Writing and Healing: Five Stellar Strategies for Writing Through Tough Times

by Pamela Jane on April 1, 2012

Writing and Healing LogoPost #37 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing and Healing

Five Stellar Strategies for Writing Through Tough Times

by Pamela Jane Bell

Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir

It can be hard enough writing when everything in your life is going smoothly, but what about when you hit a rough patch?   In truth, completing a memoir (or any work of art) is a triumph.  If things took their natural course, nothing would ever be completed – the odds are against it.  The writer has to assert her will over illness, inertia, accidents, backed-up drains, financial worries, and telemarketers.woman writing 2

By observing myself and interviewing other writers, I’ve come up with five strategies for helping you write through tough times.  I hope you’ll find them helpful and that you’ll enhance our list by sharing some tips of your own!

1.  Go portable

Writing is an admirably portable art whether you use a pen and paper or a laptop.

Years ago, I was undergoing a medical procedure that required me to get up at 4:00 every morning, leave my peaceful farmhouse, and take the train to Philadelphia.

I was not happy.  What would happen to my writing day?  To the quiet moments conversing with the beloved maple tree outside my window?  I decided I would keep a journal to entertain and distract myself.  At least I would be writing something.

Rather than concentrating on my own thoughts and feelings, as I had in earlier journals, I resolved to make this new journal an exercise in observing.

woman on train“I want to see everything, to notice every detail of the world around me in these weeks, describe everything I see in vivid clarity…I look out the train window and imagine the young man standing on the platform lighting a cigarette is my son.  He’s Asian –  Japanese, perhaps –- and I imagine he’s leaving, going away from his family and home.  It’s 1944 and we’ve been in an internment camp.  Now my son has a chance to leave, to go to war for his country.  As his mother, my feelings are mixed as I watch him on the platform – my son.”

These reflections took me out of myself, and trained me to observe more sharply.  It was the beginning of a journal I’ve kept faithfully ever since, one I may never have started if  I had stayed home in my quiet writing room.

You can also write while walking.  When I was living in Florence, I walked up into the hills overlooking the city every afternoon while dictating my journal into my tape recorder.  (If anyone came along, I just pretended to be talking on my cell phone.)  The writing I did while walking had a gentle, rolling gait.  Now when I read my impressions of an early spring walk, I feel like I’m right back there again.

“The lane dips down here…I wonder what’s around the corner.  The sound of a spade hitting rock…the smell of newly turned earth…scurrying of lizards in the ivy when my shadow falls across the wall.  In the meadows, bird song and pealing of church bells.”images

2.  Make the act of writing bigger than yourself

My friend Nancy says, “During tough times I visualize myself as a conduit for another human being out there who may be suffering as much as I am. I then can choose my mode of connecting depending on what I need for comfort.  Do I need empathy? Do I seek inspiration to lift me out of my own negativity?  Do I want humor to charm ‘Miss Grumpy Pants?’ By making my act of writing bigger than myself… I find motivation to ‘apply the seat of my pants,’ as my junior high teacher told us, and just do it.”

3.  Write about what you’re going through, while you’re going through it

When my husband was undergoing heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic last year, I invested in an iPad and emailed friends and family as events unfolded.  When someone you love experiences a health crisis, events are so obviously out of your control – that is, fate is so obviously at play – that nursesnarrating what is happening at the very moment it is happening can be liberating.  You get caught up recording odd bits of dialogue, gossip between co-workers, the facial tick of the relaxation therapist.

4.  Find the humor

As my husband recovered from surgery in the hospital, I decided to have an endoscopy I’d been putting off.  The nurses at the Cleveland Clinic were kind enough to let me use my iPad as I waited to be wheeled into the operating room for the procedure.

I don’t do well with medical procedures.  I always imagine the doctor will give me bad news.  In my mind, I hear him saying, not very sympathetically, “Now I don’t want you to panic, but there’s a problem with your test.  Let’s take this one step at a time.”

I was getting more and more agitated by my vivid imaginings while I waited to be wheeled into the operating room.  Meanwhile, I kept tapping away on my iPad.

