Book Review: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo

by Ruth Folit

Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo has been on my reading list for far too long. I’m not sure why I waited to read the book, but I’m glad that I finally did. The book is easy to read and filled with essential information for writers of all stripes: journalers, published authors, novice writers, and every kind of writer in between. Here are a few excerpts near the beginning of DeSalvo’s book that give you a taste of her unique perspective:

“The metaphor I use more frequently is of writing as a “fixer.” As in photography, writing acts for me as a kind of fixer, like the chemical–the fixer–you use to stabilize the image. “Fixing things,” I sometimes call it.

“And it acts as another kind of “fixer,” with all its healing implications. I use my writing as a way of fixing things, of making them better, of healing myself. As a compasslike way of taking a “fix” on my life–to see where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going” (6,7).

“After twenty minutes of writing, though I was still sad, my feelings had undergone a subtle but real transformation. A baker friend of mine calls it feeling “yeasty”–alive and growing and changing. That’s what I often feel after I write. Yeasty” (8).

“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. But to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story. And to share the gift of your work with others and, so, enrich and deepen our understanding of the human condition” (9).

Louise DeSalvo is professor of English and Creative Writing at Hunter College in New York. Ms. DeSalvo has worked with hundreds of students and she herself is an author of half a dozen books. One of Ms. DeSalvo’s primary themes is that in order to use writing as a way of healing–physically, emotionally, spiritually–you must write about your life in a way that links events with your feelings. DeSalvo cites James Pennebaker’s research and book Opening Up.

Using her own writing, Ms. DeSalvo has empirically tested Pennebaker’s research about how writing benefits a writer’s health and has taken his suggestions one step further: DeSalvo asserts that when writing about past events that are traumatic, upsetting, or disturbing the writer must connect it to feelings of the past and of the present, so that progress can be made in healing. Through this linking of thinking and feeling the writer can make effective progress toward writing.

One third of DeSalvo’s book is about the writing process: “…we write not to create works of art, but to build character, develop integrity, discipline, judgment, balance, order, restraint, and other valued inner attributes. Through writing, we develop self-mastery, which contributes to our emotional and spiritual growth. Writing, then, becomes the teacher” ( 72).

She argues that one doesn’t have to wait for the “right” time to write–putting writing off until the kids are grown, until you’re finished with the big project,or until you have a good place to write. DeSalvo cautions “Waiting depletes creative energy; creating increases creative energy” (78)
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She lists four essentials to use writing as a way of healing, paraphrased below:

  1. Write regularly and in a relaxed way.
  2. Watch with relaxed awareness what occurs as you write.
  3. Accept yourself and your work, rather than judge it.
  4. Be patient; write routinely.

DeSalvo cautions that when revisiting and confronting deeply traumatic events, one must feel safe. She suggests seeking professional and qualified help with a psychotherapist during the time that you writing about very painful past events if you aren’t sure that the emotions that arise are manageable on your own.

DeSalvo also focuses on sharing one’s writing. She contends that having empathic listeners is critical to healing. The listeners don’t necessarily have to respond. They can help reflect what writers have said, where there might be gaps in the narrative, areas where they would like to hear more, and may even uncover patterns in the narrative that you haven’t seen.

In DeSalvo’s view, writing not only heals the writer, but can heal the reader and the culture. Writing about painful issues becomes more than an individual’s need to heal, but creates larger ripples within society, which should not tolerate the traumas and violence committed. The writing itself and making it public becomes a political act.