Saturday, September 15, 2007

In Which I Finish a Library Book

It is not often that I read a book that I would recommend to just about anyone and everyone. Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives is one of those rarities. I have already recommended it to my mother whose discerning tastes usually prohibit my recommending much by the way of literature to her. I have shared quotes from this book, even before I finished it, with message boards. I am thrilled to have read it and be able to share it. But there is also a sadness that came with the reading. I found myself frustrated when she would talk about how, when she was struggling with her writing she would turn to her friend, a fellow writer. The book, in fact, concludes with a list of reasons why having an empathic listener (aka reader) is so essential to the healing process that comes with writing.

In the end, I felt that just writing isn’t enough. You have to have someone there reading along with you, sharing an opinion about your writing, encouraging you to explore areas you might otherwise avoid and challenge you to expose things you are too vulnerable to pour out. In other words, the book said I am doing the right thing and that I am right when I say I need more than what I have.

It does not tell me how to get what I need, however.

That is my personal reaction to what I read. Here are some quotations from the book itself.
Research has demonstrated that depressed and suicidal people are much less likely to report memories or happenings in an extremely specific way. Instead, recollections tend to be overly general and vague. It’s possible that this is a strategy for avoiding pain or that the contents of memory are being censored. Still, when narratives are reported in an overgeneralized [sic] way, any situation seems more catastrophic than it really is. (57)
One of the other points she brings up is that it is not enough to complain about things. The person who whines or rants about a disease will not experience healing the same way that someone who writes about the disease will. I can bitch and moan about my vertigo but writing about how it feels to have vertigo, the ways in which I have learned to deal with the condition, and the challenges I face not only trying to maintain my balance constantly but also not having a label with which to define my condition are all important truths, parts of the story that will allow me to make peace with myself and my body.
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 that 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. (93)
Most exciting for me, as I was reading along, were the clarifications that journaling is not the only ways to write through to healing. Poetry is another means of digging into circumstances to come through them with some clarity. Journaling that evolves into memoir is another way. Even fictional narratives, whether short stories or novels, can be healing. In fact, she argues that the longer works can be even more effective.
I believe . . . that writing an autobiographical narrative that’s . . . thirty type-written pages and that takes three months or so from preparation to completion enables us to participate in a healing process that is deeper than if we write only journal, short work, or poetry or only works about others, never about ourselves. (134)
I don’t argue. In fact, I emphatically agree and firmly believe that my writing has kept me from completely falling apart more than once and that my attempts at writing novels or novellas absolutely helped me face things about myself and my life that I could find no other way to face.

There are other quotes which I have saved. I would be surprised if I did not refer to them in the future. But I want to conclude this with a list I culled from DeSalvo’s text.

How and Why Empathic Listeners Can Help (211-212)
First, they can act as a caring presence to enable us to really hear what we’ve written.
Second, they can reflect back to us what we have written.
Third, our empathic listeners can tell us what they like in our work or what works for them.
Fourth, our listeners can tell us when there are what I call “holes in the narrative”—those places where we’re so close to the story that we don’t realize that our listener cannot possible understand something.
Fifth, when we share our work, our listeners can tell us where they would like to hear more.
Sixth, our listeners can tell us what they observe about how we have survived—our victories, our defeats, and our struggles.
Seventh, listeners can help us see the patterns in our narrative and in our lives.


  1. Thank you for giving us the name of this book. I have called my library and they will get it for me. I have been reading my journaling and it seems superficial. Need to dig deeper and put it in where it belongs.
    Again thank you, Babe

  2. Thank you so much for leaving a comment. I'll be writing more about writing and healing in my wellbeing blog. If you look at my profile, you will see a link to this other blog.

  3. we're going to see if we can get this book from our library too.

    Sounds like a good one. Thanks for sharing.


  4. It is a very good book. A wonderful resource with suggestions on how to dig into the past without having to relive it completely. There is very sound advice on what to watch out for and how to recognize when what you are writing is hurting more than healing.