Having recently released a memoir and going out to speak about it with other people there’s one question I can count on being asked at almost any venue:
“Was writing this book cathartic?”
The first few times that I was asked this question I had to pause before my response. I wanted the answer to be a solid ‘yes’. Surely digging that deep, pouring my soul onto page after page of what ultimately became a book must be cathartic. In the writing of the book some aching and wounded part of me had been healed; negative thoughts dealt with and then released. Perhaps even some pressure valve of the soul had blown off some steam and left me quiet, relieved, rejuvenated? A bit lighter?
But here’s the thing. Writing the book was not at all cathartic.
Not. At. All.
Choosing to write a book about my journey into grief, through it, and then out the far side, required going back and re-living every painful experience again from the very beginning: sitting next to my daughter when she took her last breath; telling her siblings that their sister had died; saying goodbye to what had been my daughter and hello to a backpack filled with woe deepening into more woe, and questions begetting questions that would burden me day in and out for years. During the writing I had to revisit those long months where I struggled to find a belief system and a faith in God, or at the very least a sense of providence. It required re-opening the conversation with myself and others about what happens when we die and where do our souls go when they release from our bodies. Or do they actually go somewhere?
While I was in my early stages of grieving the death of my daughter I wrote privately in my journals about all of these things. At that time I was trying to make sense of my head and my heart. Those writings in the moment lead to insights and glimpses of a comforting future. Those writings along the way most certainly were helpful. Personal writing while I was immersed in my suffering was my safe haven. The journal writing that became the seeds of my memoir was most definitely helpful. It was probative in nature. I raged and I railed and worked through my many issues surrounding love, loss, and life after death. Those writings ultimately guided me to a place of comfort. Those writings at the time left me quiet, relieved, rejuvenated. Yes, even lighter. They led me back to a place of truly embracing life and living and those writings along the way were certainly cathartic.
But going back into grief retroactively to set together a narrative and a story worth sharing? No. That required not just dipping my toe back into those cold shark infested waters but fully immersing myself in the ocean of grief in which for years I had worked to stay afloat and then learn to navigate. That was not cathartic. That was deeply painful and yet a necessary part of the process.
I chose to share my story when I had been successful in working my way from the depths of sorrow back to a state of living and embracing life. Until that point it seemed the writings would not be of interest to anyone other than me (or perhaps my children at some point in the future).
Writing in and of itself can bring us a great sense of understanding ourselves and the world around us. If we write our innermost thoughts we must be honest. We must write as if no one else will see what we write. When and if we are transformed in our journey and brought to deeper levels of awareness then perhaps those words become worthy of sharing. But by the time we sit down to write a book to put out in to the world the work of the soul has been done. Generally the early work is the cathartic bit.
All that said, writing saved my life. Being fearless with what may come out on to the page in any given moment was an important ingredient to getting to the meat of the matter. The mighty pen pulled me through. When it felt it was time to write for someone other than myself it was me who pulled the pen across the pages. That was difficult. That part hurt. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat because sharing our stories ultimately keeps us connected, growing, living, surviving and thriving.
Note: This post initially appeared as a guest post for Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio. I re-post it here for those of you who may have missed it on her site. Check out Sunny Room Studio for some inspiring wisdom and writing by a talented group of writers.