February 4, 2023: When Writing Changes Our Lives

There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published.  Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative.  It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

 –William Zinsser (The American Scholar, Spring 2006.)

Many years ago, I set out to write a memoir which turned into a novel, and which, ultimately, I discarded.  I looked back on the many months of that process, and always, publication was what I thought I was aiming for.  But it wasn’t.  I finally put that manuscript aside.  A fictionalized version of my life wasn’t going to silence the old pain that still occupied much of the pages of my notebooks. 

I’d forgotten about that old manuscript until Tuesday evening as I reflected on the presentation on writing and healing I gave to Ovarian Cancer Canada.  I recalled the summer of 2000 when I first stumbled on to the research on writing and healing by psychologist James Pennebaker and colleagues.  I remember the excitement I felt at the time, lightbulbs going off in my brain.  As someone who had always found writing not only creative, but therapeutic, I wanted to know more. Reading that first article came on the heels of just completing six weeks of radiation treatments for a very early stage of breast cancer.   Little did I realize that first article on Pennebaker’s research would change the trajectory of my life.

Writing has helped me heal.  Writing has changed my life.  Writing has saved my life.

– Louise DeSalvo

A few weeks earlier,   I had  signed up for a week-long creative writing workshop in Berkeley with the former Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists.  I arrived numb and disbelieving I’d spent the six weeks at Stanford Hospital for daily radiation treatments.  I had also resigned from an executive position shortly after my diagnosis, giving myself some time to recover.  But I wanted to write ‘creatively,’ not particularly for healing purposes (or so I assumed).    

“Tell me something I can’t forget,” a line from Tess Gallagher’s poem, “Each Bird Walking,” was the prompt Pat first gave to the group.   It was a wonderful trigger to memory, yet I wondered what might be more memorable in my life vs. another.    I couldn’t decide, but the clock was ticking, so I began with what was most accessible, the childhood memories of my father’s stories told and re-told at family gatherings.  I wrote voraciously each day, but it wasn’t until the final day of our workshop the door opened to what, internally, I was still reeling from:  cancer.  My experience had been like a dream, slightly unreal, and my emotions about it were flat.  The very label “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” made me uncomfortable.  I was also in the midst of a significant career change, coming to terms with my deep  unhappiness in the consulting and executive roles I’d had for several years, and even that didn’t come to the surface in the workshop until afterword.  Those experiences, coupled with the writing workshop, became the triggering events to help my writing to open up and deepen.  It wasn’t a cancer diagnosis I was struggling with so much as a turning point in my life. 

“Opening up and writing from suffering or painful life experience helps repair the damage done to your lives, your sense of who you are, or explore the disrupted future you might face out of serious illness, trauma or other hardships.”

Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness

“Time heals all wounds,” someone once said.  Well, not quite.  To learn from our painful life experiences requires something from us far greater than time.   The impact of those events lies deep, buried in the aftermath of pain or trauma. It’s why writing is sometimes called “a courageous act.”  It requires the courage to dig deeply and tell our truth.  Author Maxine Hong Kingston (Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace) had one rule for the war veterans who gathered to write about their experiences with her: “Tell the truth.” The veterans’ writing was raw, vivid, and deeply moving. Their stories of war conveyed not only the physical scars but the psychological ones too, and reading or listening to their stories was a powerful experience.   

After my brief cancer experience I began writing in earnest again, something I hadn’t done since my first husband died in a drowning accident.  It turns out I didn’t write much about cancer, because the memories of old traumatic and painful life events had begun to surface.  I filled several volumes of notebooks, sometimes ruminating, but gradually shifting from my old wounds to thinking more about Pennebaker’s research on “expressive writing” and how it could be healing.  By the end of that year, I submitted a proposal to design and lead a first expressive writing group for breast cancer survivors.   That was over 22 years ago, and from it, a practice began that flourished and grew–not only for cancer survivors but many other groups too.

