Translating the Heart to the Page

In yesterday’s noon TLC meeting, we talked about writing as an instrument of healing in sobriety. By “writing” I don’t mean books or scholarly articles or anthology-ready poems, but rather journal entries, lists – anything that takes the words and feelings out of your head and makes some kind of sense of them on the page.

Why is writing therapeutic, especially for those of us in recovery? Simple. The act of attaching language to emotions – which is what we do when we translate that nebulous, knotted, writhing jumble of perceptions gyrating in the mind into words of substance and nuance – allows us to begin to process so much that was previously either unexamined, misinterpreted or unexpressed. Perhaps all of the above.

When we write, we unravel. We get more clear. We click in to ourselves.

The science behind the effectiveness of writing lies in its ability to get the two sides of our brains working in concert. “To tell a story that makes sense, the left brain must put things in order, using words and logic. The right brain contributes the bodily sensations, raw emotions, and personal memories, so we can see the whole picture and communicate our experience,” wrote Daniel Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child. “This is the scientific explanation behind why journaling and talking about a difficult event can be so powerful in helping us heal. In fact, research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry of the right hemisphere.”

Joan Didion put it another way: “I write entirely 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.

“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

Does that always look pretty? Does it need to? HELL NO. While we might hope to sit down at the blank page and channel some gorgeous word garland that flows, that is poetic, that reveals our inner Liz Gilbert… more often than not what is released to the paper reflects that jumble that we’re still making sense of. The writing is part of the process, not the finished product. Which means it is not perfect. It is not, even, as Anne Lamott says, a shitty first draft. It is, simply, the tangle visualized. It is the dump truck backing up… beep, beep, beep… and releasing its load of crap. Refinement – or, in my case, full and coherent sentences – comes much later.

In her most excellent book, “How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice,” Pat Schneider writes: “To write about what is painful is to begin the work of healing.” She also notes: “When we write deeply – that is, when we write what we know and do not know we know – we encounter mystery.” When that happens, it’s like watching a flower open, time lapse, from its bud – a moment of beauty and awe.

There are, however, days when the best you can come up with is a profane yell. Personally, I have begun many a session with my favorite word, repeated in various form, unparalleled in its ability to convey my deepest thoughts. You are welcome to borrow this technique any time. Because, talk about therapeutic!

Take to the page, darling. It does not have to be elegant or lucid and is for your eyes only. Use the words to unscramble yourself, relate to yourself, heal yourself. And if that feels too lofty a goal right now, start by leaning in to the dump truck idea and just fill that sucker up so you can make space for simpler, less knotted-up thoughts. That alone is more freeing than you might think.

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