A Secret Solace for Hard Times
Years later, when I was cleaning out my mother's house, I found these notebooks in the back of my closet, hidden away for more than 30 years. It was only then that I realized I had changed the names and circumstances in my entries, but I had remained true to the emotions I had experienced. Fictionalizing my real life helped me to escape my family situation while still allowing me to delve into feelings that were too painful for me to access in my everyday. I could express my fears and sadness in a way I could not have otherwise. The notebooks overflowed with the emotions I kept locked up. The character I invented may have had a different name and lived in a different city, but she felt as I did: frightened and lost.
Broken hearts and souls and bodies can begin to heal when we face our emotions. Ever since those early blue notebooks, I've turned to writing as a kind of therapy, a way of better understanding myself. In Joan Didion's essay "Why I Write," the acclaimed author says, "I write to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."
Our subconscious selves may know the answers to our most pressing psychological questions, even when we don't have a clue in our everyday lives: Who am I? What do I want from the world? What do I have to give? How do I survive? The more I write the more I understand that survival is the theme that most interests me. Writing helps me to understand how it can be possible to endure and even learn from trauma.
At no time was this more evident to me than when I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, a yearlong process that included surgery, radiation and months of chemotherapy. Every day, when I went for radiation or chemotherapy, I escaped by floating down a river of words that I planned to write later. I created characters while sitting in waiting rooms. I envisioned an imagined town that I could escape to whenever my world was too frightening and raw. During this time, I moved a mattress onto the floor of my office and went back and forth between my "bed" and my desk. Writing seemed to me a form of meditation. I could go deeply into myself and come back to my life renewed.
There are times when certain subjects are too painful to discuss with even your closest friends, but when you express your feelings in writing, you begin the healing process. Retraining emotions is stressful; writing them down not only is a release but also lets you know you are still very much alive. Early research into the benefits of writing shows that women with breast cancer who wrote about their experiences had fewer symptoms and less unscheduled visits with their doctors than women who were not in such a program. Writing courses offered through mind-body programs at cancer centers around the country have had similar results. Creativity fights darkness and fear, and gives us a sense of control. We can write our own endings, change plotlines and discover who we are at our cores. Even when your outer life is out of control, your inner life can be rich and full. To write freely, with no one to judge you, is an antidote to stress and sorrow. It gives you back something you may have lost: your voice.
"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart," wrote the great poet William Wordsworth. When you do so, you make your own heart stronger. For months after my father left, I barely spoke, but who I was didn't disappear. Confronting emotional or physical wounds head-on is difficult and sometimes impossible, but writing down what happened to you—fictionalized or as straight memoir—can remind you of who you really are. "A novel is like a dream in which everyone is you. They're all parts of yourself," writes novelist Janet Fitch. Those parts add up; they're all pieces of the puzzle of who you are.
How do we find meaning and make sense of our lives? We can start by beginning to write.
Alice Hoffman is the author of Faithful, The Marriage of Opposites and Practical Magic.
Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Oprah.com Spirit Newsletter!