Some years back, my sister gave me a copy of Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (Beacon Press, 1999). It sat on my shelf as I debated whether its contents would be grim or admonishing. I was wrong on both counts. Although my fiction writing is just that–fiction, as in “I made it all up, I truly did”–the book presented me with two invaluable gifts.
The first is that when we tell the truth, we improve not only our emotional but our physical health, and there’s research to prove it. DeSalvo writes specifically about autobiographical narrative of trauma or other difficult situations. I think the same holds true in a broader sense for all writing. It does not matter that my character is not me or these things never happened in my own life. I can still tell the truth, the truth of my heart, the truth of my spirit. When I do that, something unfolds within me and is given space to breathe, to stretch, to grow into a different shape.
My latest book, Hastur Lord, alternates points of view between a bisexual man in a love triangle and his gay male lover. I am not a man of any sexual orientation. Yet as I dug into myself to write about jealousy and inclusivity, the courage to face one’s fears of rejection and scarcity and the generosity to transcend them, the needs we can set aside and the needs that, if denied, can kill us, I found resonances within my own life. I remembered times I acted badly and hurt the ones I love, and times I could not ask for what I needed because I didn’t even know what that was.
Did I make my characters speak for me? I hope not. Did they think and feel and act in ways that invited me to be more gentle with my own past? Absolutely.
The second gift of this book was DeSalvo’s approach to writing as work. Commercial genre writing tends to encourage a regimental approach: you sit down, you pound out so many words or so many pages, you vent about this problem or that, you feel satisfied or not, depending on whether you achieved your daily quota.
DeSalvo, on the other hand, encourages the reader to prepare for the day’s work, just as an athlete or actor would prepare, and to reflect on the experience afterwards. This means getting friendly with our goals, our intuition, and our inner processes. When we hold in mind what we intend in whatever terms are meaningful for that particular day, we are ready to begin. Afterwards, we conclude–giving each session a beginning, middle and end, just like a good story. We deepen our understanding of what works best for us.
I love what she says about book-length works:
Writing longer works helps us mature. We learn persistence. We recognize that profound understanding takes time. In elaborating our first impressions, we discover there’s more to our stories than we’d thought. We identify patterns in how we work, in our work, and in our lives.
All this takes time, which is important. As Isabel Allende observed in an interview … “You need a lot of time to exorcise the demons and take enough distance to be able to write with ambiguity and irony–two elements that are very important in literature.”
She also points out, “Every published writer was once a beginner. Even seasoned writers, facing a new project, must start anew, begin anew.”
Faced with a blank screen and an even more blank mind, I find this immensely reassuring.
Order Writing as a Way of Healing at Powell’s Books.
Deborah J. Ross blogs at BVC on Tuesdays. Visit her Book View Cafe bookshelf to read her short stories. Her most recent novel is Hastur Lord, a novel of Darkover, by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross.