As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 5: "The Healing Power of the Writing Process."
I have always approached writing from a deeply secularized perspective. Like I said earlier, I am not a writer who finds salvation in their art. But maybe that doesn't work for me anymore -- maybe I've been this way not because I don't know otherwise, but because I haven't tried to write from an integrated perspective.
I don't know if I can. That might be like asking someone who doesn't experience inner monologue to suddenly develop inner monologue. But what if it's like learning to breathe with your diaphragm?
DeSalvo advocates for writing in this chapter based on Japanese aesthetics: that we write as though it were natural rather than difficult; that we consider writing as integral rather than removed; that observing our regular writing patterns be an instructive act. I think I already do that third thing. But as I've mentioned before, I don't write naturally or consider it integral to my person.
A few nights ago I saw someone tweeting about how she had a hard time describing herself pre-transition. There's something really compelling in that idea: when your identity doesn't match your self, reconciling the two is impossible until you figure out what's wrong. The work then becomes sorting out what's actually integral to you.
So, I guess I'll find out soon if writing is actually integral for me or not. Maybe it will always be a removed talent rather than an integral skill. I hope not. And, actually, I don't think so. Reading this book, as well as Jack Hodgins's A Passion for Narrative last month, definitely lit something inside me again. Could be I just need to rethink and re-experience my approach.
As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 4: "Writing Pain, Writing Loss."
"I now see pain, loss, and grief as the basis for virtually every act of cultural creation."
I'm sorry, but I cannot abide by this statement. Every piece of me insists that this is not true, and that it is extremely dangerous to let it go unchallenged. I know this because I remember my first workshop group, and I remember writing each member a short story as a Christmas gift for being thoughtful and inspiring writers.
Not one of those stories was crafted on the impetus of pain, loss, or grief. One of them in particular attacked this very notion. I called it "Faded Amber."
That story opens on two angry old men in an office space shouting at each other, an employer and employee. They take their argument out of the common area, the employee slamming the door to his boss's office shut. And then they start drinking together because they're actually very old friends. That story intentionally lampshades pain and conflict as being necessary for growth, as being necessary at all. I'm not saying it doesn't have problems; I definitely take the power dynamic for granted, and I'm sure my prose is much stronger now than it was five years ago. But I would never change that core belief: pain is not central, though we often choose to centre pain by default.
But again, I'm not saying this to diminish DeSalvo's instruction or lived experience. I'm also not suggesting that's it's wrong to construct narratives around pain, loss, and grief. More than any other kind of writing, I love hopepunk. Hopepunk requires a firm grasp of despair as a source of strength -- or rather, the ability to turn that despair into motivation.
"We evolve beyond the person we were a minute before."
-- from my favorite feelgood film, Gurren Lagann: The Lights in the Sky are Stars.
I think DeSalvo would've really enjoyed and resonated with this genre. But I don't believe every creation is the result of pain. As much as I love hopepunk, it still demands pain. I know that it's possible to write without conflict, to create something out of joy merely for joy's sake, and for it to have meaning and value without pain. Pain is only a context, one of many.
Again, beyond this one sore spot, I really enjoy DeSalvo's ability to weave narrative across several disciplines, subjects, and eras and enable readers to think critically about their own trauma. It's no accident that that movie I just quoted is on my mind; DeSalvo anticipates how the characters in Gurren Lagann process grief. But of course I'm also thinking about how I can use this and I already have ideas and scenes I'd like to master: traumatic dreams and flashbacks, some very recent.
I feel like maybe I'm coming across as harshly negative of this book when actually I'm very much enjoying it. There's an excellent passage in this chapter on self-blaming rhetoric and how dangerous it is, which is very appreciated. DeSalvo touches on stories about the worst things that can happen to people and how the writers who survived their traumas relived and described them in recovery, but through it all she draws important lines of what helps and hurts you in this process.
As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 3: "Writing as a Therapeutic Process."
