“The difference between a victim and a survivor is the meaning made of the trauma,” writes Louise DeSalvo in Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.
Earlier this year I made a commitment to deepen my understanding of writing to heal. I am not a therapist–far from it–and my writing classes are not group therapy. Still, the process can feel therapeutic. There’s something good here, and I wanted to hold it up for examination. For my guide, I chose Louise DeSalvo’s excellent book.
In Writing as a Way of Healing DeSalvo lays out the why and how, followed by discussion of challenges such as how not to retraumatize yourself or trigger vicarious trauma in your readers.
DeSalvo writes engagingly, folding anecdotes, research studies and experiences together to support her key points. She ends each chapter with specific instructions. If you are using your writing to explore painful memories with an intent to heal, I recommend you spend time with DeSalvo’s book.
DeSalvo’s book doesn’t explicitly address the genre of memoir (or autobiography or life story writing–whatever you want to call this) but her teachings are perfectly relevant to those of us who are writing our stories for family, friends, or the wider world.
A section I found useful discusses the qualities of a healing narrative, drawing on the research of somebody whose experiments DeSalvo describes, but whose name I did not write down. (Sorry!) According to this research, for a narrative to be healing it must:
- Contain concrete, authentic, explicit details.
- Link feelings to events.
- Balance negative and positive words to describe feelings.
- Reveal insights achieved through painful experience.
- Tell a complete, complex, coherent story.
Here are two more quotes that sent me scurrying to write them down before I returned my copy to the library–
“Creativity is a basic human response to trauma and a natural emergency defense system.”
“Important cultural work is being done by people writing the literature of personal disaster—the work of helping to assuage suffering.”
I finished the book inspired to bring my new insights to bear on the memories I find difficult to put down on paper. My examination of writing to heal has deepened my belief that yes indeed, there is something good here.