Today we write about whether or not the act of writing is healing, and if it is, how that has worked in each writer’s life. Is it the act itself is healing, or the result of the writing? Here are some of our writers’ responses:
I do automatic writing in many of my journals. I take something that’s on my mind and I just start writing. I often discover what the REAL issue by writing something out, just slamming it into the computer as fast as my fingers can go, without thinking. When I was a consultant and had a sticky situation I was working with, I’d take my thoughts for a walk then come home and write about them and always, writing resulting in clarity. But in terms of healing, nothing beats this story.
When I was trying to work through the angst of why I couldn’t say YES to Mary, after five years in which Bob and I had divorced and she and I had fallen in love, she told me she needed to let me go. She told me that if I didn’t find myself, I could never find her. I knew she was right. We had come to a place where we weren’t going anywhere, and I couldn’t make myself move. I was stuck in a whirlwind of conflict.
One morning, after a sleepless night, I set up a table on my screen, with two columns, one short, one wider. I wrote “Mary Ann” on the first box, then tabbed to the next box and wrote down all my agonizing questions. “Why, God? How could I? What do you think?” Then I sat silent in front of my computer holding the questions until another voice, certainly not my own, came through. I tabbed to the next row. “God” I typed into the first space. Then I tabbed to the wider space and typed what fell out of my fingers. I went on like this for pages, throwing my agony, my grief, my love, onto the pages and waiting for “answers” to flow through my fingers into “God’s” dialog boxes. I wrote and wrote, Days or maybe weeks later, in a new space of calm, I bought a bouquet of yellow roses, took them to Mary’s house and left them on the doorstep with a note that read, “Yes, Mary. Yes, with all my heart.”
Mary Ann Woodruff
Proof of a Poem
Sometimes a piece I’ve written answers a scared question I ask inside: “Do I exist?” I really didn’t know if I did at certain times of my life. I didn’t. It has been healing for me as a mother/wife/daughter to make that mark of existence that writing can be. When I saw a poem I had written, I knew that I existed. I knew that *I* had written it, proving to me that *I* must still exist. The poem reassured me by its existence. The poem became evidence, concrete evidence, that I still had thoughts. Of my own. About myself.
Writing has been like a Bechdel test for my selfhood. In that test, a movie must have two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. When I write in my journal, I become my own friend. I enter into a dialog with an inner friend, and I talk about things other than the needs of my family. My own needs for example.
When the needs of my family have overwhelmed my body and soul, I have written myself back into existence as a being with her own perspective, volition, awareness.
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The Time Connection
I inherited a mess! Eight huge boxes filled with memorabilia, photographs, scrapbooks and journals that my grandfather had collected. I come from a family that seems compelled to collect and save the flotsam and jetsam of their lives. Some were worse than others, saving every theatre ticket and travel postcard. Others just stashed away souvenirs of joyous occasions: wedding invitations and menus from special anniversary dinners. No one told me I should, but when I got my first brownie camera for my ninth birthday I started filling scrapbooks with photos, blurry at first but then steadily improving as I learned how to look through a lens and hold the camera steady. My first set of photos were of Orton Plantation near Wilmington, North Carolina. We were spending the summer there while my father researched a book on blockade runners of the Civil War. Wilmington had been a port for Southerners desperate for goods denied them by the Yankee blockade just off the shore. The photos aren’t much, but looking at the Spanish moss on the huge oaks which served as the backdrop for my carefully staged photo of my sisters and mother still brings back the scent of the jasmine in the hot humid North Carolina summer air and an ache for my big sister and mother now gone.
My grandfather’s collection was much more sophisticated than mine. When he retired as a Presbyterian minister in the early nineteen thirties he began collecting family history and continued doing so until he died in 1961. He passed the eight boxes down to my father who was an historical novelist. When my father died in 1981, as the only historian in the family, I was the lucky winner of the boxes. No one else cared.
But the people who saved those things cared a lot. They weren’t just saving “things” they were saving memories that brought back emotions. These scrapbooks could create whole evenings of fun when shared with family members in the days before people isolated themselves behind the screens of social media. But what was I going to do with eight boxes of stuff from five different families in a condo with limited storage space?
