain I must deal with. I think I have finally matured to the point where I’m reasonably comfortable with myself. But writing has grown into a habit, one I’ve become addicted to.
Ostensibly the fiction I write is not about me or my experiences. But the worlds I create are not really that different from mine or that of people around me. Maybe, for writers, “memoirs” can take many forms.