WRITING MYSELF BACK TO LIFE By Nancy G. Shapiro Summer 2002, Spirituality & Health magazine
All my life I circled around the written word, mostly as a reader. I remember summer vacations filled with visits to the public library. My mother, sister, and I left each week with tottering piles of books that we read voraciously over the next seven days, and always we returned for more. I wrote some poetry in grade school and high school. Later I started scribbling on the backs of envelopes and on napkins. After my son’s birth in 1984, when odd thoughts and incomplete phrases came to me, I wrote them down and threw them in a file folder labeled “Personal.” I started reading all the how-to-write books I could find: Natalie Goldberg, Brenda Ueland, Dorothea Brande, Anne Lamott. On the twenty-second anniversary of my father’s death, I had a disturbing, vivid dream. I wrote a poem, my first in many years, to capture the images and emotions unleashed during the night. It, too, joined the other scraps of paper.
Then I moved to Mexico. New love was the instigator of change (yes, Barry’s my husband now). I’d sold my car, my furniture. Other necessities and treasures went into storage — a surprisingly meager pile, but the file came with me, in a cardboard box. And there in Mexico, writing found me. I’d left someone behind, too: my son, Ben. His dad and I agreed to switch roles; he’d be the “main” parent while Ben finished the school year. I’d be the “long-distance” parent. The plan was for Ben to come to Mexico for at least the next school year, to learn Spanish and to experience another culture. It all sounded fine, until the day I gave him a birthday party at the local skating rink. He was eleven. I was forty-two. Watching Ben skate with his friends, eat pizza and cake, and open his presents, I wanted time to stop, or better yet, to reverse. I suddenly wanted to undo everything I’d done in the last couple of months. But it was too late. While Barry drove me out of the driveway, I waved to Ben, too numb to cry. On the drive down, on Christmas night near the west coast Mexican town of Culiacan, Barry and I were kidnapped by four armed bandits. They drove us to a pitch-black clearing between cornfields and pillaged our truck until they noticed that their lookout had disappeared, and suddenly they fled. Gone was the cash from my moving sales, Barry’s professional camera equipment, our Christmas presents and CDs. Frightened beyond description but physically unharmed, we picked up our remaining possessions out of the gritty dirt, threw them back into the Bronco, and sped off into the night. I’d left my son, job, community, and life as I’d known it for more than seventeen years, and there I was, a gringa, in a new culture, robbed and scared. Welcome to Mexico!
The Gift of Time
But I also felt the gods were watching over us — laughing, too. I was no longer a single working mother. I had time, and the creative history of San Miguel flowing all around me. At last I began to write. The first words were an article about the robbery for the local English-language newspaper, words of warning. After it was published, strangers came up and thanked me for the reminder not to drive at night, to be careful about the drug-infested west coast of Mexico, to remain alert after common sense about travel had become soft and complacent. By writing about it, I discovered how I was experiencing the aftershock of the robbery. It showed itself as extreme nervousness when I walked by a group of Mexican men. That anxiety, a hot deep rumbling in the pit of my stomach, lasted for more than six months. But I was calmer after the article was finished; I slept better, without bad dreams. The sense of being violated, common after being robbed, diminished until it disappeared. That experience encouraged me to keep writing. I wrote poems about the difficulties and joys of a new relationship. I made a halting start at a personal essay about being a long-distance mother. I wrote more poems about myriad subjects, including my father, a topic I’d avoided for years. That first year I didn’t understand my sudden, almost constant urge to write. Now I know I was saving my own life. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” This truth rings bright and clear in my mind. Like O’Connor, I didn’t know what I thought until I literally read what I wrote. The poems that poured out of me those first two years in Mexico were emotional purges. Poetry’s form and rhythm enabled the words to appear, words I had swallowed, hidden, forgotten, never known I possessed.
Some words have survived that anguished beginning-writer stage to become good poems, ones that touch other people, ones I can read in public. I wrote many using the lines and phrases collected on the tidbits of paper in my “Personal” file. The urge to share what I was learning led to the creation of a writing workshop. I was constantly amazed at others’ breakthroughs as they, too, wrote down the lost words, the vulnerable strength they unleashed in their poems.
Breaking the Silence
One of the poems I wrote during that time was about my father’s suicide. He was thirty-nine. I was nineteen, my sister sixteen. Our family came from a legacy of silence. We buried my father and for more than twenty years there were no discussions about that day. He was gone. We went on with our lives. But I shared the poem with my sister and mother, and a crack opened in the wall of silence. We tentatively talked, asked a few scary questions. My mother wrote me a twelve-page letter that filled in some of the blanks. With each poem I wrote about my father, I discovered a new consequence of his sudden, violent disappearance from my life. My false bravado. My intense, often suppressed anger. My fear of inheriting his melancholy, and passing it on to Ben. I felt sadness and loss that seemed endless. I saw that my own wall of silence was a defense, a maladjusted comfort zone. I unearthed a faint beginning of understanding for my father. The insights poured into my consciousness as I recorded the images on paper, on the computer screen after midnight when I couldn’t sleep. …only now chipping away what was his in order that what is mine can breathe and tremble not with fear…
Then, after a year of thinking that the writing and therapy had healed this long-festering wound, rage overtook me one afternoon as I stood at my kitchen sink. Its intensity scared me. I went back into therapy. And I kept writing. I made a file on my iBook’s desktop called iWork. Into it I dragged poems, pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, single paragraphs containing thoughts I didn’t want to forget, emails to my sister, letters never sent, more poems. And finally I wrote the poem that withstood the white-water current of rage, that allowed me to ride out my father’s death and finally say, “It’s over.” I named it “The Remaining Ones.”
…in that cold dark place of children slung against the wall of the world…
I wrote of the isolation I’d fallen into after his death, which kept me apart from others and from myself. Identifying it, naming it, showing its underbelly, was one of those radiant moments of understanding that change the course of a life. Suddenly I knew that anything hinting at isolation was not healthy. My well-being depended on action, involvement, pursuing my dreams.
Nine Drafts to the Truth
Sometimes poetry didn’t work; the words wanted to take another form. As for writing about leaving my son in California, the six months that turned into almost six years, it took nine drafts of a personal essay and five drafts of a short story to get to the truth. The truth? Yes. That is what I believe is the magic of writing, what makes it a healing art — when we know ourselves with such intimacy and candor, we may flinch, but we do not run. It was in one of my darkest moments, deep in the ninth draft that I wrote: “Would I choose differently today? I honestly don’t know. The time in Mexico gave me the invaluable gift of coming into my own, something I don’t feel I could have done in my cozy little hometown. I am learning to not punish myself for missing Ben. When my heart aches with his absence, I know it’s normal to miss a child. Wanting to hold him doesn’t make me a bad mother, though that is how I see myself half the time… I have learned to trust what he tells me, that it’s okay not being there doing what he cynically calls ‘mom’ things, it’s okay to trust his smile and his openness, his own truths.
Because of the passage of time, divorce, or unforeseen tugs of fate, we find ourselves releasing to the world that singular bliss (and sometime battlefield) called raising a child. Despite the mammoth urge to hold on. Despite the pain. We let go for the child’s sake. I just never knew it would happen so soon.”
After the words had been put down — my humanness in all its paradoxical rawness — a knowing settled into my cells; both Ben and I were better people for that seemingly rash and crazy decision long ago. I knew this from the writing, and from talking with Ben. Talking — that was another benefit of this journey of the written word. I could verbally express myself after years of mumbling, of incomplete sentences, of fearful silences. After identifying isolation as my biggest stumbling block, I saw it as a gift, too. I’d entered Mexico empty and in pieces, and writing became my sustenance, the glue of my wholeness. True, Mexico no longer fit into the equation. Being a long-distance mom didn’t fit, either. So I moved back to California in another huge transition, with the itch to continue writing, and gain understanding.
The Courage to Be Free
Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, who suffered a life of poverty, abuse, and crime, writes in his latest book, A Place to Stand, of his wondrous transformation through writing: “Everything [in the prison] had weight and substance, intended to silence, imprison, destroy. Yet somehow I had transmuted the barbwire thorns’ hostile glint into a linguistic light that illuminated a new me. In a very real way, words had broken through the walls and set me free.” I believe that we all have some version of prison that keeps us from realizing our full humanity. Fear is often the foundation of those walls, courage the wrecking ball that brings them down. The word courage comes from the French coeur, and I’ve heard it defined as not the absence of fear, but rather fear plus action. Committing words to paper takes courage, whether in a private journal, some shared poems, a published novel, or a memoir tucked into a drawer. Through writing, we break down the walls, move into unknown territory, and meet ourselves face to face. We recover lost faith in ourselves, a voice that we’ve long forgotten. We view the world through new eyes, connected to a healthier body, a clearer, more objective mind, a larger sense of compassion. The sense of freedom is immense. And beyond all that, we can share this truth with those we love, just as I shared this article with Ben. He said, “Mom, what does coeur mean?” And I said, “Oops. It means heart. I’ll have to add that in.”
