Words. Incredible things that aid communication.
We writers use them to paint pictures in people’s minds, to draw out emotions they never knew they had, to help them to walk in shoes they’ve never worn, and to give them a birdseye view of cultures, places and situations that are beyond their imaginations.
But what about our minds? The writers’ emotions, imaginations, thoughts? How can we tap into our own abyss when words fail us?
I once did a memoir-writing class with Kristina Olsson, and she said, quite wryly, that many memoirs should be classified as fiction while a lot of fiction is often based on fact, which was highly amusing to us all, and not a little bit ironic.
Mem Fox regularly shares how her picture book characters are based on true happenings in her life, some of them quite sad.
On the flip side, autobiographers are often hamstrung by living relatives who could take umbrage at the truth, thus the need to hide the worst of their experiences under blankets of alternative facts. And let’s not forget, time plays tricks with our memories, as do trauma and fear, so while it’s not a perfect recollection we might be reading, a memoir could very well be a justifiable alternate reality.
So where do we find the truth as writers?
In journals and in letters, that’s where.
I started ‘honest’ writing as a child (and then, later, as a parent) to connect with my core beliefs, my foetal intuition, my true self and my emotional barometer. Journal entries and letters allowed me to get to know what was truly going on inside my head and my heart, when I wasn’t able to share openly with the people around me.
I prefer to journal-write by hand as the pace of my pen (a fast-flowing one, mind-you!) matches the speed of my thoughts. The kinaesthetic value of pressing down harder when I’m angry and making BIG, FAT, CHUNKY CAPITALS when I’m FURIOUS, is enormously satisfying!
I use journaling to debrief, to reflect, to understand and to move on.
I rarely use a journal when life is happily busy, or at a status quo. I write in them when I’m at an emotional extreme, because I feel feelings so intensely at those times, there needs to be an overflow outlet to stop me imploding and exploding – my trusty pen.
For the most part, those extreme words don’t get to see the light of anyone else’s day. They’re private words, because they’re raw. They’re honest. They’re potentially hurtful to people I care about. But they’re true at the time and they’re real.
They’re so real, that when I read them back, days, months, years later, I am instantly transported to the time I last wrote them. The time I was so angry, I may have been bordering on insanity. The time I was so sad, I was living on a razor’s edge. The time I was so happy, I was maniacally unpredictable. Extremes that frighten others if they’re verbalised, but fall safely on the wonderfully deaf ears of paper.
Paper doesn’t judge you, berate you or cry when you’re angry with it. It doesn’t talk back, inflame or extinguish the words pouring out of your true self. It won’t mock or belittle, undermine or patronise.
Paper becomes a safe and empathic conduit, intent on helping you to rid yourself of unhealthy thoughts and feelings, in order to make way for rational thought, positive emotions and ingenuity.
And most importantly… paper burns.
When all has been said and done, there’s no need to go back, so after you’ve cathartically released those words into a fiery furnace, it’s time to move on.
The path to creativity has been cleared, and a fresh sheet of paper awaits your gentler touch and your excited scrawl as your ideas start to flow. Your memoir, your novel, your family history, your shopping list, or that letter you’ve been meaning to write.
I first learned about using letter-writing as a form of emotional regulation when Women of Letters came to Brisbane. Marieke Hardy and Michaela Maguire initiated soirées where influential people shared personal letters to small groups of social change agents, in a bid to open up a form of unconventional communication.
I listened in rapt wonder to letters read out to ‘my regret’, ‘a problem I never solved’, ‘my 80-year-old self’ and other non-human entities. What a thrilling solution to so many conundrums!
When you’re writing a letter to an idea, it suddenly becomes easy to use your imagination and emotional angst to tap into worlds that are no longer available to you. To open up conversations with people who have died or won’t listen, with your younger self, with your elderly self, with ideas like fear, anger and lost opportunities, is a breakthrough event for many writers.
And for those of us experiencing the dreaded writers’ block… why don’t you grab a pen and blank sheet of paper and write a letter to it explaining how it makes you feel. “Dear Blockage, What’s going on? You’ve been there for months now? Why won’t you leave me alone?”
Before you know it, you’ll have a cramp in your hand as those words rush out of you like an uncorked champagne bottle!
So come on then, finished the letter, pop some corks and celebrate the results!
To explore the joys of journaling further, join Caylie Jeffery at the upcoming workshop Journaling for Writers.