The more I Wrote, the More I Became a Human Being—Henry Miller

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.

Healing&writing

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.

There are many articles on how to do writing therapy. One for instance gives you the specific instructions James Pennebaker, Ph.D. used in his pioneering studies.

Writing as healing
Writing as healing

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.

Why Write Fiction? The Money Sucks Unless …

Why write fiction? It’s unrewarding. Not an item you would often find in a bucket list (things you hope to do in your life). Unless… You live with words inside your head. Or have a need, an urge to spill your guts onto pieces of real or virtual paper.

Writing is not exactly a drive you’re born with, but it becomes as natural as speech. Language is wired into us.

Calvin’s Wisdom

Writing is so natural that, for some, it is a necessity. I know at least one person who writes volumes of journals that no one except for her or people close to her would ever read. Some people are just driven by a need to see those words on a page. I know I am.

Writing is not exactly what you do if you want an adrenaline rush. It is an adventure, yes, but a rather solitary one. One project can stretch from hours into days. Into years. For some, it’s best done when everything is still and the only company you have may be nocturnal crickets sometimes chirping outside your window.

Writing is punishing if you want to push it further than your hard drive—from nights glued to your computer creating your life’s work; to months of plodding toil, editing, revising, and proofing; to the ego-busting rejection letters if you want to go traditional—and, finally, to reviews by people who can hardly care about what and how you write. The product of your heart and mind, your sweat and tears, your id and your ego—like any other piece of art—is subject to taste, fads, and personal whims of a nameless, faceless audience.

You may actually wonder why anyone would go through all that misery, particularly because most writers (indie or traditional) can’t live on book earnings. Oh, yes, writing can sell well. But only if:

  • You’re some kind of celebrity or someone who’s gotten media attention for doing something notorious or crazy and you write about yourself or your experience. Sometimes I wonder if man is a born voyeur or, maybe, we just like to be entertained or reassured by such stories.
  • You already have a big following.

Or, if none of the above:

Sex seems never out of fashion although few people will publicly admit to having any interest in erotica. I once read about a writer who lamented the zero interest in her novels … until she wrote erotica. Then, she made some money,

One of my novels has a couple of steamy bedroom scenes. I convinced myself it was necessary to the story, Still, this novel, like many others, that incorporate such scenes, would never count as erotica. Bedroom scenes are standard in many romance novels. (Those that have none are ennobled by the labels “sweet” or “clean.” Huh? Sex is sour and dirty?). The line between erotica and steamy novels may be a matter of numbers (of sex scenes, that is,) and word usage.

But for some of us:

Writing is most satisfying when it is somehow tied into a quest. A quest so personal it wouldn’t have wide appeal.

Writing, like all other arts, has been freed up by the Internet. Digital readers have increased the number who read, and altered reading habits.

So a writer can choose not to rely on a publisher and more people have been drawn into dusting pages they’ve stashed in locked drawers or password-protected files or putting into words, for the first time, stories they’ve been itching to unleash on the world.

Just as many more people have forayed into the visual arts, more have plunged into writing and self-publishing. The arena is crowded. But some dreams die hard.