Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Could writing help the Boston survivors?

The bombings in Boston have left me in tears. Every time I hear the news, see the photos of those who died or were wounded, I want to curl up and block it all out. It is much the way I felt after my son took his life in 1999. These kinds of tragedies bring all those sad feelings back.

Perhaps this will help. In my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, I told how I survived through writing. It is my belief that those who have experienced such a tragedy – and I suspect that is everyone – need to find a creative outlet. Hopefully the survivors of the Boston tragedy will also find their way.

Here’s how writing a memoir helped me heal:

Writing has been part of my life since I was in grade school. However, when my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and after his suicide, I began to write down my feelings daily. I needed to. Writing in my journal became an obsession, a balm, and the only way I could express my feelings. It gave me a way to organize my fears, pain, and thoughts. I had used journaling during an earlier stressful period of my life to rant. This time I turned to writing during what turned out to be the most stressful time of my life.

Three months after my son Paul’s death I also signed up for a writing class. The assignment was to bring in a journal entry to share with the class each week. At first I was afraid to put my grief out there in public. But, when I apologized for continually writing about the same subject matter – my son and his illness and death – in my assigned journal entries, my instructor said, “It took Dostoyevsky five hundred pages to write Crime and Punishment, you have a long way to go.”

This same instructor also taught me to write with a deep voice, meaning that I should share the deepest, darkest truths of my life. Come from the deepest part of your belly, he said, encouraging me to bare all my secrets in my writing. And after several years of patiently listening to my material, he told me I had to put my story into a book. He and the rest of the class felt certain there were people who needed to know my story and who could be helped by it. So I kept writing my journal entries – not only for class, not only as a comfort to myself, but also for material that I could use in creating my memoir. I also wrote poems.

About this time I met a young woman – a former literary agent – who read my poetry and some of my prose and suggested I organize my memoir based on the sequence of my poems. For a while she gave me advice and writing prompts – all useful to the content of my book. Then when I finally had a book together with each chapter starting with a poem, I hired an editor, who was a writing teacher, to read and give me comments chapter by chapter. And once I incorporated her comments into my draft, she read the book as a whole and gave me more comments. I used her comments to revise my draft again and then began querying agents and publishers. I sent out that completed draft out when one of these prospects asked to see my manuscript.

When I finally had a publishing contract I hadn’t read my manuscript in over two years. The first thing I did before embarking on the hordes of revisions I had committed to do before publication was read my memoir front to back, noting typos, repeats, inconsistencies, and most important of all, places where the information was outdated. It took me five months to complete the revisions with the help of three writer friends. I knew I was finally finished when I stopped thinking about what more I could do to it and when I felt comfortable letting it go.

Writing was my therapy. It became a habit and a huge help in getting myself out of the mire after my son’s death and the tragedy that had hit my family.

I thought if I could tell my story in the most truthful and realistic terms possible, I could help other parents with children with bipolar disorder that in many cases results in their suicide. Otherwise I felt it wouldn’t be useful to anyone – including me. 


Sharon Lippincott said...

Madeline, you are definitely on the write track here. James Pennebaker pioneered research on using writing to help trauma victims. His stunning results, showing significant benefits for both physical and emotional health, have been replicated over 200 times in the intervening quarter century. His initial work had participants write 20 minutes a day for 4 consecutive days about the same topic. More recently, studies have shown that even writing once for 5 minutes can produce benefits. Fortunately they can write now, or wait ten years. There is no time limit on results.
So, let's urge Bostonians to get those fingers flying!

madeline40 said...

Yes, Sharon, I've heard Linda Joy mention Pennebaker a lot.
So how do you suggest we urge the Bostonians to get writing? It's an enticing project.