As of June 2014 our mind bogglingly advanced world is fit to bursting with attention seekers sharing all manner of intimate details about themselves. Only in our generation has it become widely accepted as ‘normal’ for young women to proudly post pictures of their derrieres (belfies) in the public domain for the sole purpose of gaining the adulation of millions. Feuds that would once have taken place in private are now paraded across twitter and other social media platforms presenting ample opportunity for complete strangers to enter the fray. Even the moment of birth is not a private affair. Women give birth on live webcams for all to see. And what about Lindsay-Lohan’s much talked about sex list? I shall sum it up for you in just one word. Yuck!
Yes it’s true. Things that would once have been considered deeply private have now become acceptable to share. Sure, all it takes is the click of few buttons. So what about writer’s? Do the same rules apply to us? Can we put pen to paper now and write about whatever we want? And more to the point – should we?
Well unless you’ve been living on a desert island with nary a book in sight you will probably know that writers have been doing just that since the year dot. Take for example Susanna Kaysen’s book, Girl Interrupted published in 1993. That documents her two year stay in a mental institution and the suicide attempt that lead up to it. Her story is intensely personal and was no doubt difficult to write. Thankfully though, she did not let that hold her back from telling it. Not only has her story been made into a highly successful film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie but it has also helped countless people who have been through similar situations. Book forums are full of people who are thrilled to have found a story they can actually relate to.
Then there’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine. These are a series of books written in AD 397 by Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis which many regard as the first Western autobiography. Although it was written a long time ago, Augustine did not shy away from documenting what he regarded as his ‘sins’ – even those of a sexual nature. The main themes of the books are his intense regret and subsequent enlightenment upon converting to Christianity.
In light of the passing of Maya Angelou, I could hardly write this article and fail to include her. Over the years she wrote four outstanding autobiographies – all of them candid and unflinching in their narratives. Amongst other things she wrote about prostitution, rape, divorce, family and incest. Not exactly subjects for the faint hearted. These are stories of survival and strength and I’m sure I speak for many when I say that the world is a richer place for the telling of them.
There are many books that tell difficult stories, where the writer bravely opens up their heart to public scrutiny. But why do so? What can be gained by reading or writing such accounts?
Christine Wilson, author of The Kimmy Diaries also asked herself this question…
“Why would anyone want to write anything sad – something we’ve locked away and tried to forget? Is it a writer’s vanity that says I must use every experience in my life in order to be a better writer? Or is that I hope it will help me to ‘unload’ and for a reader to think ‘Oh, I felt that way too’. We all love a shared confidence. Writing the ‘sad thing’ meant writing up to it and beyond it but I just couldn’t write ‘it’. I felt like a racehorse refusing Beecher’s Brook but having cantered around for several chapters I had no choice but to write ‘it’, and I did it fast – at a gallop. I took no pleasure pulling the memory from my mind and trying to take a literary photograph – capture that moment in time. Forever. It felt like I was taking an ice cold bath but with a warm towel waiting for me after.”
Memories of the past can be like a prison without walls. When life treats us harshly it’s difficult to detach from the pain no matter how much we long to forget. Providing it doesn’t become an all encompassing obsession, writing about what hurts really can help. Many use it as a therapeutic tool to cope in the aftermath of abuse, bereavement, ill health and addictions etc. From 7/11 survivors to war veterans, literally millions of people cope by putting pen to paper.
Whitbread and Orange prize-shortlisted novelist Jill Dawson kept a journal since the age of nine. She had this to say about her reliance on writing;
‘It has helped me personally and also made me a better writer,’ she says, ‘because going over and over something eventually makes it clearer. A dream you don’t understand may make sense two years later. Obviously, it undergoes radical transformation before it becomes writing that you would want published, but it is a part of the process. You can find feelings by writing in this raw way that you can then explore using different events in a story.’
Believe it or not, studies have shown that there are even physical and immunological benefits to written disclosure whether in the form of creative writing or therapy. Professor James Pennebaker, author of the books ‘Writing to Heal’ and ‘Opening up’ had this to say on the subject;
“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives. You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience…standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”
Martelle McPartland, a poet and writer who runs a creative writing group in Northern Ireland had this to say;
“When facilitating groups one has to be mindful of a safe space. Some stories, especially in Northern Ireland where we are still dealing with the legacy of the conflict, are too traumatic for the participant to deal with, which is why topics need to be kept neutral to maintain and establish a safe space where creativity is allowed to develop without the attachment of residual trauma.
Poets and writers are more sensitive than the majority of people with a percentage of them admitting to be socially awkward. Often they focus on the unseen, a mood or the memory of a mood that affected them. They see something and that something is usually transferred via their subconscious into their conscious which can be recalled years later. The writing of a story is the marking of an event; this happened; I lived through this; this is my story; I am important; I am not alone; this is my voice. The most fascinating stories come from the margins of life, ordinary people living ordinary lives and yet, sometimes something out of the ordinary happens and does not fit in with life around it. These events form the nucleus of our stories.”
She asked a small cross section of her group about their own experiences in writing about matters close to the heart.
Kate Catney: It’s therapeutic. I desire to help others and be empathetic. It makes us feel secure in ourselves to share a way of thinking that is different to others. Writers and creative people are of like mind that’s why we get together
Christina Mitchell: Humans need to express and create. On a good day it soothes and relaxes, on many others it frustrates and exhausts. Yet like an itch, no matter how we try we will always eventually scratch.
John Thompson: It benefits the writer and the people who read. A person that doesn’t write has no advantage over someone who can’t write.
Denis Linden: I have written many stories about my life, they may not be well written but what I have written is my life!
