Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Livesby Louise Desalvo
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Acclaimed author Louise DeSalvo draws on her own experience and the lives of others to examine the healing power of the writing process. In this landmark work, DeSalvo uses her twenty years as a teacher of writing to explore how the creative process can in fact be a restorative tool. She looks at the cutting-edge scientific research on the subject and presents dozens of anecdotes of famous writers and beginners in the field to illuminate her theory that writing can repair pain--and keep our demons at bay.
In Writing as a Way of Healing, DeSalvo also develops a detailed program of exercises that shows writers and nonwriters alike how to "open up" to themselves through writing, write regularly in a relaxed way, and achieve a state of personal acceptance through writing. DeSalvo's techniques will provide a solid foundation for writers to benefit both physically and emotionally from telling their stories.
DeSalvo writes with remarkable insight of a wide range of writers who have found that their work helped them to heal, including Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Kenzaburo Oe, Djuna Barnes, Peter Handke, Jamaica Kincaid, and Mark Doty. In these pages, we become familiar with writers' stories of healing: Isabel Allende deals with the anguish of sitting near her comatose daughter's bedside by beginning to compose a letter to her that eventually becomes the memoir Paula. Henry Miller, despondent when his wife, June, left him for another woman and contemplating suicide, instead works through the night on a story that details his life with June. This brief outline, written during a time of Miller's sharpest despair, serves as the inspiration for his greatest novels.
DeSalvo illustrates how writers can find solace in their work if they ensure that they have a safe environment and a deliberate plan to approach the writing process. She also discusses what went wrong for writers "at risk" like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and she warns of the danger of using writing as a call for help instead of seeking help. According to DeSalvo, the way to responsibly write, to heal, is to make an effort to understand our experiences as we write about them. The healing power comes from the reflection on the pain we are living through.
In this inspiring book, highly acclaimed author and teacher Louise DeSalvo reveals the healing power of writing. Based on her twenty years of research, DeSalvo show how anyone can use writing as a way to heal the emotional and physical wounds that are an inevitable part of life. She draws on the journals, diaries, letters, and works of dozens of famous writers and students of the craft to illustrate how people "change physically and psychologically when they work on projects that grow from a deep, authentic place." With insight and wit, she illuminates how writers, from Virginia Woolf to Henry Miller to Audre Lorde to Isabel Allende, have been transformed by the wiring process. Writing as a Way of Healing includes valuable advice and practical techniques to guide and inspire both experienced and beginning writers.
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Read an Excerpt
I believe that writing is an account of the powers of extrication.
John Cheever, Journals
What is healing, but a shift in perspective?
Mark Doty, Heaven's Coast
I am the only one who can tell the story of my life and say what it means.
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
Writing has helped me heat Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.
How often have I uttered these words, and meant them, or written them into my journal since I started writing? A hundred times? A thousand?
And how often have others -- acquaintances, friends, students, published writers -- told me that writing has helped them heal from loss, grief, or personal tragedy, that writing gave them unimaginably plentiful spiritual and emotional advantages? That writing has changed them, has helped them come to terms with something difficult, that writing has saved their lives? Often.
How often have I been reading a writer's published journal or lettersand stumbled upon an admission that, for this author, without writing,life just wouldn't be worth living, that writing has given purpose andmeaning to life? Times too numerous to remember. While I'vebeenreading the words of Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf,Elizabeth Bishop, Anais Nin, Alice James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Djuna Barnes, Toni Morrison, IsabelAllende, Alice James, Dorothy Alison, Kenzaburo Oe, countless con-temporary memoirists --t he list goes on.
Thesewriters describe how they have consciously used the writing of their artistic works to help them heal from the thorny experiences of their lives, especially from dislocation, violence, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, rape, political persecution, incest, loss, illness.
The writer H. D., in Hermetic Definition, phrased it most succinctly: "Write, write, or die." And Henry Miller, the working-class writer who began his first novel after taking numerous odd jobs (selling newspapers, selling candy, working at Western Union), once admitted in a letter published in Art and Outrage, how much writing had changed him. "The more I wrote," he said, "the more I became a human being. The writing may have seemed monstrous(to some), for it was a violation, but I became a more human individual because of it. I was getting the poison out of my system." My student Melanie, a former emergency room nurse, told me that for her, now, writing was "a necessary life-support system." And my student Homer, who came to the United States from a country in the throes of upheaval, where he was persecuted, said, "Through my work, I rejoin the world."
In Legacy of the Heart, Wayne Muller observes that "our own wounds can be vehicles for exploring our essential nature, revealing the deepest textures of our heart and soul, if only we will sit with them, open ourselves to the pain, . . . without holding back, without blame." For many years now, I have been using writing in this way, and I have taught scores of students to use writing in this way, too. Inevitably, healing shifts in perspective occur.
Virginia Woolf said that the moments of profound insight that come from writing about our soulful, thoughtful examination of our psychic wounds should be called "shocks." For they force us into an awareness about ourselves and our relationship to others and our place in the world that we wouldn't otherwise have had. They realign the essential nature of our being.
In my case, these healing shifts in perspective often came from writing about my childhood -- a wrenching separation from my loving and caring father, who spent the war years in the Pacific, and then his return from the war, a very changed, volatile, highly strung, and angry man; my life as the daughter of a depressed mother who was often unable to care for me; a jolting move from an Italian working-class neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, which I loved, to a suburb, in which I felt like an outsider; the abuse of a caregiver. The shifts in perspective came, too, from writing about profound losses in adulthood -- my mother's and my sister's deaths.
But healing flashes of insight often came, too, when, during a day's writing, trying to link current feeling with past event, I stumbled into a "moment of being" that I had forgotten. Often it was one that signified much. One -- the comfort and joy of my mother reading to me in her rocking chair at the end of the day during the war, when she would take my index finger and guide it under the words she read. This was the source, I'm certain, of my deep and abiding love of reading, of why, to me, it's as essential to my well-being as food and water. A second -- my father building me my first desk so that I could give my homework proper attention and then selecting and buying, for the drawer pull, a handle of brass beyond what he'd budgeted. Is it any wonder I'd rather be at my desk than anywhere else in the world? A third -- the taste of homemade peach ice cream fresh from a hand-cranked freezer on a holiday at Lake George at the end of the day when my father urged me to swim as far as I could across the lake as he rowed beside me to make sure I was safe. The source, 1 know, of my love of carefully prepared food; the source, too, of my ability to take on challenges.
These are some of my "shocks," my shifts in perspective that have come from writing. I've had many wounds to heal, and I've done much writing to heal them and in the process I've discovered a rich, deeply textured life I hadn't before recognized.
The Necessity of Writing
Many People I know who want to write but don't (my husband, Ernie, for example)or who want to write more than they have but say they can't find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even.
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Meet the Author
Louise DeSalvo, Ph.D., is the author of the literary study Conceived with Malice: Literature as Revenge, Vertigo: A Memoir, and the widely praised Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. A frequent lecturer and guest on radio (including NPR) and television, DeSalvo is a professor of English and creative writing at Hunter College in New York and has been profiled in the New York Times for her innovative teaching techniques.
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