Excavating a Life

IMG_3500.jpg

About the creative life and writing memoir…

“I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

“What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were.”      – Louise DeSalvo

When I was staying in Port Townsend, I picked up a copy of Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing As a Way of Healing, at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore.

I’d heard DeSalvo speak at a free National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar, and she was fantastic. (The founder of NAMW is my wonderful writing coach, Linda Joy Myers, who does an outstanding job connecting the best memoir writers and teachers with those of us trying to make our way through the wilderness of writing our own memoirs.)

I would say if you are writing a memoir, a novel, or any long-form work of nonfiction, or if you want to write about your life as a form of self-expression, this book is a must-read, a valuable companion to have at your side at all times while you work. DeSalvo’s voice is warm, wise, encouraging, and firm. She’ll help you develop a common sense writing practice that is less of a struggle and more intentional, self-caring, and restorative.

One of DeSalvo’s key points is that writing your story is healing and transformative, but only if you go about it the right way. As a medical librarian, I’m all for looking at what the scientific research has to say before making a claim about anything, and DeSalvo does just that.

We’ve all heard that writing can be healing, but simply venting emotions on the page may cause a writer to get stuck or even set the writer back. On the other hand, telling what happened in a dispassionate way – a mere listing of events – won’t do much, either.

Writers need to do both – honestly tell about events and honestly recount their emotions – and link them in a meaningful way. “A healing narrative links feelings with events.”

Research has shown that only when a person tells what happened with honesty, nuance, and detail that includes not just events, but feelings, and with the intention of unearthing and crafting a true, meaningful story – only then does writing about one’s life hold the possibility of transformation.

This is not easy. It requires honest self-evaluation and facing aspects of yourself you may have kept hidden. It requires putting yourself in the place of others so you can understand why they may have behaved in certain ways.

Vivid characterization, dialogue reconstructed to the best of your ability, movie-like scenes that highlight key events and emotional peaks and valleys, all woven into a narrative, is a lot of work, but it’s a way to re-experience life events that can bring catharsis, insight, and meaning.

DeSalvo points to research that suggests people who recall traumatic events in a vague, general way – without detail or nuance – have not yet begun the healing process. I was amazed when I read this, because my first drafts tend to be frustratingly superficial. As a child and adolescent, I’d numbed out to protect myself and, as an adult, to avoid grappling with painful events. Writing about them now often requires several drafts as I gradually mine through to the essentials of the experience. I thought this was a sign that I was a mediocre writer. DeSalvo helped me understand that this is a normal part of the healing and writing process.

Even though I haven’t finished writing my memoir, I’ve already reaped benefits. Writing about events that are emotionally difficult or that arouse shame indeed lose their repressive power over me once they are on the page.

Honoring people’s privacy is also a concern that can hold writers back, but DeSalvo encourages us to remember we are writing a draft, and that these issues can be carefully considered later, if we want to publish. At that time, we can make revisions to protect privacy.

She reminds us, too, that there is a lot to be said for public testimony (in a way that doesn’t harm others) about trauma and issues that society has pressured many of us to keep silent about. In the case of mental illness, for example, no one is healed and nothing can improve unless long-avoided issues are brought into the light of day and confronted.

For me, DeSalvo’s book is most valuable because she has given me a way to write a memoir without losing my mind. She breaks down the process into phases and walks me through each one: Preparing, Planning, Germinating, Working, Deepening, Shaping, Ordering, and Completing.

Not every phase is pleasurable, and if we have difficulty, we aren’t to blame ourselves, but persist. It’s just part of the process. We learn what we can realistically expect in each phase, which greatly reduces anxiety.

I’m still learning how to integrate writing into my everyday life so it becomes habitual, manageable, and enjoyable. I’m still learning how to care for myself as I write – for example, by writing in short, frequent doses so I’m not overwhelmed emotionally and by judiciously sharing my writing only with those who support my work and have some understanding of the rigors of the process.

I should add that, as I’ve excavated my life and the effects of my mother’s mental illness on our family over the years, I’ve had the help of an excellent therapist. DeSalvo encourages writers to connect with a good therapist if they’re having difficulties. Writing is not a substitute for therapy. She says: “I personally believe it is essential for people wanting to write about extreme situations to have skilled professional support while writing or to attend a reputable support group.”

There is so much more to this book. DeSalvo draws on the wisdom of psychologists, researchers, and well-known writers, integrating their knowledge into a compelling and enormously helpful guide.

Many, many passages in my copy of Writing As a Way of Healing are underlined. Here are a few:

“Sometimes the writer is unsure about precisely what happened because…she or he was in a state of shock or emotional numbness while it was happening. The most basic and important survival tactics often involve blunting the emotions, carefully watching, splitting the consciousness (watching the event as if it’s happening to someone else), even splitting the self (into two or more personae). Finding words, finding literary forms to convey these self-preserving defensive tactics, these superlinguistic layers of meaning, often seems impossible.”

