Writing therapy can be more than writing a journal on a therapist’s suggestion—though writing a journal may be the stimulus for someone more ambitious. Where someone has a long story to tell, writing therapy can take the shape of a whole book. Or, approaching it from the writing rather than the therapy side, writing a memoir can be therapy in that it is an excellent way to find closure on a period of our life that was difficult in some way or another.
Difficult times & horrifying statistics
We all have difficult periods in our lives, and these times can either break us or make us. We can buckle under the weight of them and let them destroy us or we can see them as a learning opportunity and grow from them, even if we have to fall to the depths of despair first. With the help of a good therapist, we can rebuild our self-esteem even after its been totally broken.
Some people experience serious trauma in their life. Unfortunately abuse in families and in spiritual and corporate contexts are rife in our society.
The 2018 statistics for domestic abuse in Australia are horrifying. One in 6 (1.6 million) women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a cohabiting partner since age 15. One in 6 (1.5 million) women and 1 in 9 (992,000) men were physically and/or sexually abused before the age of 15. 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15. That means that abuse touches a great many people in our society, and I expect that Australia’s statistics are not too different to a lot of other Western countries.
I’ve had a pretty good life, but my first husband hit me a couple of times, and a man pressed a burning cigarette into my thigh when I was leaving the stage after dancing in a night club. (I left my first husband, and I gave the creep in the club a karate kick to the head—I didn’t connect, just held my foot a centimetre away from his head, enough to freak him out. Then I had the club owner throw him out after he forced him to apologise and told the guy that he was lucky I didn’t want to press charges. These events faded into my memory, so when the #metoo hashtag went viral, I was shocked to realise that I had to also say #metoo.
I tell you this just to show you how widespread abuse is in our society. It touches a lot of us. I wasn’t left with trauma but many get it a lot worse. Some suffer for years in abusive situations and then need years of therapy to regain their equilibrium.
Writing as closure
‘In individuals who have experienced a traumatic or extremely stressful event, expressive writing can have a significant healing effect. In fact, participants in a study who wrote about their most traumatic experiences for 15 minutes, four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).’
Writing therapy usually takes the form of journal writing and is most effective if directed by a therapist, however, a journal can easily end up becoming a lot of writing, and at some point writing a book may seem more likely to give closure than small entries into a journal. Why? Because seeing your experience as a whole story, as taking place within a time frame with a beginning, middle and end, helps you step back from it and see it as just part of your life. It helps you to not identify yourself with that part of your life. It helps you to step outside of your own story and see it in a new light.
Writing a book about our painful experiences reawakens the pain to some degree, because in writing about trauma, we live it again, but the idea of writing a book about our traumatic experiences is that we see it through new eyes. We see if from where we are now, and that looking back from a different perspective, especially if it’s from a perspective that has learned about the dynamics of our trauma, is very healing. Writing about our traumatic experiences when they are still fresh, however, is not advisable. Doing it too soon can simply continue the pain, keep the wounds open and continue to stimulate painful emotions. We need to wait until we can view our past experience with some kind of equanimity. Then we can write for closure.
‘Writing therapy is focused on thinking about, interacting with, and analysing the events, thoughts, and feelings that the writer writes down.’ Courtney Ackerman
Writing a book is a great way to help you sort out what exactly went wrong, what you learned, what you wouldn’t do again, what you’d watch out for and avoid in future and so on. Through writing you can come to a point where you have concluded the story of that part of your life, and that helps you to let go of the pain and truly move on with your life.
To publish or not
Such a book need never be read by anyone else. That’s not its purpose. A book written for closure as part of healing, learning and growing from a traumatic situation is written for you, and that’s an excellent reason. There is no need to even consider that such a book might be published. However, sometimes books written for closure can be of enormous assistance to others who have experienced something similar, or for those who have no idea of what survivors of traumatic events go through, and so it worth considering whether or not your book written for closure might be something worth publishing.
If you do decide to publish your story, you will need to rewrite your book because there is a big difference between writing as closure and writing for others to read. Writing for closure is only ever one draft, and it’s likely to be messy because we’re using the writing to sort things out in our mind. When we come to write our story for others, we write a second draft, and since we’ve already sorted out our ideas in the writing for closure, we can now approach the subject matter more as a story, just someone’s story. It happens to be our story, of course, but writing it again for others helps us to take yet another step back from the traumatic experiences. In the first instance, we wrote in order to help ourselves. If we decide our story is worth publishing, than we write in order to help others.
Writing for others
Stories of how people get out of despair and heal from traumatic situations are inspiring and incredibly helpful to others trying to get out of similar circumstances, so if you have such a story, consider writing it, not just for yourself, but for others as well.
Even without serious trauma, how someone navigates any kind of life challenge is what makes a story interesting. Such periods of difficulty are the content that makes for a memoir that’s readable for people other than our immediate family. If our lives are too perfect, if we don’t have any challenges, anything to test us, then our memoir is unlikely to be very interesting to the general reader.
Is it worth publishing
Just as anyone with a functioning body can dance, but not everyone can be a professional dancer, so everyone who is literate can write but not everyone can write a book that should be published or is worthy of being published. Once you decide to write for potential publication, you are facing a lot of work in revising and self-editing and, unless you get a legacy publisher, a financial outlay for editing and publishing. If you’re not a writer and have no training or experience in writing, then professional assistance from an early stage (after 2-3 drafts) will save you a lot of time and agony in shaping your story into something worthy of publication. And a professional can advise as to how to best present your story so that it will be of most benefit to potential readers.
During my holiday, I wrote a book primarily for closure on a chapter of my life where I was witness to a lot of other people’s stories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in a spiritual context. Since these were people in the same spiritual group I was in, this was pretty shocking for me, and I and all the others in the group struggled to come to terms with it. I moderated a Facebook group for survivors and their supporters and the book is not just my story of processing the revelations of abuse by my spiritual teacher, but also the story of a group processing. When I finished it, I breathed a great sigh of relief. Now, I have finished with that part of my life.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not still supporting survivors, I am and always will; and it doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to advocate for a world free of abuse in any way that I can; it just means that I can see the last eighteen months as a story of part of my life, a story that I have stepped out of. I think this will make me even more effective in any actions I take to advocate for a world free of abuse in all areas.
But do I publish it? I likely will write a second draft—after I’ve decided what will be best to be in there for the purpose of assisting others—and see how it turns out. Then I will run it by a couple of editor friends and see what they think. Then we’ll see.
So all this is to encourage you to write your story. Whatever it is. Write it for yourself. Write so you can have closure on a part of your life that you want to move on from. It can help you to see your experience as a learning opportunity and grow from it. No story is too small or too large or too boring or too traumatic to be written for the purpose of closure. And after you’ve written it for yourself, then if you want, you can ask yourself if it would be of any benefit to anyone else. If it isn’t, that’s fine. You wrote it for yourself and that’s the best possible reason to write your story.
I look forward to seeing your stories.
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