Writing as a Way of Healing

by Louise DeSalvo, Ph.D.

HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. ISBN 0807072435.
Plume, 1996. ISBN 0452273242.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Body Language; Nonfiction: Creative Life

I have read a great many books on writing, and written a few myself. But Writing as a Way of Healing has gone straight to the top of my list of favorites, and I suspect that it will stay there for a very long time—perhaps for all time. But in the process of reading this book, I discovered I had to read the book that went before it, and now I want to tell you about both.

Louise DeSalvo has been teaching English and creative writing for nearly twenty years. The first in her working-class Italian family to graduate from college, she escaped a soul-deadening home life—a depressed mother, an angry father—by reading, going to the movies, and dating, dating, dating. It wasn't until the late 1980's, when she wrote a scholarly book about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on the life and work of Virginia Woolf that she began to come to terms with her own childhood traumas and the lingering shadows of her mother's death and her sister's suicide. She dealt with her pain, anxiety, and depression in a memoir called Vertigo (now available in paperback, published by Plume), in which she explored her own story. Vertigo isn't a pleasant book, or easy—it's about hidden pain and the depression and despair into which a woman can fall when she attempts to avoid self-knowledge. But it is a necessary book, for through it, DeSalvo learns that the process of life-writing is also the process of healing. What she discovered in Vertigo, and what she subsequently put to use in her own teaching, is the subject and object of Writing As a Way of Healing.

DeSalvo's section and chapter titles, by themselves, are helpful clues to the book's significance. The first section is called "Writing as a Way of Healing," and contains four chapters: Why Write, How Writing Can Help Us Heal, Writing as a Therapeutic Process, and Writing Pain, Writing Loss. Section Two is called "The Process/The Program," and has four chapters: The Healing Power of the Writing Process, Caring for Ourselves as We Write; and Stages of Growth I and II. The third section, "From Woundedness to Wholeness Through Writing" contains two chapters: Writing the Wounded Psyche and Writing the Wounded Body. The Epilogue is called "From Silence to Testimony." Each of the chapters contains suggestions for writing, examples (from such writers as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, Isabel Allende, Djuna Barnes), discussion, and ideas—lots of ideas, so many ideas that you'll find yourself wanting to stop reading and start writing (something that DeSalvo herself, no doubt, would applaud).

DeSalvo refers extensively to a favorite researcher of mine—Dr. James Pennebaker—whose book Opening Up has been an important influence on my own understanding of the healing power of the writing process. When we use writing to explore traumatic or anxiety-provoking events in detail, together with the feelings that arise from those events, the writing process can help us to understand more clearly, cope in a more balanced way, and even feel better physically. Seen from this point of view, life-writing becomes a lifetime project, as we unravel the meanings of events and explore our responses to them. When we commit ourselves to this very important lifelong project—recognizing that we don't write our story once and for all and forget it!—we commit ourselves to a lifetime of learning, growing and healing.

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