My Tuesday evening presentation got me to reflecting on the many workshops and presentations I’ve done since that first beginning and how my practice has grown and deepened.  I felt a sudden rush of gratitude, realizing how life-altering it was for me to stumble upon Pennebaker’s research all those years ago.  I never anticipated how my workshops would grow and lead to many other groups, creative collaborations, mentoring and teaching. So I put my notebook aside and moved to my computer.  I spontaneously wrote and sent a note of gratitude to Dr. Pennebaker, thanking him for the impact his research and generosity has had my life as well as so many others.  Echoing the words of Louise DeSalvo I quoted at the beginning of this post, “Writing has helped me heal.  Writing has changed my life.”  And I think that, in a very real sense, writing has saved my life.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

–Maya Angelou, poet

Writing Suggestions: 

  • How has writing helped you heal from your life’s difficult experiences?  Think of how you first turned to writing.  What was the situation or triggering event?  How did your writing change as you continued to write? What did you discover about yourself in the process?
  • We all have people in our lives who have helped or inspired us in some way.  They may be friends, teachers, counselors or others who affected our lives in positive ways.  Sometimes we realize the impact of those individuals much later in life.  If you could write a note of gratitude for the role someone has played in your life, your development, who would it be?  What would you say to that person?
  • What was the untold story inside you that you first needed to release?

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10 thoughts on “February 4, 2023: When Writing Changes Our Lives

  1. That’s the best argument I’ve seen for why writing can be valuable for the writer even if the purpose is not for publication or communication or memoralizing. Writing is easy to start but soon begins to feel like work. It natural to ask “why bother if I don’t know what this effort is for?” You’ve inspired us to go back and pick up those few pages we started years ago and continue on– just for ourselves.

  2. So, the prompt you mentioned resonated with me, and then I went somewhere else. I have not found this easy to write about. As a person with kidney failure and congestive heart failure, both diagnosed April 2022, I am still trying to find equilibrium. But for what it’s worth there’s this I wrote today (first draft!)

    How We Live Now

    Each dialysis patient, like a bird,
    walking west, like crows in their black sheen
    of feathers, lines up at the scale.

    What’s your dry weight and what is
    your weight today? As the toxins build
    in the blood, the body stores fluid, stores

    all the poisons the kidneys can’t release,
    but the patient gets four needle pokes in an arm:
    two for freezing, two for cleansing, and the patient

    is all set for the next three hours or the next four,
    as a machine pulls blood from the body, runs it through
    a dialyser, cleaning what the body no longer can.

    This is your routine now, three days a week.
    It’s what keeps you alive, and it’s what keeps the rest
    of your life lived small as your week shrinks to four days.

    It’s how we live now.

    Carol A. Stephen
    February 5, 2023

    1. Carol, I so appreciate your poem–you’ve been dealt a double dose of illness, and my heart goes out to you. Writing can help ease the emotional struggle–and thank you for sharing it with me.


  3. Wonderful to read this, Sharon. The whole piece is a Prompt for me. Thanks for an important reminder… oh, so many people have impacted, influenced, inspired me. Thanks for being one of them, again. Carolyn

    1. Thank you Carolyn! I am still feeding on the inspiration I experienced when you and I were presenting at the Omega Institute–every time I quote Ticht Naht Hahn, I remember you! I hope you are thriving and well. xox

  4. Sharon you and I go back so far, I’m not at all sure you will easily credit this. The biggest adventure in my life was also the biggest trauma: serving as an infantryman in Vienam, E 1/7th 1st Cavalry Divison.

    I have published a novel and I am working on another. The first dealt with my PTSD. The second is dealing with my politics. Writing is redemption. Sometimes the only way out is through.

    1. Tom,
      I so appreciated your comments on my most recent post–and I found your words (and the experiences that contributed to them) very powerful. You and I lost touch about the time your novel was published–(I’ve since ordered a copy to read)–John and I returned to Canada; there were health issues, moving, re-familiarizing ourselves with Canadian life and many other things–and gradually, I referred to Facebook less and less. But know this: I cherish the old friends who’ve endured over the years–and people like Grant, Duane and you remind me who I was then– Thank you for your words and for reaching out. I now have your novel waiting on my nightstand. All good wishes, Sharon

  5. Hi, Sharon

    Another wonderful column. Thank you.

    Jamie Pennebaker was an inspiration to me, too, when I began my work as a journaling facilitator. While he doesn’t like journaling the way I faciliated it because he likes the more structured approach, he wrote a complimentary blurb for my book After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story. And I saw just this week on Facebook, from his wife’s post, that he actually retired.

    I hope all is well with you!



    1. Thanks Barbara– Yes, I found out about his retirement when he wrote to thank me for my note–it had arrived on his first day as a Professor Emeritus… a lovely, generous man as well as an extraordinary psychologist and teacher.

      I hope you are doing well! — Sharon

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