Anna Ellory: Writing as healing

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The novelist describes how telling our stories can transform our lives

When thinking about using memoir to inspire your own writing, you might ask yourself, who am I to tell this story? You may feel your experiences are not unique or interesting enough, or that someone has already written something similar.

Instead of taking an outside view, judging how others may see you or your writing, start by looking within;
How am I? centres you in the present and just like a conversation with a friend you begin in the now. We often start talking about certain topics that reside under the surface when we feel safe and ready to do so.

Writing as healing is the exploration of difficult feelings or traumatic memories, these are usually visual, out of reach from the analytical side of the brain, due to stress-hormones released during the event. Capturing them with the purpose to re-tell is often very difficult.

Trauma memories engage the senses and through expressive writing it is possible to tap into these moments and move them from the visual to the verbal or written form.

When I was writing The Puzzle Women I hoped I would be able to make sense of the abusive marriage I endured, and in many ways I did. I created fictional characters and offered them my emotional truths. I wrote and re-wrote and thought and allowed feelings to surface within the safe boundaries of the page, then I challenged what I found there trying to understand what happened to me, but looking at it from the distance of fiction.

Writing expressively for healing offers a narrative to the trauma. It allows space to think in a different way giving an insight not considered before. What you write may even surprise you.

In the same way after meeting a good friend I will happily ruminate over the conversation: When they said -, did they mean -, or were they meaning-? these thoughts will entertain my inner life for days, happily chewing on the bones of language in our conversation. In a throw-away culture, throwing words away like plastic cups doesn’t hold with me, I keep them and recycle them and like to know the composition of them. I worry at things like Why did I use that word to describe -? Why did I not allow myself a more emotional, perhaps more powerful word to embody that thought? This exploration into the choice of language for our writing can be just as useful.

For writing to be healing, it needs to tell precisely what happened, concretely, authentically and with as much detail as possible. The detail enables the narrative to be vivid and emotionally compelling and this takes dedication, desire and time.

Writing about deepest feelings or past trauma for 20 minutes every day for 4 days has been proven to have both physical and mental health benefits. Writing for healing can have a positive effect on the immune system, it can enable the body to heal wounds faster and improve self-esteem. (www.artandhealing.org/evidence-of-the-healing-power-of-expressive-writing/).

After I used writing for healing, I have produced The Puzzle Women. My story exists outside of me, within the pages of a book. It is held, and bound no less, by something not me. I can place it down from time to time and this, I find, is comforting. If writing is healing then perhaps publishing can be freeing? I’m still in the very early days, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

WRITING EXERCISE:

Take yourself on a dinner date with a friend, start with a ‘How are you?’ and write your way through a conversation. What do you say when you are free to say anything at all?
Write it all out then leave it alone for a week, think about your imagined conversation, then go back to the page to edit and examine what you’ve written.
Feel held by your own words, with a clearer understanding of what they mean to you.
A great deal of healing happens in the paying of attention, so pay attention to yourself and your writing, using your words to find a way forward. You never know it might change your life too.

The Puzzle Women by Anna Ellory was published on 20th October by Lake Union (price £7.99 paperback original).

 

Read more about why writing is good for your mental health.