Friday, February 3, 2017

How Writing Offers Healing


A pastor's daughter had everything she ought to need to be happy--a loving husband, sweet children, a stable home life. She had had painful sadness in her past. Everyone does. But for some reason she couldn't explain, she had spiraled down into a serious depression.

It went on and on and on. They couldn't find a way to cure it. Her husband got worn down trying to hold the family together. At last, he was contemplating using up his savings to send her away to a quiet place where she could find healing.

When she heard of his plan, that sounded like the worst possible ending to her struggle. Before that happened, she saw another doctor. He made one request: an experiment. He asked her to write him one letter every day and tell him how she was doing.

Gradually her letters got longer and longer. She felt guilty spending so much time and feeling so much joy writing a man who wasn't her husband. But she was getting better. What had happened to her? One day, the clouds lifted, and she had her answer.

She felt better because she was writing again.

When this pastor's daughter was younger, she loved writing. But somehow the writing got lost amid growing up, and depression had come in to take its place. For her, writing had a direct affect on her mental well-being.

Her name is Thyra Ferre Bjorn. Her heart-warming biographies, Papa's Wife, Papa's Daughter, and Mama's Way, are lost classics.

But her story makes me think.

The Necessity of Writing 
Thyra isn't the only person to come to that conclusion. I was browsing through the Internet wilderness one day, and while I don't remember the title of the author or the book, the story was extremely similar. The author went through a period where her health wasn't good. After trying to find out what was wrong with her, the thing that cured her was her long-abandoned, stifled love for writing. Writing mattered in maintaining her personal health.

Over the last two or three years, I've been through my own share of difficult events. (Just like everyone, really.) Some are small and some are large, but I am beginning to realize that for me, the same principle of writing and health applies.

I've never been one to journal. It drives me crazy to write about my day and my feelings in a cohesive paragraph form. But I have always been one to write stories. And in those stories, I explore everything from questions I have (sometimes I find answers) to processing pain and life. Processing is so very, very important for any human being. If you don't process, the things don't go away. They just wait, layering up like a stack of unsorted mail, until the day you're finally going to surrender and deal with them. If you wait to deal with them too long, they layer up until they choke and debilitate you.

Some people process through talking--art--service--music. Or writing.

As I looked over hard events last year, I realized that some of them were handled without meltdowns, and some of them were handled with a lot of tears and despair. I couldn't understand how some I had gone through without being debilitated, while others left me sidelined. God was with me in both places. Prayer or lack thereof was certainly a factor in it all. But one of the missing links in the hard times was when I stopped writing.

I was busy. I was trying to get certified in a writing curriculum. Writing would just have to go on the back burner for a while. Making that drastic of a cut to something I loved was a bad decision. After a month of not writing things I loved, I was burned out. Story writing was an "if time" activity, but I was keeping up pretty decently on blog posts. That burnout continued into the fall. I had lots of writing inspiration, but only enough energy to follow through in small ways. A plateful of social and work events turned the weeks into a whirl of activity. It wasn't that I never wrote. I worked on stories, planned stories, and went to writer's conferences. But I wasn't writing intentionally to keep myself in tune. Writing had turned from "important" to "optional" because I was overbooked and overbusy.

I had laid aside my means of processing life, and that started to show. I would sometimes mention that I didn't have time to write very much. People would tell me "It's OK, life happens." But what I needed in retrospect was for someone to look at me and say, "I know these things are important, and you are growing older and have different responsibilities. But you need to make time for writing too." Even though that might have helped, it's OK that neither they or I knew. This season had its purpose. Like Tyra and her husband, sometimes you just don't know what would help, and you have to walk through the pain to find out.

One Sunday afternoon, I turned on Scrivener. I had never written on Sundays up to that point. It was a day I strictly observed for rest, because I wrote so much during the week. (That's me, not a principle I think everyone has to observe.) But I was sad that day, and it was growing so overwhelming that I pulled out a story. It was a Schuyler story: filled with pain and quirk and worship and bonfires, and yummy descriptions of food. It felt like just what I needed.

I was processing again on paper.

It felt like getting a drink after a long time of being without water.

The Question 
It begs the question: does writing dull pain? Is it like a narcotic that makes you forget your troubles? That can be the case. Writing can encourage you to avoid facing real life by fixing your problems on paper, or it can be an idol of self-fulfillment. But I think there's two sides of the coin to that: There's a method of dulling pain that is sinful, but that doesn't mean all pain killer is sinful.

If you're trying to use writing as your only means to achieve mental health, then that's not healthy. There were ways of processing outside of writing that I needed to grow in. Over last fall, I started learning to talk to people, not just paper, about painful things. I even journaled a bit (it's sporadic, but once in a blue moon it happens.) I started memorizing a lot more and praying a lot more. Those are all part of the mental/spiritual health equation. Writing can be a crutch if you're not talking to God and not talking to people. I learned more balance in those areas. When writing is a coping mechanism that helps you avoid real life, that's the tare among the wheat that needs to be refined away.