I decided to take all the memorabilia and write up the stories of the people who had saved their memories. As I painstakingly went through the material these long gone family memories became mine and people began to emerge as personalities. In fact they were quite a cast of characters. I began to see connections with them and my own immediate family. The creative writing streak had probably come down from my maternal great-grandmother who was a poet and earned a living writing for Sunday School publications in the l840s and l850s. My father’s avocation as an historical writer linked back to his fifth great-grandfather who wrote a history of Ireland in 1689. What had begun as a chore suddenly became interesting and fun.
The amazing thing was that as I delved into the dusty archives and perused fading photos my mind slipped back to the times I was reading about. In a strange way I seemed to almost travel back in time and the words poured out of my mind and into my computer as I described long lost family members. For long hours as I wrote the outside world disappeared and I lost myself in their nineteenth and twentieth century lives.
And, as I wrote, as I came to understand them, I understood myself better. I realized that what talents and faults I have aren’t new and mine alone. They have trickled down the branches of a long family tree. That was healing and made me smile.
Healing Through Writing
I have written three poems about my suicide attempt in May 2011.
The first poem was written in the middle of my attempt. I had made many razor cuts along my right forearm, and I noticed the blood was forming interesting patterns on the arm of the chair where I was sitting. The title of a poem came to me, and I had to put the razor blade down and go into my office to write that poem. It was about my feelings at that moment and why I wanted to die. Only after I was fully satisfied with the poem did I return to my task of killing myself, moving from a razor blade to my shotgun.
I started the second poem while I was living in a skilled nursing facility. After I called the paramedics, I lived in the Orthopaedic Trauma Unit at Harborview for almost two months, then in the skilled nursing facility for seven more months. I had mentioned to my therapist in the facility that I wrote poetry but had written very little in the past several months; she suggested I try writing again.
I didn’t think anything would happen, but the instant I got out my pad of paper and a pen, a poem started zipping out of my brain to my fingers. It tells the story of my life at Harborview and subsequently at the nursing facility. It is a story of hope, of a positive point of view, of gratitude for a chance at recovery. It’s not finished yet. It might never be finished because I will live with the physical effects of my actions for the rest of my life. Some people might think the physical effects are a negative part of my life – sometimes I think that, too – but I discovered many silver linings to the black cloud under which I had lived.
A few years later I was at a science-fiction convention and a friend of mine riffed the words “walk with a cane” to the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man”. I was intrigued and asked my friend if I could his idea for a poem; he graciously consented.
It took a few more years before I started that poem. I wasn’t sure what kind of poem I’d write, what the poem would say, but even so I was surprised and astonished by the result. It is a story of losing and regaining my power of self, a positive shout that I’m alive, and a celebration of that living.
Truthfully, I think I started healing when I called 911. But my three poems, one written at my darkest time, one at my hopeful time, and one when I yell “I am alive!”, may have helped.
I did not succeed at suicide, and I am joyous that I failed.
When I was 13, well, I was 13. To try to soothe my inner psychosis and innate hostility towards anyone related to me, my mother suggested I start to journal. Mind you, this was nothing new. I had journaled for school, and kept a diary which made proclamations such as, “The fire within me to be a zoological curator at a top metropolitan museum will never be extinguished.” I believe, however, at this tumultuous age, my mother was suggesting that I perhaps turn some of that angst onto a blank page and self-reflect rather than create metaphorical skewers aimed at my parents and brother. And here’s why it didn’t work: with such focus, I immediately understood the power of words in a way I hadn’t before. Words were no longer simply a tool for communication; each word, each combination, created a labyrinth of soulful insight that had incendiary potential. Most importantly, these words could cause or heal pain.
I would be enraged, and, muted by the discipline in my home, I would go to my room and would rage at my journal about the injustice and servitude of my life. This was all such a bunch of bullshit that someday everyone would be sorry that I was this angry. In fact, they should all be begging me to forgive them RIGHT NOW. Predictably, this was pretty much all my mother’s fault.
Each time I did this, the next day I would review what I had written and became intensely ashamed. I would rip out any page that held a criticism of my mother. Within months, I had a very loosely-bound collection of pages that barely held together because of the gaps created by my unleashed anger. I’m glad that’s what happened, because if you can learn by age 13 that words have power, that means that your words can also heal as certainly as they can injure.