Last year I started therapy again for the first time in a few years. I'd made an appointment with a new therapist because I was facing a new problem. In our first session, that therapist recommended something to me, and I'll never forget how much it made me laugh: she recommended I read some Slavoj Žižek.
A certain prof at STU's English Department really, really loves Žižek's work, and I'd never heard Žižek brought up in any context outside of school. So, I looked at my new therapist and I asked her something like, "I know we just met but what about me says that I enjoy the very particular misery that is contemporary theory? Is it the beard?"
I bring this up because one of the texts my therapist recommended was Žižek and Sophie Fiennes's documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. One of Žižek's conclusions touches on desire, and it struck me so hard when I first heard it that I wrote it down:
"Desire is a wound of reality. The art of cinema consists in arousing desire, to play with desire. But at the same time, keeping it at a safe distance, domesticating it, rendering it palpable. We are haunted by alternate possibilities of ourselves. More real than real -- cinematic fiction."
Louise DeSalvo touches on desire in writing in a way which immediately made me think of that Žižek quote. DeSalvo speaks specifically of "thwarted desire" as a force that can be neglected but not diminished. It strikes me that desire is not spoken of in either text as something we can consciously manipulate within ourselves, only act upon. Given the direction this chapter takes and how DeSalvo links tragedy and writing as a means of healing, I think what both Žižek and DeSalvo are actually talking about is not merely desire, but agency -- perhaps as an implicit undercurrent of desire.
So, I find myself in conflict with the takeaway message at the end of this chapter. I've been obsessed lately with an album called Terraformer by Thank You Scientist. There's a song on that album called "Son of a Serpent" that I keep coming back to. I find these lines, "But I'm sure there's a place / To bury the old me and start anew," really appealing. DeSalvo ends chapter 3 on words from Henry Miller, about how "it was not life but himself from which he had been fleeing." And while I agree that internalized hatred is essentially denying your true self, I also don't really want to regain that old self. I don't think I ever want to be him again. I would much prefer burying him, even if that means making myself my own burial ground.
The assignment in this chapter is to write a letter, to structure it around an old childhood story, and see if it can be used to outline a longer work. I think I'm going to write it to my past self.
As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 2: "How Writing Can Help Us Heal."
Well, leave it to a pro to anticipate. DeSalvo opens chapter 2 with the problem of writing depression, and how there is helpful and unhelpful writing. However, I have concerns about some of DeSalvo's conclusions.
DeSalvo cites a study wherein a group of people write about their trauma and connect the events with their emotions. The point of the study is, according to her, that we must endure hardship in the short term to feel better in the long term. I get what she's saying, and of course she's also saying it from an informed and personal position. I don't want to diminish her work, her lived experience, or the work she cites. However, I also have concerns about what someone might take away from what she says.
I've seen way too many people insist and enforce the idea that we must suffer in life, that the positive is only possible because of the negative, and that trauma builds character and makes us richer people.
I've met people who've been crippled by their trauma. I've seen people re-enact and perpetuate the abuse they've suffered. I have loved ones who would be much better off without the shit that's happened in their lives. Even if I'm somehow enriched by tragedy and mental illness, I would probably be fine if I hadn't been through those. And that's not even touching racism, colonialism, gender violence, homophobia, capitalism, and other systemic traumas. This notion of perpetual suffering is a fallacy and a farce, and it's also fucking hurtful.
Again, that's not what DeSalvo is saying, but I worry that someone might read this chapter and think, "Yeah, life is pain," and further normalize the toxic perpetuation of trauma as a necessary event. But aside from that concern, I find what DeSalvo says very promising in this chapter. Over the last year I've had the pleasure of reading Hindu texts, so these concepts of linking thought, feeling, and action are both familiar and appealing. The framework DeSalvo suggests reminds me of an early creative writing lesson on sight: some over-rely on sight in prose, neglecting other senses and not fully engaging readers into a scene. Likewise, over-relying on a scene without baking in the impact does nothing to help us. If we are both characters and narrators in our narratives, then we need to unpack actions and their consequences as with any other story. This is just another level of making sure your audience knows everything they need to know, especially since you're the only audience. I don't know about you, but I find that even if I understand something implicitly, I tend to gain further appreciation for it the more I make it explicit to myself. Yes, I know how to breathe, but the more I think about my breathing, the more relaxed I become.
