When people ask me, innocently, how are you?, they really just want an easy answer, a sign that everything’s okay and we can continue on with our day unburdened by other people’s griefs. My problem at this stage is that if someone asks me, I tell them probably in some attempt to unburden myself. I know from hard experience that keeping grief inside doesn’t work. It festers there. On the other hand, you can’t shout it from the rooftops. Some people really don’t want to hear.
These thoughts and one of my friends led me to a new thought about personal writing. I have for decades used writing as a way of getting things more or less “out there,” not keeping them “in here.” Of course they stay inside, but by having them out there as well, they’re just not as bad. Sometimes, I even figure things out. I think that being able to use writing like this is an emotional resource and that we should at least in our writing classes give this gift of writing to our students. A few years ago, my students wrote a book of advice for writing teachers. If you look at the chapter on “Journals,” you’ll see how students use writing to cope with some of the difficult problems we face in our lives.
A close friend of mine has been listening to me whining. I called her on the day Ali died. She had had a particularly hard day herself, coping with something very sad in her life. She listened to me for about an hour on the phone, I suppose you could call it bearing witness to my grief. I talked to her the next day and she said something striking.
She said something about how it made her feel better by making me feel better by her listening. I can’t remember her exact words–but I had never thought of personal writing from this point of view. It goes something like this: the writer gets some sort of release by opening up those emotions, fears, hurts that our culture teaches us to cover–the places where we are most human, and as Bene Brown has said, most vulnerable. I had never thought about how opening up is a gift of sorts to whoever was gracious enough to hear you. I haven’t quite said it yet: the reader gains by opening up to hear the writer. It’s really an act of grace.