The past can never be changed. So how can a person be positively affected by confronting a painful history?
“Why not write about something fun instead of sad things?”
“Why dwell on old rubbish and why tear open old wounds?”
“What not let bygones be bygones?”
I have been asked these questions and I’ve asked them myself. Why have I been so obsessed with writing about the things that caused pain; that no one else wanted to think about?
In the beginning, I didn’t understand what it was about. I know now. Writing has made me more rooted in reality. To look the pain directly in the eye has given me power over it and made me stronger. To be able to link my past with my present has been essential in order for me to own my story. Only then could I look ahead and write my ending – choose how I want to continue living.
When I worked on my book In the Shadow of a Genius, it was facts and truth that interested me. The goal was to piece together a puzzle of correct information so that facts and evidence were able to speak, and then my story would appear. Only then would I add my own reflections and feelings. For me it was important to separate these. To know what was what.
And yes, it was in many ways a sad story that appeared, about grandpa, dad and myself, a history lined with psychological illness, suicide and other tragedies.
My own words also opened a passageway to so many memories that didn’t have anything to do with the main story. It was exciting to experience, but also scary. If I had known before that this would happen I would have surely equipped myself better. I felt as if I, through writing, had ripped an inflamed wound open and now I doubted that it would ever heal. Several times I regretted having opened that door, maybe affected by the myths about people who had been punished by God because of their creativity and curiosity. Prometheus and Pandora. Adam and Eve. Many of my female role models in literature had perished. Because of their creativity? Or because of something else?
Today, knowing all the facts, I don’t regret a single choice in my writing process. However, I do wish I had known what I know now – that it is normal to feel bad in the beginning when writing about difficult life experiences and charged memories. Professor of psychology James W. Pennebaker has researched and written much about this. We can feel bad in the beginning, it is important to be aware of that, but it does pass. Writing that examines topics that are important to us, that links together past and present, thoughts and feelings, will in the long run lead to improved health – psychologically and physically. This knowledge would surely have made me feel safer in my creation. And we need safety to heal.
Writing teacher Louise DeSalvo writes in her book Writing as a Way of Healing that anyone who is planning to write about trauma should make a plan for self-care beforehand, with strategies for taking care of reactions that can arise. When we have such a plan and feel safe, then the writing can be truly healing and strengthening. And then we can write about anything, she says.
This is one of many reasons that I am today a part of Write Your Self – to help people create this kind of safe and sustainable writing. So that more people can write.
Writing my book was a challenging process, but I still had a feeling it would help me through what was difficult in my life. And so it did. When my story had reached its climax – the tragedy about grandpa, my father’s suicide, and my own predisposition for depression, the writing then transformed into something very constructive. It became a means of processing, and the driving force to find the desire to live and continue. My creation and my reality enriched one another.
I wanted to give my story a hopeful ending. Hope for my reader and hope for myself. The same powerful force that I had first used to open the wounds, I later used to heal them.
Even though the story I depicted in In the Shadow of a Genius was built on truth and facts I couldn’t change, there was still much in my own story I had power over. My attitude towards what had happened slowly began to change. My attitude towards grandpa, dad and myself. Love and pride rose to the surface. I was no longer afraid of the future.
It took many years but one day it was there. The hopeful ending. That which I had struggled to find for so many years suddenly felt obvious and completely natural to write.
Anna is a writer, lecturer and workshop leader at Write Your Self. She believes in play as one of the most serious/important things we as humans can devote ourselves to, and that imagination is necessary to understand and repare our reality.
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