Today’s post is inspired by a reading and panel discussion I have coming up next week with two other authors. We’ll be discussing the connection between art – in this case writing – and healing, for both the writer and the reader.
In preparation for the talk, I spent some time organizing my thoughts about a topic that I’ve come to realize is more complex than I appreciated before writing SIDE BY SIDE.
Throughout the process of writing SIDE BY SIDE, and since having published it, I’ve thought a lot about the connection between art and healing, most likely because writing the book was such an intense process that it challenged many of my long-held beliefs about the creation of art and catharsis, thereby transforming my knowledge from intellectual to a more personal experience.
In school, when I learned about catharsis, the purging of emotion was always presented in a positive light. Art was a way to unburden the soul. While I’ve certainly experienced that kind of positive release through writing, I’ve also since learned that when it comes to the great, unchangeable pains of life—for instance, when one is touched by trauma—catharsis and healing can only go so far. In writing, as in life, healing isn’t always possible, and sometimes there is nothing that can be done but bear the pain.
Perhaps it’s the magnitude of the pain itself that is the determining factor. Throughout my life, I’ve always dealt with challenging emotions and experiences by journaling and writing poetry, as a way of processing and ridding myself of the negative, and I afterwards I usually feel better. Writing has always been one of my primary coping skills.
I went into writing SIDE BY SIDE with the same expectation. I was struggling with a great deal of pain and didn’t know what else to do with it but write my way through it, as Joan Didion would say. However, during the process, I was confronted with the limitations of writing and the healing it could offer me, the writer, as a person.
In fact, throughout the seven or so years that it took for me to write the book, I would always reach a point where I would have to step away for an extended period of time, because the subject matter was so retraumatizing it was literally making me sick.
Looking back, I think of the writing process for SIDE BY SIDE as one of release and reimagination. It wasn’t so much the release, or purging of emotion, that was healing for me, although I’m sure it had benefits in terms of processing trauma.
What really made a difference for me as a writer and a person, was being able to reimagine, through the story and the characters. Giving their lives a different outcome, offering them resolution, gave me something where before I felt as though I had nothing. For a long time, I wasn’t able to name what that something was. Recently, however, I’ve been able to recognize it as peace. I felt at peace, perhaps not for myself, but for the characters. And that, in and of itself, was healing.
Another motivation for writing the book was to give voice to the experiences of survivors, so that they might see themselves reflected in literature. I also envisioned the book not only as a place survivors could see themselves reflected, but as a place where they might be able to reflect on their experiences, and find validation, connection, and community, all of which are offerings of healing.
Although, of course, the book is merely an offering. Every reader’s experience is unique and it’s impossible to know what emotions a book, or a piece of art, might trigger. As I discovered in writing SIDE BY SIDE, while healing isn’t a guarantee, there is at least the potential for it.
Thanks for reading. And if you’re in the neighbourhood next week, we’d love to talk books with you. Details above.
A :-) xo