“Virginia Woolf said 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 time, I learned how Zen artists and writers devote themselves to an orderly, contemplative way of life that prepares them for their work. But how doing their work, too, becomes a form of meditation. Work and life are deeply integrated.”

A quote by Henry Miller:“[Writing] lifts the sufferer out of his obsessions and frees him for the rhythm and movement of life by joining him to the great universal stream in which we all have our being.”

Note: After reading this post, my dear writing coach, Linda Joy, tried to leave a comment, but either WordPress or my comment settings didn’t allow her to. So I’m putting her words here, which I greatly appreciate:

What a wonderful essay about the essentials in writing memoir and narrating our truths. I have loved Louise DeSalvo’s book for years and was so happy when she joined us for two NAMW presentations last year! I also got the other books, Jane Eyre’s Sisters thanks to you Valorie, and love it. It offers a more accurate template for the heroine’s story, which is necessarily an internal journey, not just an external one. Thank you for illuminating these gems and what you find valuable in your lovely blog! – Linda Joy Myers

Thank you, Linda Joy.

Below are photos of Port Townsend, where I did some writing and read Louise DeSalvo’s book. Nature is a wonderful restorative when you’re writing memoir.

(By the way, the photo above shows Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which I also picked up at The Writer’s Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore. I’m still making my way through it. Jane Eyre has a role to play in my memoir.)

 

IMG_3333

My airbnb had a secret garden with a view of Puget Sound, which has many moods…

 

IMG_3330

7 a.m.

 

IMG_3450

Shades of pink as sunset approaches

 

IMG_3473

One morning I woke up and saw the Cascades.

 

IMG_3384

A blue and gray day

 

IMG_3493

I zoomed in with my iPhone so the photo is grainy, but this day was exceptionally crisp and clear.

 

IMG_3465

Port Townsend has many fascinating and unusual shops where you just want to linger. (Note the reflection of the bay in the window.)

 

IMG_3456

I bought this luscious Australian mohair in another color at Bazaar Girls Yarn Shop & Fibre Emporium on Quincy Street for my sister-in-law. They are a crafting community, crafting community. Don’t you love their tagline?

 

IMG_3376

The Port Townsend Farmer’s Market is lots of fun, and a good place to meet people because everyone there loves to talk about the wonders of living on the Olympic Peninsula. The musicians below are Ranger & the Re-Arrangers, a Gypsy jazz band from Seattle.

 

 

 

John Steinbeck and Slow Writing

Clock, family photo

June 17, 1938

“Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead….Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with for four months. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. Ma very important. Uncle John important. Pa very. In fact all of them are important. Got to take it slowly. I don’t care how long it is. We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature. Must.”  Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938 – 1941, John Steinbeck

The Art of Slow Writing book coverI’ve just finished reading Louise DeSalvo’s wonderful The Art of Slow Writing.  I like slow cooking, slow cities, slow flowers, and slow living, so of course I had to see what slow writing is all about.

In her book, Louise looks closely at every stage of the writing process and what it takes to achieve our best work.

Slow down, she recommends. Good writing cannot be rushed.

Slow writing is not a new trend: the best writers have always been slow writers.

Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan – DeSalvo synthesizes the wisdom of these and many other writers who have spoken frankly about what it takes to go deep into our creative process to achieve stellar writing.

Louise shows us her writing process, too (she has published several memoirs and other books), and shares anecdotes about getting stuck and how she eventually found a path forward.

Working Days book coverFor those of us writing a memoir or other book-length work, De Salvo recommends studying Steinbeck’s two published writing journals: Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. She encourages us to keep our own writing journals, too, for long projects.

I’ve begun skimming Working Days. Notice in the opening quote above that John Steinbeck reminds himself to take it slowly, and give each character his or her due.

It’s surprising to see how lost Steinbeck sometimes felt and how he used his writing journal to keep himself going. Here are more excerpts:

September 7, 1938

“I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good….if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. I’ll be dead in a very short time too. [Steinbeck would live another 30 years.] So the hell with it….I must go on. I can’t stop…..How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.”

January 29, 1941

There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things. But I’ll get them all in if I just relax and get them in day by day and only worry about the 2000 words of each day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.

January 30, 1941

My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonely. 

The Grapes of Wrath book coverThe Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

It has stirred up a great deal of controversy, too. According to Robert Demott, editor of Working Days, The Grapes of Wrath has been “banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as immoral, degrading, and untruthful.”

A Free Roundtable with Louise DeSalvo

If you’re interested in finding out more about stages of the writing process and how to begin and successfully complete a book-length work, consider registering for the National Association of Memoir Writers free Roundtable (teleconference) with Louise DeSalvo on Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST. I’ll be in the audience.

%d bloggers like this: