Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives


In this inspiring book, based on her twenty years of research, highly acclaimed author and teacher Louise DeSalvo reveals the healing power of writing. DeSalvo shows how anyone can use writing as a way to heal the emotional and physical wounds that are an inevitable part of life. Contrary to what most self-help books claim, just writing won't help you; in fact, there's abundant evidence that the wrong kind of writing can be damaging.

DeSalvo's program is based on the best ...

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In this inspiring book, based on her twenty years of research, highly acclaimed author and teacher Louise DeSalvo reveals the healing power of writing. DeSalvo shows how anyone can use writing as a way to heal the emotional and physical wounds that are an inevitable part of life. Contrary to what most self-help books claim, just writing won't help you; in fact, there's abundant evidence that the wrong kind of writing can be damaging.

DeSalvo's program is based on the best available and most recent scientific studies about the efficacy of using writing as a restorative tool. 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 writing process. Writing as a Way of Healing includes valuable advice and practical techniques to guide and inspire both experienced and beginning writers.

"Drawing on the notebooks and works of a dozen well-known and respected writers, DeSalvo explains how writing can help a person to heal and offers a variety of techniques to guide and inspire."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
An exquisite gift of grace. It will help you write yourself out of the wilderness of pain and denial into Wholeness. —Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance
Library Journal
A professor of creative writing at Hunter College and a frequent guest on National Public Radio, DeSalvo (Vertigo: A Memoir, LJ 7/96) brings 20 years of writing experience to this work. She recommends writing in spare moments, uncensored, and asks her students to write five pages per week. She advises writing every detail as a reporter to move beyond a trauma. Writing links feelings of pain, grief, and loss to an event and speeds healing. DeSalvo presents seven stages of writing, from preparation/germination to completion/going public. She suggests writing a process journal so the work flows smoothly and warns against self-sabotage in the form of missed deadlines and last-minute scrambling. When the writing is completed, sharing stories in a group with other empathetic writers will sharpen the narrative. DeSalvos work is similar to Julia Camerons The Right To Write (LJ 1/99), though more academic. Camerons work is recommended for public libraries, while DeSalvos is better for higher-level writing classes.Lisa S. Wise, Broome Cty. P.L., Binghamton, NY
Kirkus Reviews
How writing can be used to recover from trauma and as a tool for personal growth: encouragement and suggestions from a professor of literature and creative writing. DeSalvo (Hunter Coll.) is working here from her own experience: a tumultuous childhood, the loss of her mother and sister in adulthood, and severe health problems left her in turmoil that began to calm when she wrote about her experiences (Vertigo: A Memoir, 1996). Years of seeing her students find similar succor has further convinced her of the special value writing holds as a therapeutic tool. It's cheap, doesn't take much time, is self-initiated and flexible, can be private (or public), is easily portable, can be done in sickness or in health; "writing to heal requires no innate talent, though we become more skilled as we write, especially when we pay careful attention to the process." DeSalvo is careful to caution throughout, howeever, that writing mustn't become a substitute for medical care. DeSalvo refers extensively to James W. Pennebaker's Opening Up; he and colleagues studied in depth the relationship between writing about difficult feelings and improving health, and then specifically what kind of writing led to healing after traumatic experiences. DeSalvo especially cites Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, and Alice Walker as practitioners of therapeutic writing. She argues strongly that writing "is a very sturdy ladder out of the Pit to reach freedom and safety." Her guide is a reasonable starting point for those who hope she's right.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807072431
  • Publisher: Beacon Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1ST BEACON
  • Pages: 226
  • Sales rank: 149,586
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Louise DeSalvo is the author of several books, including Adultery, Virginia Woolf, and Vertigo. She is professor of English at Hunter College and divides her time between Teaneck, New Jersey, and Sag Harbor, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Why Write?

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.

Dorothy Allison,

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."

Wounds, Shocks

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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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2006

    Can't say enough positive things

    I found this book at the local library. Anyone that has been through anykind of trauma in their lives and have tried other forms of therapy? or if they haven't tried any therapy yet? Then try this book on for size. It combines psychology and writing and journaling. Dr. Desalvo discusses the in and outs along with the correct and incorrect way to go about using art (specifically writing) as a form of therapy.

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