Writing to Heal

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My writing career began at the age of ten as I was sitting in my walk-in closet writing in my journal. My mother had given me my first journal to help me cope with the loss of my grandmother, who had committed suicide the day before. My parents had been at work, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was looking after me. I had knocked on her bedroom door to ask if I could go swimming in a friend’s pool. She didn’t answer. With a child’s intuition, I sensed that something was wrong, so I scurried down the hall to phone my parents at work.

Many years later, I learned two things about my beloved grandmother, the woman who raised me: she ended her troubled life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, and like me, she found solace in journal writing. In many ways, my grandmother has been the muse behind my own writing career.

Now, more than 45 years later, I remember my first journal as clearly as the last time I locked it up in my desk drawer. It was a maroon hardcover book with a protective plastic sheath. The pages were cream-colored and had no lines. On the top of every other page was a quote by the prophet Khalil Gibran, and each day his words inspired my own, which I wrote down with a green fountain pen. I deliberately chose green; it must have been a comforting color for me.

When she was alive, my grandmother had experienced a great deal of emotional pain, but she also knew that writing was her key to survival, as it has been mine. While growing up in Galicia, Poland, in the midst of World War I, she lost both her parents to cholera, and then had to fend for herself and her eight-year-old sister. She eventually emigrated to the United States and made a life for herself.

Many years after she passed away and when my parents were preparing to move, they found her journal in her closet and gave it to me. I devoured each and every word. The void she’d left in my life became stronger as the years progressed and I had my own health issues to deal with, such as being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. My illness inspired me to write down my grandmother’s life story, based upon the contents of her journal. Although at times the writing was painful, it did bring me close to her once again and help me more clearly understand the magnitude of her many hardships. The book was called Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, and was published in 2007.

My second memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, was also born during a difficult time in my life. This book began on the pages of my journal. It started with my own cancer story, but in the end, evolved into a self-help book for other women to chronicle their cancer journeys. Each chapter shared a phase of my experience, and at the end of each chapter there were journaling prompts for others to write their own stories. Not all journals turn into published books, but since I’m a writer, it seemed like a natural path for me.

Journals are a productive way to vent both small and large issues, such as problems with your boss or the death of a parent. It takes a great deal of energy to be angry at someone; it’s much healthier to drop the resentment, as one would a suitcase full of trash. Holding grudges is unhealthy and a heavy burden to bear. Once you’re able to forgive, it’s easier to gravitate to all the good things in your life.

Journaling is a cathartic way to spill your feelings on the page rather than on a particular individual. My attitude is: “Direct the rage to the page.” I have a writing colleague who says, “If it hurts, write harder,” and for years those words were posted above my computer until they simply became a part of me.

In the journaling classes I teach, I remind my students that they’re not being graded on their journal entries, and they should write whatever comes to their minds. I emphasize that there’s no right and wrong way to journal and that they’re writing for themselves and no one else.

James Pennebaker, the author of Writing to Heal, says, “Writing dissolves some of the barriers between you and others. If you write, it’s easier to communicate with others.” He does have one caveat that he calls “the flip-out rule,” which states that if you get too upset when writing, then simply stop. Pennebaker believes that there’s a certain type of writing that erupts when we’re faced with loss, death, abuse, depression, and trauma.

Whether affected by change, loss, or pain, finding the time to write is critical to the healing process. Some people prefer to journal about their experiences, while others may choose fiction or poetic modalities to help them escape their realities. Everyone must identify the genre most compatible with who they really are—the one they find the most liberating and empowering. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Some journaling tips:

  • Find a quiet, uninterrupted time and place to write.
  • Choose a notebook and writing utensil that inspires you.
  • Use a centering ritual (light a candle, play music, meditate, stretch).
  • Take a deep breath before beginning.
  • Set aside your inner critic.
  • Date your entries.
  • Start by writing down your feelings and sensations.
  • Write nonstop for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Save what you’ve written.
  • Schedule your writing time.

Photo by Erin Kohlenberg