Philomena Gallagher: For me, creative writing is the lifeboat on my turbulent sea of life. In the ebbs and tides of life, often the pen scratches its own story. Creative writing has given me a lifeline and a voice, which would have remained silent and static.
Laura Cameron: Writing is like tearing out your own heart with your bare hands, pinning it to the pub wall and inviting people to throw darts at it.
Below is an example of the deeply emotive work Martelle and her group produce.
When we open up with such candour there are undoubtedly benefits for the readers too. Anything you share about yourself and your life has the potential to enrich the life of another. Ancient cultures retold each other’s exploits and stories, handing them down orally to subsequent generations. That’s how knowledge and life skills were passed on. Not much has changed in that regard. Lessons can still be learnt from history and I’m not just talking about the stuff you find in museums. Each and every second that every single one of us lives, is history in itself whether we realise it or not. We are all part of its elaborate tapestry.
Kathleen Smith, author of Marriages & Miscarriages says,
“My book about my three miscarriages was written to help other women recognise they aren’t alone in their pain. Without me even realising it, it also helped me heal emotionally. It helped me reflect on all that I had gone through during my miscarriages and how my marriage became stronger as a result. That’s not to say it was easy. I did a lot of crying during the writing process, but the struggle was well worth it!”
But What If People Don’t Approve of Our Frankness?
Well firstly, no one has to make public what they write unless they want to. There are still benefits to be gained even if no one else ever reads it. But that’s where it stops. To write and publish a true life account takes strength and the willingness to accept whatever criticism and judgement comes your way. And that’s not easy. Not only may people criticize your writing style they may make comments about your character or choices you and others made.
In my own book, Not Your Legacy, I found it vitally important to hold onto my original motives for writing it. To some it may appear that I wrote it out of a desire for revenge or perhaps to set the record straight as it were. But in actual fact the simple truth is that I needed to tell it. And I wanted to be able to say to others ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ And ‘Hey, keep your chin up. You can get through it.’
To be fair, there are always going to be people who miss the point or who berate you for having the bravery to put yourself on the line. So worry not about the haters and just concentrate on giving free reign to your gift of expression in the hope that something good may come out of it.
A range of books published by the authors who either contributed to this article or who were mentioned, can be found by clicking on the links below.
The Kimmy Diaries
publisher: Authors OnLine Ltd, published: 2008-10-13
sales rank: 6849225
price: $10.28 (new), $12.53 (used)
How to go from unwanted to most-wanted in just six months. Does your cat ever worry that he or she is not spoilt enough? Does your feline friend fear you’re not quite good enough. And do you worry that Bath Cats and Dogs Home is not making enough money to keep its doors open to the cats, dogs and small animals that it takes in every day? Well worry no more! By buying The Kimmy Diaries you can learn how to seriously spoil your cat rotten whilst helping the animals at Claverton Down. That’s because all the author’s royalties from this book will go to help the animals at Bath Cats and Dogs Home. So buy one and then buy a few more for your friends. This is the book your cats would write if they didn’t have you to read it to them. Top Tip Whiskas, Felix and even gourmet ranges are all well and good – delicious even – but a truly pampered cat will aspire to food that has to be specially ordered from a pet shop at huge expense to your Mum. It should go without saying that own-brand cat food is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Marriages and Miscarriages: One Woman’s Personal Experience
by: Kathleen Smith
publisher: lulu.com, published: 2011-02-03
sales rank: 3827900
price: $7.50 (new), $11.00 (used)
Kathleen Smith shares her experience regarding the three miscarriages she experienced. The trials and emotional changes, the feelings experienced when being around other pregnant woman after having had a miscarriage, how turning to God got her through them, and more. Kathleen, a mother of three and entering her sixteenth year of marriage, relates her personal feelings and emotions. As you read the book you will experience a conversation with Kathleen about this topic, and learn how one woman dealt and struggled with this topic.
Not Your Legacy
by: Samantha J Wright
publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, published: 2014-05-28
price: $10.69 (new)
After a chance meeting at the age of sixteen, Sam leaves behind her father and her reformed alcoholic mother and moves to Northern Ireland to set up home with a man she barely knows. The two of them continue to practice the religion they were both raised in but scratch below the surface and life’s not what it appears. This story documents her battle with depression, abuse, the aftermath of suicide, a troubled marriage, and most of all her disastrous involvement with the Jehovah’s Witness church. It’s a journey that cost her dearly and as many of her readers have already discovered, Not Your Legacy is far more than just a series of real life events. It retells the story of one woman’s metamorphosis of mind, body and soul.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by: Maya Angelou
publisher: Ballantine Books, published: 2009-04-21
sales rank: 8
price: $3.52 (new), $3.43 (used)
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age–and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns about love for herself and the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern American classic that will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions
by: James W. Pennebaker
publisher: The Guilford Press, published: 1997-08-08
sales rank: 43306
price: $8.96 (new), $0.72 (used)
Anyone who has ever entrusted a troubling secret to a journal, or mourned a broken heart with a friend, knows the feeling of relief that expressing painful emotions can bring. This book presents astonishing evidence that personal self-disclosure is not only good for our emotional health, but boosts our physical health as well.Psychologist James W. Pennebaker has conducted controlled clinical research that sheds new light on the powerful mind body connection. This book interweaves his findings with insightful case studies on secret-keeping, confession, and the hidden price of silence. Filled with information and encouragement, Opening Up
*Why suppressing inner problems takes a devastating toll on health
*How long-buried trauma affects the immune system
*How writing about your problems can improve your health
*Why it’s never too late to heal old emotional wounds
*When self-disclosure may be risky–and how to know whom to trust