“I’m thinking of having a panic attack, but I’ll wait until they wheel me in,” I emailed a friend.  “No reason to rush it.”

I was laughing at myself in the midst of my terror and entertaining my friend in the process.  That helped me get through.

5.  Just one page

Author Elvira Woodruff told me about her own strategy for writing during tough times:

“I’ve written through some hard times over the last twenty some years – divorce, a cancer scare and operation, a toxic relationship, and worst of all my son’s descent into drugs.  There were many days when I felt as if I had no control. I wrote because I needed to make a living, not realizing that writing through tough times is what gave me strength…and by doing that I gained composure and confidence to face the negatives that seemed to be swamping my own life story.

“One thing that really helped was setting smaller goals. Instead of four or five pages a day I’d say to myself just one page.  Just showing up for the one page settled me down. I wrote two books of letters through one rough life patch and that was a godsend, because I’d say to myself, One letter. Just write one letter today.

DEAR LEVI:  LETTERS FROM THE OVERLAND TRAIL by Elvira Woodruff

DEAR LEVI: LETTERS FROM THE OVERLAND TRAIL by Elvira Woodruff

“Looking back over the books I wrote through those hard times, I wouldn’t say they were my best work. They were darker, moodier pieces, but they weren’t bad. They were good stories and they paid my bills, and better than that they empowered me to keep going and show up and be strong for those I loved in the story that matters most to me – my own.”

“I’ve always found that writing helps me to clarify what I’m thinking and feeling,” author Pat Brisson writes,   Putting nebulous, frustrating, angry, raw emotions down on paper forces me to organize them, capture them and deal with them.  I feel as long as I can give a name to something, it loses some of its power over me.”

The very act of writing during hard times is healing because it compels us to organize the seemingly random and chaotic events of life into a thing of beauty and economy – a story.

memoir, memoir writing, writing, memoir and healing, writing and healing

Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-six children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.

Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.” Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:

“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review


Pamela Jane’s first book, Noelle of the Nutcracker (Houghton Mifflin, illustrated by Jan Brett) is still in print:

“Jane’s first book magically captures the dreams-can-come-true atmosphere of the holiday season…Jane is a skillful storyteller. A lovely novella any time of the year.”— Publishers Weekly

memoir, memoir writing, writing, memoir and healing, writing and healing
Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.

Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”

storytelling, memoir, memoir writing

Pamela Jane Bell has extensive experience mentoring children’s book authors, some of whom have gone on to highly successful careers. She is available to analyze manuscripts for any age level – board book to young-adult – and to suggest strategies for breaking in. Please contact Pamela if you are interested in having her help you write, revise, or submit a children’s manuscript.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Gene Bodzin April 2, 2012 at

Thanks for this. It helps to be reminded that even the most difficult task must be done one small step at a time and that the mystery of creativity is a gift, which is not granted to everybody but which you can draw on in all emotional circumstances. Another thing I have found through the years is that hardship is less likely to keep me from writing than complacency and comfort. The tension of everyday life brings me back to my desk. Writing becomes a kind of zen, a salve, a balm. It has never failed me. It has unfailingly protected me against whatever is going on around me.

Matilda Butler April 2, 2012 at

Pamela: These are great tips. I just re-read your article because I was going to comment on my favorite one. My thought process went something like this:
“Make the Act of Writing Bigger Than Yoursel–”

“No, no, the practicality of Go Portable.”

“Wait, Just One Page is motivationa–”

“Ok. Now, I’m sure it is “Write About What You Are Going Thro-”

“Maybe I should choose Find the Humor. Oops. Can always find the humor, but can I write that way?”

“All right. Now I get why Pamela put together a list of 5. They are all important.”

Thanks, Pamela.

Pamela Jane April 2, 2012 at

Gene,

Thank you for sharing you thoughts about writing during hard times. I love what you wrote about writing protecting you from whatever is going on around you. That is so comforting!

