Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God--More Thoughts on Writing and Words

In my previous post, I responded to passages in Patience With God where Frank Schaeffer discusses writing and words. Doing so has now inspired me to write this post, where I will explain some of the wonderful things I experience through writing.

KEEPING MEMORIES. This seems fairly obvious: writing is a way of preserving memories by recording them in words that I can return to time and again. But beyond that, writing accesses memories. If I start writing about something I remember vaguely, I often find that the act of writing brings up more and more detail. Writing also brings to mind entire memories that I had forgotten.

LIVING MY LIFE TWICE. This is a wonderful benefit of writing. I can live my life twice. I live it first as lived experience. Then I live it again by writing about it. The writing causes me to delve deeply into my experience, to mine its richness, to live my life more fully. Donald M. Murray, a long-time columnist for the Boston Globe and a writing professor at the University of New Hampshire, wrote a memoir titled My Twice-Lived Life, based on this very idea. Through his writing, Donald Murray has been a great inspiration to me as a writer and a teacher of writing. He died at age 82 in 2006.

CLARIFYING MY THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. If I want to know what I think or feel about something, a sure way to find out is to write about it. The very act of writing freely about a subject pulls up my thoughts and feelings and spills them onto the page. I can gain greater clarity by reading what I have written, perhaps writing further and reading again, doing this a number of times, and then organizing the material into a coherent piece. Taking the time to articulate my thoughts and feelings makes them clear to me. I have placed my thoughts and feelings onto a page, where I can see them outside of myself. They are no longer roiling about vaguely and namelessly inside me. It is important to add that such a piece of writing is a snapshot of my thoughts and feelings at a particular moment in time, so I need to hold them loosely, realizing that my thoughts and feelings may well evolve and that I can then clarify that evolution with additional writing.

MAKING MY EXPERIENCE REAL TO ME. To name and articulate something, to put it into words, makes it real. Unnamed experience is often vague. Here is an example. As a child, I sometimes had a feeling of blackness that sat in my chest. I believed that this was an aberration that marked me as defective and that nobody else had such a deviant feeling. The whole thing was vague and shameful to me. I couldn't "see" it clearly, but I knew it was bad. When I was able, as an adult, to name this blackness as depression and to describe it in words, this made a huge difference. My experience became real to me and I could do something about it. Likewise, Karen Armstrong in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness describes what a relief it was to name and describe the symptoms of epilepsy, which had caused her anguish for years because these symptoms were so frightening and incomprehensible.

For me, it has also been hugely helpful to name and describe the Adult Children of Alcoholics syndrome, to see some of those characteristics in myself (as I grew up in a home with an alcoholic parent), to make this experience real to me and to do something about it. Janet G. Woititz's book The Self Sabotage Syndrome: Adult Children in the Workplace has been very helpful with this. In addition, Sonia Johnson in From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman's Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church helped me to name and articulate the previously vague experience of breaking a taboo, something I had done in leaving the Catholic Church.

Betty Friedan helped women to name and understand their vague malaise in The Feminine Mystique and then to take action. Patricia Evans helps anyone suffering from verbal abuse to name and understand it in The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, so that one can "see" this abuse in a concrete way and take action.

PUTTING MY EXPERIENCE OUTSIDE MYSELF. Writing takes my experience outside of myself and puts it onto the page, where I can look at it more objectively. I can "see" my experience more clearly on the page than I can when it remains locked within me. This often has a calming effect on me when I write about something troubling. Just the fact that I can look at the experience in written form, outside myself, makes any inner turmoil far less intense.

ENTERING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES. Writing opens a kaleidoscope of perspectives. I can explore how a situation appears to someone very different from myself by putting myself into his or her mind, so to speak, and writing from that place. For example, if I have a disagreement with my sister, I can "become" my sister and write about the situation from her point of view, thus giving me greater understanding of where she is coming from. I can also converse with someone on paper, speaking as myself and then as the other person. I can even do this with someone who has died. I can explore what the world looked or looks like to a Neanderthal person, to a Druid in Britain 2000 years ago, to a woman arrested as a witch during the Spanish Inquisition, to a Union soldier during the Civil War, to my grandmother during the Great Depression, to Adolph Hitler, to Mother Teresa, to Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush, to God.

PULLING UP INSIGHTS. Writing is a way to access my unconscious, to know consciously things that I didn't know I knew. As I write, I sometimes find myself pouring insights onto the page, insights that I would not have accessed otherwise.

FINDING SOLUTIONS. Likewise, if I write about a problem, I often find myself writing through to possible solutions. Those solutions come to me through the act of writing.

HEALING. Writing heals. Because writing clarifies my thoughts and feelings, makes my experience real to me, puts my experience outside of myself, allows me to view an experience from multiple perspectives, pulls up insights, and finds solutions--because writing accomplishes all these things--writing heals.

BONDING WITH OTHERS. Naming and articulating one's experience connects one with others. When a writer shares his or her writing, readers connect with the writer's experience and even connect more deeply with their own experience. Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia helps me to understand something of the depths one can reach in meditation, even though I have not had that experience myself. Nancy Venable Raine in After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back helps me to understand what it is like to be and to have been raped, insofar as one can understand this without the actual lived experience. Frank Schaeffer is one of many writers who connect me to my own experience and help me to understand myself more deeply.

CREATING. In writing, I create. I produce a piece of written work. Creating is deeply satisfying and increases my joy.

ENERGIZING. Writing energizes me. Sometimes when I write, I feel actual currents of energy flowing through my body.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE WORLD. This is extremely important. The act of writing causes me to study my subject closely. I look deeply into the person, place, object, or idea that I am writing about. This close study opens my subject to me in greater fullness and glory and increases my appreciation for my subject. In fact, writing causes me to fall in love with my subject. I can say that I love my sister Maria more deeply because I have written a poem about her. I love Cafe Luna on the Levee more deeply because I have written a piece about it. I love my Vermont rock more deeply because I have written about finding it and about what it means to me. I dare say that Frank Schaeffer loves his wife, Genie, more deeply because he has written so beautifully about her. The more subjects I write about, the more I fall in love with my world.

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