But processing through writing can also be a good thing. Ann Voskamp, in an interview on YouTube, said that she has to write to understand her life and what God is teaching her. It clarifies the picture, invites others into her personal pain, and shares the journey of healing with them.

I like to think that's the good side of processing through writing. Stories are a means of tracing themes through my own life: Friendship. Pain. Broken relationships. Loss. Joy. Worship. When I am not tracing those themes through the lives of characters, my soul starves. The gift of being able to feel and express inner pain on paper is something that not only blesses me, but blesses those who read my stories as well.

Late last year I knew writing helped with pain, but I was afraid that it was an unspiritual means of doing it. Sometimes I would tell my sister that I didn't want writing to be a crutch. But I had a messed up balance. I was worried that as a Christian I shouldn't need writing to be a whole person. But God created me to be a whole person with writing. It's not a crutch--it's an important part of my life goals, my love, and my mental wiring.

Perhaps in some ways it requires humility to say "I don't understand all the reasons why I need to write. But I do understand that along with wise counselors, Scripture, prayer, and memorizing, writing is one of the requirements to my being a healthy person. And I need to listen to that need."

Perhaps, too, writing is a crutch. But perhaps I am, after all, a cripple, and that is God's instrument of grace to me. Or perhaps it's not a crutch at all. It's a calling, and when I am not fulfilling that calling, then my soul feels sick.

In Conclusion
For some of us who process by means of writing, it should never be completely cut out. If you know writing correlates with your well being, then cutting it out is like cutting out an important medication, or losing an hour of sleep every night, or forgetting a certain nutrient in your diet.

You're going to be left feeling sick and out of balance. And depressed. Health cannot be gained without intentionally knowing and providing for your needs. You are not infallible. You need to take care of your soul as well as your body. That includes using the writing ability God has given you to keep your mind, soul, and body in tune. Processing through writing can not only be a good thing for you, but a blessing to those who get an intimate look at your spiritual walk.

Make the time to avail yourself of an instrument of God's grace to you.

For the last few days, I haven't done any story writing. I've been--you guessed it--too busy. But I have dubbed today story day in celebration of a long week's work completed.

That's a part of my health equation that I want to make sure I pay attention to.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, this was fantastic. I loved this quote especially:
    Perhaps, too, writing is a crutch. But perhaps I am, after all, a cripple, and that is God's instrument of grace to me. Or perhaps it's not a crutch at all. It's a calling, and when I am not fulfilling that calling, then my soul feels sick.
    Beautiful way to put it. Thanks for sharing this journey with us. <3

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    1. It felt good to write it all out--I don't know if I know everything yet, but it is after all a journey, so it's OK not to be at the destination yet.

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  2. Schuyler, thank you so much for sharing all this.

    I'm kind of coming at this from the opposite angle right now. Amid some recent spiritual struggles, I was convicted of having long used writing, or just plain storytelling and imagination, as an escape from real-life pain or to avoid facing real issues in my life. (I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "if you're not talking to God and not talking to people [in addition].") Right now I struggle a bit with guilt if I find myself slipping into daydreaming about a story scene; wondering if I'm being guilty of escapism.

    On the other hand, there was a period last year when, because I had let myself slide into various unprofitable habits and distractions, my creativity was just zapped—and I was definitely unhappy because of not being able to write. I do believe that my writing is a God-given gift and a part of me—what I want now is to learn the proper balance, learn to recognize when I'm using my creativity and imagination in a healthy and God-honoring way and when it's just an escape. Thanks for giving me some good things to think about here.

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    1. Elisabeth, thank-you so much for commenting and sharing your journey. It means so much--especially because this article was a vulnerable one to write. My heart aches with yours. It's not an easy road to walk, balancing dreams and real life growth. I hope that God blesses you with an extra-special and abundant measure of his grace, wisdom, and light as you seek how to live this out. <3

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  3. My goodness, this is what I needed to hear today. Thank the Lord. And thank you, too, Schuyler. Your honesty and biblical reflections on life and writing are such a blessing to me, and I'm sure to many others.

    Much love,
    Elisabeth

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    1. I'm so glad. Knowing it blessed you blesses me beyond measure. Love to you!

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  4. Wow. I am continually blown away by your posts. I really love them! :)

    I can relate to this. Though I haven't yet suffered from cutting out writing, I have been slowly learning that my reading life affects my emotional well being. Ever since realizing that, I've been more intentional about what books I'm reading and when. Reading books I love automatically makes me feel happier and more peaceful. If I'm reading a book I don't care for (even if it's technically a good book or well written) it drains me. It's been such an interesting revelation for me, and I'm now aware that if I'm going through a tough time in life, I should pick up a well-loved novel. :) (Besides seeking strength from the Lord first, of course!)

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful, God-honoring posts! I really love your blog. :)

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    1. Natalie, thank-you so much for your kind words! That's such a good insight about reading--I love that, especially picking up a well-loved novel during tough seasons. Excellent advice, and something I need to implement more.

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