Writing As A Way of Healing

Most of the cancer survivor memoirs I read recommend keeping a journal.

D. H. Lawrence, world famed author (1906)

D. H. Lawrence, world famed author (1906) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cancer journey is intense. Part of its challenge is keeping your morale up during what is probably the most difficult time in your life.

Louise DeSalvo has written a book about how to write your memoir as an exercise in healing past hurts.

Her Hunter College students, where she is an English professor, write about rape, abuse, the death of a family member.

The premise of her book, Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, explores how to re-write history.

By reframing traumatic events with what you know now as a survivor, you take away their psychic power over your life.

The cancer journey couldn’t fit more perfectly.

Healing the Heart

She leads off with the perfect description of how writing helps heal the heart, “The act of writing about something painful can help right a wrong that has been done to you.”

DeSalvo learned something when she wrote while at her dying mother’s bedside.

She learned that it is not enough to write about what is happening.

For it to be a healing exercise, you have to write about how you feel about what is happening.

She had conflicting emotions about the imminent loss of her mother, tied up with the belief that she’d never really had her mother’s presence in her life because of her mother’s long-standing depression.

Her insight came from reading about D.H. Lawrence’s experience of writing about the feelings of his complicated, painful childhood while his mother lay dying.

One line by Lawrence, in particular, caught her attention.

“One sheds one’s sickness in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.”

But, her final transformation on the use of writing to heal, not just to record, came when she read psychologist James W. Pennebaker’s Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others.

It provided an overview of ten years of research that shows the brain actually changes and your health improves when you open up about troubling events in your life.

As with Lawrence’s insight, Pennebaker’s psychology experiments demonstrated that the real value of writing comes when you write about your emotions surrounding traumatic events in your life.

That is, not just what happened, but how you feel about what happened.

Pennebaker’s experimental subjects, who wrote for just 15 minutes a day, for four days, had fewer visits to the student health center six months after the experiment than those who had only written about feelings or only written about the events of a traumatic event in their lives.

What Can Hiroshima Teach Us?

DeSalvo’s research led her to look into the writings of a doctor working with survivors of Hiroshima, Dr. Fumo Shigeto.

A survivor himself, he was a doctor at the Atomic Bomb Hospital in Hiroshima, Japan.

In attending survivors, he strove for an attitude of “neither too much hope nor too much despair.”

The parallels with a cancer diagnosis are clear.

DeSalvo’s deep reading about how to use writing to heal rests on this analysis – a healing narrative reveals the insights we’ve achieved from the painful experience.

What If We Don’t Have Any Insights Yet?

DeSalvo took another interesting turn in her research.

Tim O’Brian, Vietnam veteran and author of “The Things They Carried,” views the act of writing as a choice.

He saw writing about a traumatic event, such as fighting in a war, as choosing hope over despair.

Further, that writing about difficult events in our lives makes us more hopeful.

Because, when we write, we are observers. We write as though someone else were facing the challenge.

We write to make sense of it all.

What Is the Process?

DeSalvo, as with many other writers, recommends that writers set up a routine for writing.

  • Pick a time of day, first thing in the morning, mid-day, evening.
  • Pick a place, home living room, office, diner.
  • Pick a stance – standing or sitting, lounging or erect.
  • Pick your tools – computer or paper and pencil or pen.

Tell others about the time you have blocked off for writing.

Do it regularly. Allow your life to get into the routine of writing, so it comes naturally when you start.

But, DeSalvo, with her emphasis on writing as a tool for healing, introduces something other writers don’t mention.

She recommends that you keep a journal about the process and your feelings about the process, in addition to writing about the events you are setting down.

It is this addition that incorporates both her research pointing to including feelings with descriptions of events and her experience with students who have taken her classes to write about traumatic events.

Her recommendation to write about writing may be the single most important tool for facing these events head on.

Feelings about traumatic events must start with answering the unanswerable, “Why me?”

But, DeSalvo tells us,

“It is not what you write that is important.

“It is what happens to you when you write that is important.

“It is who you become when you are writing that is important.”

Click here to order the book we’ve been discussing in this post, “Writing As A Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.”

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Have you ever written a diary or journal?

Have you considered writing of the events to heal from a trauma?

Did you know that many writers used this device to help themselves heal?

To you and teaching the healing power of words to your grandchildren.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Click here to order our affectionate, candid book of advice from mothers and grandmothers, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”