This is a minimally edited version of a paper wrote as the final assignment for a course in upper-division writing. One of the required texts was Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo. Among the instructions for the paper were:
Just as we started the beginning of your writing with a reflection piece, so too, do we return to this way of seeing ourselves as writers. This is an opportunity for you to bring forth your engagement with DeSalvo's work, with respect to what you found important, what spoke to you, what inflluenced your way of writing, and where you are now, ten weeks later, compared to when you sat down the first night. This is an informal conversation . . . just you speaking on behalf of your process, in written expression.
Besides DeSalvo's work, you may include moments from the class . . . . It's all open for reflection.
By DOUG SHAVER
My engagement with DeSalvo’s book was similar in many respects to my engagement with the rest of this course. I had to contend with an initial feeling that I had nothing to learn because I already knew the material. Being resolved to keep an open mind, though, I reminded myself that others have always had experiences different from mine and, from those different experiences, they may have acquired valuable insights that I could not have acquired on my own. It was true that I already knew much of what DeSalvo had to say, but not all of it. And, while I did not agree with all of her commentary, I felt compelled to reflect on the reasons for my disagreement and seek to understand her own reasons for holding the views she was expressing.
I began this course already convinced that I was a competent writer. I had, some years ago, earned one bachelor’s degree with distinction, and this was the last course I needed to pass in order to get a second degree. I had spent several years working as a writer and copy editor for newspapers. Teachers, peers, and employers had often commended me for my skill as a wordsmith. For all the written assignments I had completed while earning two undergraduate degrees, one in sociology and the other in philosophy, my GPA was very close to 4.0. It was a source of some amusement to me that university’s bureaucracy was of the official opinion that I had not yet demonstrated sufficient ability to write as well as a college graduate should be able to write. Even so, I was determined to profit from the experience, not to try to prove that I didn’t need the experience.
My determination was immediately challenged by DeSalvo's book, as I was put off by the title: Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. I resented the presupposition that I needed healing or transformation. I am 66 years old. My life has been through plenty of transformations already. I have had my share of physical and emotional traumas, including a major surgery with complications, two divorces, and several years of alcoholism. I recovered from all of them, and writing played no part in any of those recoveries. Besides, I thought, I don’t need any encouragement to write. I have always wanted to do it.
Even so, the thought came to me that even if I was not among the people constituting DeSalvo's primary intended readership, this did not mean that I had nothing to gain from her observations. One of the first things I noticed when reading the first chapter was her emphasis on the experiences of many other writers. The chapter was titled “Why Write?” I had my own answer already to that question, but I could see some benefit in learning what other motivations could work for other people. Like almost all other writers, I go through times when I’m not motivated, or not motivated enough, and perhaps my problem on those occasions is a too-narrow focus on my usual reasons for writing. DeSalvo reminded me that at such times, I might find it useful to consider some other reasons that had never occurred to me before.
In the first and subsequent chapters, DeSalvo told many stories of people who had found writing to be an effective way of coping with personal adversities such as debilitating or terminal illnesses or the emotional distress of racial or ethnic discrimination. I have never had to deal with any of these. I required an appendectomy when I was in my 20s, and I once went into anaphylactic shock after being stung by a wasp. Aside from that, I have enjoyed good health all my life. Furthermore, my ancestry is North European, the only religion I have ever practiced was Protestant Christianity, and I am a heterosexual male, and so I have never been a victim of prejudice. However, I have had other misfortunes. Whether they were, in any relevant sense, analogous to those suffered by DeSalvo's examples, I cannot adequately discuss in this essay; but, when reading her case histories, I see reports of feelings similar to those I have felt during my own tribulations. I may not know what it is like to be dying or to be an object of ethnic or sexual bigotry, but I do know what it is like to be suffering and to think there is no way to end the suffering except to terminate my own existence.
In any case, I did not survive those experiences by writing about them. It did not occur to me to try. Perhaps it would have been good for me if I had. I might have recovered more quickly, or the long-term consequences might have been mitigated. I cannot know that now, and even if it is so, knowing it now would not change the history that has already occurred.
That is not to say it is too late for me to take her advice, assuming it to be as well founded as she thinks it is. I don’t regard disease or trauma as a good metaphor for my present situation, but I would like to improve that situation, and I am prevented from doing so by problems that seem intractable. DeSalvo seems to suggest that writing about them could have a palliative effect if nothing else, and, arguably, I would have nothing to lose by trying. I am a writer, so I am going to be writing in any case, and perhaps I will feel better if I write more about my frustrations.
However, my frustrations are largely financial, and the solution would be to write for commercial publication. What I am able and willing to write, though, is not marketable, at least not yet. There are a few people who enjoy reading what I write, but there are not enough of them for me to make a living selling my work to them. I have accepted that. If I cannot write for money, though, the Internet allows me to at least write for publication. My Web site has a miniscule readership, but I do have a readership there. It could possibly, someday, become a paying readership. I’m not depending on that happening, but the possibility gives me hope.
What I am not interested in is writing for my own eyes only. I have occasionally tried to keep a personal journal, but could not sustain the effort. I got no satisfaction from writing something on the assumption that no one else would ever read it. So it is with the kind of therapeutic writing that DeSalvo encourages. Perhaps I would get some benefit from it, but I suspect I would get more benefit from spending the same time writing something that a visitor to my Web site would enjoy reading. I do not expect anyone to enjoy reading how I feel about my personal problems.
I was not at all surprised to learn, by reading DeSalvo, that some people have found writing to be beneficial to them, or that some of the benefits have been physiological. Writing can give the mind a good exercise, and good mental health is sometimes essential to good physical health. I would not assume that because it works for some people, it should work for all people. But I do wish more people would try, and I’m not about to oppose DeSalvo's effort to encourage them.