The following two sections were sidebars in the original article:
Paying Attention to Your Life
Writing, especially through hard times, is notoriously difficult work, but what many don’t understand is that not writing can add up to even harder work. Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and other physiological measures all increase when we act as though everything were fine. Over time, such stress leaves us more susceptible to illness. Meanwhile, those repressed thoughts and feelings surface anyway, through dreams, sleep disturbances, and other signs of anxiety. In cases of traumatic emotional events, inhibition can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and even multiple-personality disorder.
Fascinated by the effects of the “holding-back/letting-go continuum” on people’s physical health, James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Southern Methodist University conducted controlled clinical studies. Over the years, they’ve discovered that expressing emotions through writing turns out to be especially healing, as the action of putting words on paper forces us to organize and structure our thoughts. Without that organization, our minds can resemble clothes dryers with a dozen pairs of tennis shoes banging around inside.
Writing can bring focus and a healthy change of perspective to confusing thoughts and experiences. Writing, unlike talking, is also generally done alone and in a private space, which can lessen inhibition. While writing doesn’t provide the benefit of immediate feedback from friends, writing can be shared — later, with the luxury of choosing when and with whom.
Yet not all writing is necessarily healing. Recording just the event, or just the emotions, does not seem to benefit health. For the act of writing to make us healthier, we must write about the event and all the feelings associated with that event. For example, describe that school picnic in third grade, and include the feelings of (shame, joy, anger) that colored the day. Include how you feel about the situation now, however many years later. (Note: We can inhibit “good” feelings as strongly as those we consider “bad.”)
This type of writing can make us smarter, too. Says Pennebaker, it supports “high-level thinking characterized by a broad perspective, self-reflection, and the awareness of emotion.” If we don’t delve into a dynamic combination of event plus emotion, we tend to stay in a superficial, or what Pennebaker calls a “low-level,” thinking mode. So next time you have the urge to scribble out a thought, go ahead. Think of it as giving your overworked brain a relaxing walk in the fresh air.
Rx for Healing and Higher Intelligence
It takes time to write, and patience, and a certain chutzpah to face a blank piece of paper. Sometimes it’s even painful. But like most worthwhile things, with a few tips, some encouragement, and that first time under your belt, it gets better. You may even begin to enjoy yourself. Here are some tips to guide and inspire.
• Give yourself some quiet time in which to write. Unplug the phone. Close the door. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Exhale. If you can’t find the quiet, write, as author Julia Cameron says, in the “cracks and crevices of your life.” Even then (especially then), remember to breathe.
• Write down the first ten words that come to mind, as quickly as possible. Do not second-guess yourself; don’t listen to your “critic.” Use the word(s) that strikes a chord in you as the starting point for your piece, or try using all ten words in one paragraph, or a poem.
• Think back on your day. Pick one event, person, or object from your day (stubbing your toe, the mailman, the orchid in the window) and start writing.
• Allow your beginning words and sentences to lead you like a trusted friend. If a new subject or emotion appears on the page, follow it. Let yourself be surprised.
• Let your writing spill out of you like spring rains over a dam. Get it all out. Let go of punctuation and spelling if need be. Then go back and edit.
• Keep your “critic” quiet. Do whatever is necessary to quiet the little beastie, and bring in your angels instead.
• Develop an acute awareness of your environment, inside and out. Pay attention to what goes on inside of you, as well as what is happening in the world around you. Override habit, apathy, and numbness. Recapture what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “a sense of radical amazement at life.”
• Nothing is too insignificant, or too large, to write about. Joy and sorrow are equally potent, though it is often in what I call the “shadow places” that we find our most fertile fields of expression. Dig as deep as you can, and don’t forget the wondrous moments.
• More than a million words exist in the English language. Choose yours carefully. Words are like seeds, containing entire worlds within themselves. Take the time (after that initial spilling out) to find just the right word to describe the color of your child’s hair, the sound of ice breaking at the first thaw.
• Take notes. And don’t, I repeat, do not, edit those first words that tumble onto the page. They contain a lasting energy that you’ll be able to use in your writing, even years from now.
• Use detail. Give things their proper names; identify that tree, name the woman on the corner. Use sensory detail: how things taste, or smell. Detail grounds our writing in the real world, and makes it more accessible.
• Share your writing, when you’re ready, with safe and supportive people. I am constantly amazed at the power of sharing our stories and poems, at the outpouring of compassion and understanding, at the tears of relief when we realize we are not alone in our experience.
Nancy G. Shapiro is a life-transition coach, writer, and workshop facilitator. Her article “Art of the Soul” appeared in the June 2005 issue of Spirituality & Health.