Read on for her thoughts on Writing the Heartache...
When we write through pain, the life we save is our own.
Once, I thought I was the only obsessive author frantically writing in order to survive. Then I picked up Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing and heard the voice of another Alice. Alice Walker: “It is, in the end, the saving of lives we writers are about…. We do it because we care…. We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”
Writing for sanity, for sanctity, for survival. DeSalvo showed me that this is not a new concept, for the Greats-- Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf along with Alice Walker--have all done it. Miller was about to take his own life after his wife ran off with a female lover. Woolf was molested by her step-brother. How did they heal from their heartaches? They wrote, furiously. Have you had a tragedy in your life that will not let you go? Writing through it can be redemptive and healing. DeSalvo states that in order to allow writing to be therapeutic we must honor our pain, loss and grief.
But chances are, you already know this. Your tragedy has caused you to look it straight in the face and you have picked up your pen and poured out your pain. You are standing today, perhaps even thriving because the ability to write has saved you. It has caused you to look at your heartache and be able to tolerate it.
But how do we successfully use this creativeness of pen and paper to work through the pain of a parent who has died, a spouse who has betrayed us or even a God we feel has let us down? Can we write to help others and in turn, reach those like us who can learn and grow from our experiences? Can we use our pain and as DeSalvo writes, “…establish our connection with others and with the world?” Is there a market out there, willing to buy what we have to say? Yes, but like so much of life, there are rules to follow.
First, don’t expect you can write a full-length book about your tragedy and have a publishing house immediately snatch it and buy it. There are so many books out there written by individuals, many of them famous before the tragedy, who have had deep pain. Unless you are the parents of Jon Benet or sister of John F. Kennedy, Jr., your book is going to be extremely hard to sell. However, if you work your writings into how-to articles and essays---pieces that will reach others and help them---then the chances of being published are far better.
For example, if you were an unwed pregnant teen, recall the things people said and did that helped you and the things which cut and hurt. Write an article with the slant of helping young mothers and submit it to a parenting or women’s magazine. If you were a victim of domestic abuse, inform readers of steps of action to take in order to get away from the situation. Do some brainstorming. How can you tailor your heartache into articles that sell?
Sarah, a writer friend of mine, has sold an article on Ten Helpful Ways In Overcoming Anxiety and Stress to five different publications. Her mother died of breast cancer when Sarah was only ten and there was a time Sarah felt burdened with guilt. This brought her an overwhelming amount of anxiety and worry throughout her adolescence until she took measures to face her situation in her writing. What had caused the guilt? It was the lie she had told herself over the years that her mother’s death was her fault. Because she learned how to successfully change her thinking, through her writing Sarah is now able to guide others with similar circumstances to lead calmer lives.
When you write, don’t bleed on the paper. Perhaps there is deep anger because of the mistreatment you received from someone close to you. What do you with that which keeps you awake at night? Buy a journal and pour it out within those pages. No one wants to hear self-pity or extensive anger. In fact the bereavement magazines I write for stress hope and healing. That’s because if the focus is solely on the agony of losing a loved one, no one would be able to write to show how to live with grief.
In order to be able to produce any comfort or advice to others in your same boat, you most likely need to vent first. Venting is a process of healing. Freely allowing the wound to be exposed can lead towards an understanding of emotions and with understanding comes the capacity to, in time, constructively share with an audience. From some of your journal themes you may be able to reconstruct the anger and design a helpful piece to submit to the markets on how to effectively deal with this emotion.
Show by using creative imagery instead of clichés. Be original as you convey your feelings. Find another way to show your father was as mean as a snake. As with other types of writing, write vividly. Show and don’t tell. What kind of childhood did author Frank McCourt have in Ireland? He could write detailed pages about how miserable he was during it but instead he lets us fill in our own emotions as we visualize his cold and poor life in Angela’s Ashes.
Find something unique that sets your story apart from others who have had a similar situation as yours. McCourt tells of his brother Eugene’s burial and how he was upset when his father and the coffin carriage driver placed pints of beer on top of the casket. At the graveside the drunk driver left McCourt’s family stranded. The fascinating reading here is the unique details McCourt selects to portray this sorrowful event. We are smiling and crying at the same time because of the manner in which McCourt shares his story.
From Cara De Silva’s In Memory’s Kitchen we get a unique perspective on life in the World War II concentration camps. The hungry Jewish women of the Terezin camp kept their sanity by writing down recipes from memory, hoping they would one day be able to return to their kitchens to make these dishes. The compiled recipes, salvaged over the years, appear in this book, showing us that even in devastation, the human spirit does survive.
Dig deep and find a different slant to use in sharing your sorrows.
Be real and don’t pretend. I don’t want to read about a mother whose child has just died and hear her say that everything is okay since she knows her child is safe in Heaven. My four- year-old died and although I believe he is in Heaven, I still must live here without him on earth and I daily yearn for his smile. I will be teaching society nothing if I stress that losing a loved one is a grief that eventually fades. Much of society already believes that myth. What I want to convey is reality from what I have experienced. My longing for my son Daniel will last a lifetime. How do I cope with it? How can society effectively help the bereaved? This is where I want to reach across the chasm and in a how-to article offer realistic ways the community, family and friends can soothe the bereaved wounded heart.
If you expect to gain a realistic perspective of your trauma and write towards healing, you must allow your narrative to be honest, filled with both negative and positive aspects. Even after Rick Bragg wins the Pulitzer, in All Over But The Shoutin’, he never lets us forget how his dismal roots with a drunken father who abandons the family is always a part of his soul’s core.
Heartache as a way of life is what so many of we writers are about. The urgency to write may increase the more you allow yourself to acknowledge your heartache and deal with its many facets. Freely cultivate this. As your writing evolves and matures, you will help others, bring healing to yourself and even get paid.
Resources for writing through the heartache
Writing As A Way of Healing. Louise DeSalvo. Beacon Press, 1999.
Writing For Story. Jon Franklin. The Penguin Group, 1986.
The Writing Life. Annie Dillard. Harper And Row Publishers, 1988.
Bird By Bird. Anne Lamott. Doubleday, 1994.
One Writer’s Beginnings. Eudora Welty. Warner Books, 1984.
Room To Write. Bonni Goldberg. Penguin Putnam, 1996.
Writing To Heal, Writing To Grow: Margie Davis’ web site: www.writingtoheal.com/
(a site especially for cancer patients, their family members and caregivers)
[Article first appeared in ByLine Magazine in 2001]
As you can see from the book covers, Alice writes on a variety of topics. If you would like to learn more about her writing, visit her website.