Andromeda: Writing as healing

Why do we write? Many answers to that question, but today’s focus: healing.

I credit my writing group (hi Doug!) for sending this to my attention, and many newspaper readers will recognize it as well. This week, David Brooks wrote an NYT op-ed about Fanny Burney’s ghastly account of her 1811 mastectomy without anesthesia. What interested Brooks most was how Fanny forced herself to confront and write about the experience, as painful as that was.

In Fanny’s words: “Not for days, not for weeks, but for months I could not speak of this terrible business without nearly again going through it!” She finally spent three months recording a short account of the operation. Brooks calls that exercise “a sort of mental boot camp — an arduous but necessary ordeal if she hoped to be a person of character and courage.”

Yesterday, while doing research on a different topic — memory — I read about another (less famous) person who uses writing as a comfort. Jill Price is a California woman who seems to have a perfect or nearly perfect episodic memory, as confirmed by the scientists who have studied her for several years. Name a date from years ago, and she can tell you what the weather was, what she did that day, perhaps what she was wearing or something that upset her. The details — including negative feelings — never fade. Her life has become “an endless, chaotic film.” (Sounds like a Jim Carrey film, doesn’t it? Except without the humor.)

Price happens to be a dedicated journal-keeper — which surprised me. You would think people keep journals to record all those details we know will fade, but for Price, nothing fades. So why does she journal? Perhaps to select and shape the details into meaning? But from the account I read in Spiegel Online, it doesn’t sound like Price does any memoiristic shaping. Her journals of about 50,000 pages are filled with tiny writing, which she has kept since the age of 10, documenting everything. Somehow, even without selection or editing, “Writing things down helps Price organize the thoughts and images shimmering in her head.”

I can hear the groans of the anti-journal crowd, and of writers who are sensibly wary of fellow writers who pen autobiographical works for self-indulgent, therapeutic purposes. And yet: I can’t groan when I have these two actual “case studies” in mind: a woman feeling the rip and tear of her breast being removed without anesthesia; a woman whose brain has become an endless, exhausting, sometimes rage-filled film reel.

They’re extreme cases of what the rest of us face throughout life: real pain, and also simple confusion. If writing helps us cope, then we should write. Does that kind of anguish-fed writing — artfully shaped, of course — produce great literature? A different question. You tell me.

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: Writing as healing”

  1. Marybeth Holleman

    When I finished The Heart of the Sound, many friends I'd made in the oil spill days asked me, was it healing to write about it? Yes, it was. Not completely, of course, the deepest wounds are never completely healed. The healing comes in the process of writing itself. To paraphrase Erica Jong, How can we know what we think (or feel) until we see what we write?

  2. I wrote "Holy Land" eleven years after leaving Bethel (later I returned for six more years). I felt like I'd been in a war zone — amplified because the victims trusted the machinery that brought it…(Western Civilization in the broadest sense) and I was part of the problem. When it all spilled out of me, it had been distilled. The writing created a sort of perfected thing — an anguished unity. When I started it, I didn't know what it would be or where it was going. I can spell it out now. It's a dramatic monologue that confronts the stranger who comes in as a helper. I didn't design it. I discovered it. There was healing in the sense of relief it gave me. I still work to get it into the world in larger ways. It's been published both in a journal and as a free standing piece but I also read it when I can in public settings.

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