Pamela Jane April 2, 2012 at

Matilda,

Your comments made me smile; I’m glad the strategies are helpful; I often need reminding myself. I’m interested to see what others will share as well.

joyce apsel April 3, 2012 at

Dear Pamela, thank you for your helpful suggestions;
and affirmation that each of us in our way can write and that many of us struggle to keep going….sometimes I go over and over what I have written and have to push myself to let go and not be overwhelmed. thank you so much for sharing your experiences and feelings. please give my best wishes to John and Anneliese. Happy spring…all the best, Joyce Apsel

P.Allen Jones April 5, 2012 at

My experience with writing my memoir about living with Sickle Cell Disease was very complex. I wrote and cried, put the work down, then read it later after I calmed down. The chapter about my abusive mother’s death was written 6 months after she died. I gave myself time to grieve. That chapter was an act of love rather than one of anger and sadness. I’m pleased with the result.

Pamela Jane April 5, 2012 at

Thank you so much for your comment; I really like what you wrote about giving yourself time, and I do think that memoir can be an expression of forgiveness. Thank you for reminding me of that!

Jessica Solsona April 7, 2012 at

I was molested as a child for 7 years by my step dad while my mom knew about it. She did nothing. My mom was abused by him everyday. Us kids had to sit in a line and watch him while he beat her. When the nanny who cleaned the house found out what my step dad was doing she called the police. My mom denied all of what she knew. She said she hated me because she thought that i tried to steal her husband. She said that I messed up her life and beat me everyday! I was almost killed by my mother twice and dropped off into to no where. I had to walk home at 2 in the morning. my mom would beat me when ever she felt. I married and abusive man and held hostage in Costa Rica for one year and I had to fight to get out of it for my two kids that we had together. My kids and I got back to the USA in one peace and without him. He was not able to come back to the USA. It was the best thing that could of ever happen to us. I fought to get on my feet and did not trust anyone. I got a Job and met a wonderful man. The only thing i took from my past is flash backs of bad memories and PTSD. They did not take who I am as person but took my childhood that I could never get back. I want to write about how It felt being in my shoes and how I got out. Do you think people would read such a thing? It would help me heal in the mean time and I could help someone who has PTSD or who has been molested, abused,rapped,hated,or held hostage. I don’t know how I made it out but I did. I think it was to help someone. I want to know if my past is readable and if It could be published as a book. Thank you to who ever response to this!! :)

Pamela Jane April 9, 2012 at

Jessica, thank you for your comment and your story. My experience has been that the search for a strong narrative that will capture readers’ attention is in itself a healing process for the writer. Many people are interested in stories of triumph, healing, or overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. My suggestion would be to get the story down on paper first without editing yourself, and then take some time to see how you might shape it into a narrative that expresses what you want to say and that would, at the same time, be of interest or inspiration to others.

Matilda Butler April 9, 2012 at

Jessica:

Thank you for leaving such a heartfelt comment. It is terrible that you lost your childhood to such circumstances.

Are you seeing a therapist? Some therapists use journal writing as one of their techniques for healing. That is a good way to write through your story the first time. Of course, a journal isn’t a book manuscript, but it is a start. Writing, especially journaling, is a healing tool and may give you more perspective on your own life.

Then, after you have been journaling for a while, you might look for a writing group. Sometimes you can find one through a local library or other such organization. Community colleges also offer extension, adult, community courses in memoir writing. These are not part of the degree offerings but are an extension of teaching for adults who want to learn about a new topic.

I hope that some of these resources will help you move forward.

–Matilda

Jessica Solsona April 9, 2012 at

Thanks you guys!! I am seeing someone and I am now i been seeing different people for 9 years. 33 years old and not one of them can help me with my problem. They say it is amazing I am still here. I don’t want to be babied about what I been through. I just want to feel normal and like to fit in. I want to be able to drive down memory lane and not panic. I had this crazy idea that someone out there can read my memoir and say that it helped them somehow. It can make the person going or have went through something like that and not feel so alone. I can write it on paper and let out and speak out for the first time! I am the kind of person who helps others and not me. I want to still help who i am able to. I am going to keep writing for those little girls who are damaged by the hand of there parents and there is hope that there no alone. Thank you so much!!:)

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