Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Healing Power of Writing

Professor Louise DeSalvo was my teacher at Hunter College, New York City, when I majored in creative writing. For all of you cancer survivors that want to write about your journey, here's some good advice. 

Write Now!
"Writing has helped me heal." "Writing has changed my life." "Writing has saved my life."
These are the bold and intriguing first sentences of acclaimed author, Louise DeSalvo's book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stories Transforms our Lives.
Louise DeSalvo
Photo Courtesy of Deja Vue
With insight and wit, Ms. DeSalvo, interweaves her own story about the transformative power of writing with the experiences and observations of other writers, researchers and students. She also includes many practical suggestions and techniques that will benefit all of us who are writing as a way to heal our emotional and physical wounds.
Ms. DeSalvo and her publisher, Beacon Press, have generously offered to share excerpts from Writing as a Way of Healing with the readers of the Survivor's Review.
From the first page of her book, DeSalvo engages us with anecdotes, research studies and experiences that illustrate and support her points about the importance of writing to heal. And at the end of each chapter, she offers specific suggestions under the sections titled, WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW. Below is an excerpt from the first list:
  • Write by hand. In a beautiful notebook you buy expressly for this purpose or make for yourself, or on whatever you have handy. Note cards, say.
  • Or write on a typewriter or on a computer-but print what you write so you can touch it, see it, read it.
  • Write for about twenty minutes a day. But write more if you want or less. Try not to censor yourself. But if you're not ready to write about something, don't, yet. You will when you're ready.
  • Write what you need to write or want to write. Or write what you don't want to write. Write what troubles you or what delights you. Can you link these feelings to events in your life? Write what you see, smell, taste, touch.
  • Write without knowing what will be next. Write to surprise yourself. Or write and ponder or write and ponder some more.
  • Save everything you write in a safe place. Read it, or don't. At first, it's probably best not to show your writing to anyone. Writing only for yourself will let you write more freely.
Although it seems intuitive that the healing benefits of writing depend upon the depths to which we plumb, DeSalvo clearly articulates several specific qualities that make a narrative truly healing:
  • A healing narrative renders our experience concretely, authentically, explicitly, and with a richness of detail. DeSalvo recounts how she responded to a student who asked how much detail he should include. "About a thousand more than you think you will need," is her standard answer.
  • A healing narrative links feelings to events. "It describes how we felt then and how we feel now. It compares and contrasts past feelings and current feelings...It charts the similarities or differences in our feelings over time."
  • A healing narrative is a balanced narrative. "It uses negative words to describe emotions and feelings in moderation; but it uses positive words, too." Here, DeSalvo answers the obvious question: How can we write positively about a painful subject?"
  • "By describing what sustained us at that time," she says.
  • A healing narrative reveals the insights we've achieved from painful experiences. DeSalvo explains: "It is a way for us to reflect upon the significance of what happened. It connects our experience to other experiences in our lives or to those of other people or to society."
  • A healing narrative tells a complete, complex, coherent story. DeSalvo admits that our narratives often begin in chaos. "They become healing narratives as we organize them, as we ask ourselves, 'Then what happened?' 'Who was there?' 'Why?' 'Did this happen before or after?'"
DeSalvo asserts that committing to the practice of writing is, in itself, transformative. In a section entitled, "The Yoga of Writing," she outlines the process by which committed writers work. Below are several of her compelling points:
"We make time to write. We plan to write. We prepare ourselves to write. We care for ourselves so that we can write. We prepare a place to write...We listen to an inner voice that tells us what to do, what to write, where to go with the work...We allow ourselves complex and difficult feelings about our writing, but we don't question why we're having them...We work to work, not to produce a work of genius...When we're finished, we reflect on our process. We reflect upon how we're feeling now, upon what this work has given us, upon how this work has changed us..."
"When we begin to write regularly, letting the process be our guide, everything will take care of itself. Show up at the desk regularly and with commitment," De Salvo contends, "That's really all you have to do."
Louise DeSalvo is a writer, professor, lecturer, and scholar who lives in New Jersey . She currently holds the Jenny Hunter Endowed Chair in CreativeWriting and Literature at Hunter College of CUNY. Her many books include the memoirs Vertigo, Breathless, and Adultery; the acclaimed biography, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work; and Writing as a Way of Healing. Recently, she edited Woolf's early novel, Melymbrosia and coedited The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture.

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