WRITING THROUGH HARD TIMES -writing activities for emotional healing

Rosebuds

When the going gets tough, writing helps. From an early age I discovered that writing helped me make sense of the world, or at least helped me understand it better. Many writers are driven in the same way. We write to get thoughts in order, or discover the truth of our feelings about a situation. 

Over the past several years I’ve been working with Forgotten Australians who have suffered more trauma than most of the rest of us put together. Together we’ve figured out ways to use writing, and in particular fiction, to harness the power of the imagination to bring comfort and healing to the stories of our pasts and bring in lighter energies for our futures. Transforming victims into superheroes!

We are often driven to write after the loss of someone we love, not just to try and make sense of their loss but also to leave some sort of record of them, a mark on the world. This was certainly so for Thrill Seekers which bears witness to my brother Matty’s battle with adolescent onset schizophrenia. I wrote A Guide Through Grief the year after my infant son Teddy’s death from a congenital heart defect, to comfort myself and make sense of his loss, but also to bring some good into the world from his coming and going.

https://edwinashaw.com/buy-a-guide-to-grief-and-thrill-seekers-here/

Most of us have long hard stories stuck in our heads about all the wrong that has been done to us, the litany of woes, the stories that just won’t let us rest. These stories need to be released onto paper. It’s the best way I know to free yourself from having to relive those sad stories over and over. After all, the past is gone forever. We don’t have to keep replaying it in our minds. 

Dorothea Lange: Dyanna lying on her back in the grass circa 1961

Here are a few writing activities I’ve found useful for healing emotional pain.

  1. Keeping a journal

This is never to be read. Not by you. Not by anyone. This is just pure complaining, whinging and moaning territory where you can play the “poor me” record as often as you like. Pour anger, grief, bitterness and rage onto the pages of your journal every morning then head into your day feeling lighter. I follow the Julia Cameron Artist’s Way “Morning Pages” commandment of three pages longhand, but you don’t have to do that much. Just make sure you download at least some of the hard stuff each day. Come home to yourself on the page. And finish with something positive – an affirmation like I am safe, all is well, or a list of things you’re grateful for.

  • Write out your Truth

If you have a story stuck in your head about a past traumatic event, or a recent loss, then write it down. Don’t gloss over it. Go into specific details. Where were you? What was going on before and after this? Fill in all the sensory details, every last moment explored deeply. Weep and wail as you write but get all that hard story out of your head and onto the page. It doesn’t have to be great art, but it just might be the start of something like beauty. Be honest. Tell your truth. Your voice is valid and valuable.

  • Rewrite the Past

We don’t have to stick with the endings life gives us. We have the great gift of our imaginations to create other alternate realities. For example, although in real life my brother killed himself at twenty, in Thrill Seekers I was able to give him a new ending where he and his brother went off to explore the world. What ending would you like to change? Who would you like to give another chance at life? Write your story and change the ending to what you wish it could have been. The past can’t be changed, but we can change the way we feel about it by giving ourselves alternate happier endings that make us smile.

  • In the Shoes of the Enemy

This one is a little challenging but can be very rewarding. If someone has done you wrong, let’s say that wicked nun who beat you up and belittled you in Grade 3, then write a story from the perpetrator’s perspective. You can make her as mean and vicious as you like, but maybe, just maybe, something was going on in her own life that made her act so abhorrently. This is one of writing’s greatest gifts. It is the only artform where we can truly explore what it is like to be in the mind of another person. It is a wonderful tool for compassion, even for the very worst of enemies.

  • Revenge is Sweet

If having compassion for those who hurt you, isn’t your cup of tea, then try writing a story where they get their comeuppance! Get the kids in the nun’s classroom to lock her in and throw mud at her. Or write an unhappy ending to that lover who did you wrong. Revenge is safe on paper. I’d rather try to forgive and move on, but if you must have your revenge, then do it on paper. You could write yourself a brand new lover and write a scene where you encounter your ex and show off like mad. Have fun!

These exercises are just the tip of the iceberg of the many ways we can use writing and other creative activities to help us to heal our emotional pain and find peace. If you’re struggling with loss or trauma, you may find my Guide Through Grief a useful ally, full of helpful ideas and exercises to help you heal. I’ve also recorded a short Meditation for Comfort and Joy to help uplift your heart, even on the toughest of days.

We are given creativity to express our feelings and help us to heal. What helps you most on hard days? 

Take good care of yourself and keep looking up. Life is good and love is around every corner.

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

Little Pearl the puppy – the newest addition to our extended family.

THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT – Layers of Time in Memoir

Reflections

Recently I attended Kristina Olsson‘s excellent Memoir Bootcamp at the Queensland Writers Centre. How wonderful it was to be a student again and to learn from one of Queensland’s most celebrated writers. Kris’s book Boy Lost about the loss of her elder brother, has been a model for my own memoir in progress – “Dear Madman” – for many years. Kris has a workshop series coming up at the fabulous Avid Reader bookstore next year – keep an eye on their events.

During the course, I realised I have been trying to avoid an important and necessary element of successful memoir writing, reflection with hindsight.

Kris put us onto Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir and Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story which are packed with useful ideas and examples of memoir writing, including the concept of the Situation and the Story.

There are at least these two layers of time in memoir: the Situation which fleshes out in scenes the events from the past, key events in the section of life we are exploring, and: the Story, the author’s reflection with the benefit of hindsight, seeing patterns and creating meaning from these events.

As Kris told us, “Put your struggle on the page.” The reader needs to see the writer grappling with meaning making, in order for these personal events to resonate with the reader’s own story, their struggles. I now realise I’ve been trying to avoid this, hoping that, as with fiction, the scenes of key events alone would be enough. They’re not.

Much as we like to avoid it, the writer herself is the protagonist in her memoir. A raw and honest portrayal of self is necessary, reflecting on past actions and the meanings we’ve created through a compelling narrative. Helen Garner is a master of self representation in her non-fiction and thinly disguised fiction as well. She shows herself warts and all and we love her for it.

Be brave and put yourself on the page. I worried that my hippy trippy, out-there side may not be palatable to the literary community but Kris and my classmates assured me that they too all had secret inner hippies, and I should not try to hide this part of myself. Perhaps this is what will resonate most with others.

Excerpt from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

As the above excerpt tells us, it is by sharing the most deeply personal, our own inner journey of meaning-making, that we create the universal. And isn’t that what we all want? To reach for a kind of truth all readers will understand, a special wisdom that is beyond individual experience but applies to us all?

To do this, within a compelling narrative that keeps readers turning pages, is the memoirists’ challenge. Perhaps the most demanding of all genres, memoir requires great courage and honesty, exposing our inner selves in the hope that by sharing our personal battles we can create a work of art, a thing of beauty from all that pain.

Go deep memoirists. Go hard or go home. Uncover those buried secrets and bring them to the light. Show us how it’s done.

Are you writing a memoir? Have you been avoiding putting yourself in, like I have? Any hints and tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Take care, keep smiling and write like a fury!

Lots of love

Edwina xx