Writing has been my escape, savior, and contemplative practice. My childhood set the stage for my life as a writer. It all happened the day my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home when I was ten years old. It wasn’t brutal; it was an overdose of sleeping pills, but the unusual part was that my parents were at work, and I was the one who found my grandmother.
It was ten o’clock in the morning on Labor Day weekend, and my friend had called to see if I wanted to swim in her pool. I cracked open my grandmother’s bedroom door, and she lay completely still in her bed with an open book on her chest, a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair. On her headboard on its side was an empty bottle of sleeping pills. The sheer curtains on her window swayed in the fall breeze as if waving good-bye. I called her name, but she didn’t answer. With a child’s intuition, I sensed that something was wrong. I ran out to call my parents on the pink dial phone up the hall. The year was 1964.
Within moments, my mother and father, an ambulance, and the police pulled into the driveway. Commotion took over our ordinarily quiet suburban neighborhood. My grandmother was taken away on a stretcher, never to be seen again. I didn’t understand the permanence of death, and my parents wanted to protect me from the experience, so they did not allow me to attend the funeral. Instead, my mother handed me my first journal—one with Kahlil Gibran quotations across the top of each page. My journal became my best friend, confidant, and escape from the reality of losing my grandmother. I poured my deepest sentiments onto its pages.
Many children take events such as these in stride, and only looking back from the adult perspective do we realize the gravity of our earlier lived experience. This all happened in the 1960s, long before therapy was commonplace. For hours on end back then, I sat on the floor of my walk-in closet and wrote about how I missed my grandmother, reflecting upon all our special times together. Writing also helped me come to some level of peace about losing her. That was the beginning of my understanding that the practice of writing really does heal.
Healing Through Words
When confronted with trauma, life transitions, or epiphanies, many writers turn to writing to help them because it empowers and facilitates the healing process. D. H. Lawrence sat at his mother’s bedside while she was dying and wrote poems about her. He also began writing an early draft of his novel Sons and Lovers, in which he explored the complicated, loving, painful, and close relationship between him and his mother. Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past while sick in bed with asthma. I wrote my first book, Getting Pregnant and Staying Pregnant: A Guide to High-Risk Pregnancies, in 1983 while on bed rest with my daughter.
May Sarton and Anaïs Nin also used journaling to pull them through difficult times. In her book Recovering, Sarton chronicles her battles with depression and cancer. Nin used her journals to help her escape, and thus cope with her deranged father, who left the family when she was young. Nin’s journal entries became a springboard for her life as a writer, and also a six-volume collection of her journals.
Writing can be used as a contemplative practice or as a way to feel better. This is a common reason that people crack open their journals. These days, therapists suggest journaling in conjunction with talk therapy. Since my grandmother’s death, I have pulled out my journal during other difficult times, such as while navigating a turbulent adolescence and then three pregnancies laden with bed rest. While acknowledging its transformative results, I once again turned to journaling during my two bouts with cancer.
Indeed, the challenges surrounding illness can become a catalyst for writing. During graduate school, one of my writing mentors told me something to remember when navigating difficult times: “When it hurts, write harder.” This made complete sense to me. Writing provides people with an opportunity to vent.
Writing about what’s on your mind helps you make sense of your situation and results in a feeling of release and an increased sense of awareness. Writing can also offer us a window into our ancestors and their legacies. A prime example is when I found my grandmother’s journal many years after her passing. Sometimes journals might even turn into books, as was the case with my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal.
Write from Your Heart
Writing from the heart means that instead of just recording something that has happened like a journalist would report, you write about how that experience affected you and the person you’ve become. This type of writing leads to self-discovery and transformation.
The best way to start writing is to find a journal and a writing utensil that inspires you. Then, try doing stream-of-consciousness writing, or as Andre calls, automatic writing or writing continuously for 15 minutes without stopping. Write down whatever pops into your mind. You might also consider writing a letter to a deceased loved one, or you might want to write about a life-altering experience. Maybe you wish to write about what you do to escape from reality, or how you cope with your problems.
Something else to write about is what obsesses you. For example, what do you think about all the time? Or what you’re grateful for, or what you can do to bring greater joy into your life.
It’s okay to begin writing about one thing, and end up writing about something completely different. The beauty in journal writing is that it is not like an essay that needs a beginning, middle, and end. It can wander aimlessly through the forest of your life. The idea is to just let it rip and get the words onto the page. This, in and of itself, is a transformative and empowering experience and can be a great escape from all else that’s going on in your life!
Diana Raab, MFA, PhD, is a memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and award-winning author of nine books. Her work has been published and anthologized in over 1000 publications. She frequently speaks on writing for healing and transformation. Raab blogs for Psychology Today, Medium, and Thrive Global. She’s editor of two anthologies: Writers and Their Notebooks and Writers on the Edge; two memoirs: Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, and four poetry collections, including Lust. Her latest book is Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Program for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life, along with Writing for Bliss: A Companion Book. Visit her at: dianaraab.com.
Previously Published on Brevity