As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 1: "Why Write?"
So, before I get into the chapter at hand, I wanted to talk about why I chose this book. I don't think you need to know all my darkest secrets, but with a title like Writing as a Way of Healing, you can probably guess that I chose this book because I need to heal from something. I do; I need to heal from a bunch of somethings.
I, like many people, have had to deal with more than my fair share of trauma. I've known people who've overcome much worse than what I've been through, and I've known people who've been through less severe if more frequent misfortune. I'm not covering this book because I'm desperately broken or so keen to bleed in front of an audience. But man, I've been through some shit lately and I've been through way more going way back, and I think it's time to make it my story again instead of just some shit that happened to me.
This book opens with a common anecdote, "Writing saved my life," but writing has never had that power in my life. Writing was always something people told me I was good at, and it runs in the family. I remember one day like a decade ago my dad was telling me about how writing comes from an inner voice, and his shock when I said "Yeah, I know, do people not have that? I can't make mine shut up." Apparently, a lot of people don't hear voices in their head, and most of those who do don't know how to translate that into writing. Imagine!
But writing never tethered me to life -- if anything it was a plow. I wrote an old blog full of video game reviews (again, taking after my dad and his music blog). In high school I got hauled in to be writer on ill-fated video game projects. Come university I wrote creative pieces instead of essays at every opportunity, not realizing that I was better suited for essays than fiction. For me, writing has always been work first, rarely fun, yet compelling and satisfying. The world makes sense when I have a machine in my hands.
Not that I haven't tried to do more with writing. I was diagnosed with depression when I was 16. I have tried to use writing as a way of making sense of it. But every time I try to write about depression I feel disgusted. It's so impossibly hard to grasp what this thing feels like. It's very easy to couch it in raincloud cliches, to capture images like dish and laundry mountains, and to push a character up to their breaking point and keep them there forever. But to make depression true seems impossible. There's a canyon masked by an asterisk next to the phrase "I'm fine," and I've never read anyone capture it in any satisfying way, not that I'm any more successful. I've seen characters break, I've felt their sadness, and I've even cried and shaken in public from some scenes, but none of them felt true. Real, sure, just not true.
And yet, when DeSalvo mentions "shocks" (a concept borrowed from Virginia Woolf), I can't deny the quiet shift inside me. Maybe you know the one: that shift when you know you've been recognized. It's quiet, but you feel it arc through you like tokusatsu sparks.
DeSalvo offers a few metaphors to describe the writing/healing process, and asks what the reader's is. I think mine is probably something like the Cobble's Knot. Way, waaaaay back in 2004/5, when I was in Grade 6, I had to read a book called Maniac Magee. I remember a chapter dedicated to a knot so absurdly complex that everyone who tried to untangle it made it worse. If I'm remembering right, that knot is a metaphor for racism and class inequality, but in a broader sense it's a stand-in for intersectionality: the specific socio-political issues of that story's community are so interwoven and intergenerational that sorting them out requires specific and specialized training (or an orphan with a both sides mindset but hey it's a book for kids). Given some conversations I've had lately, I think at least the image of a complicated knot works well for me. I'm trying to untangle a whole bunch of ends, and believe me, depression is only one of them.
Like many writing books this one has exercises at the end of the chapter. This one just says to write for 20 minutes a day. I understand why all of these books open with that kind of exercise, but I've read it before and I already practice consistent writing. But I hate the tease! Get me to the good stuff or just make this an Introduction rather than a chapter! Maybe the next one will offer more interesting constructions.
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