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The Hobby That Led to My Living a More Authentic Life

This can both empower you — and heal you.

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illustration of woman writing breathe
Brian Rea
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When I realized I was gay, in the early 1990s, my world turned upside down. Here I was with a kind husband, two children and even a house in the suburbs. In the space of six months, my mind had become completely disordered. I had no one to confide in, and nowhere to turn.

Holding my feelings in was making me ill. I realized that just as a house slowly fills with clutter, and needs a periodic cleaning, so does a brain. My mind was cluttered with frustrations, worries and negative thoughts. The stress of holding in those feelings was raising my blood pressure and heart rate.

I felt increased muscle tension in my neck, back, legs, arms and even my hands. I’d bottled up so many emotions that I felt like a balloon stretched taut and ready to burst. Distraught, I picked up a pen and began to write. In a short while, I was pouring my heart out on paper.

My purpose when I began to write was not necessarily to write well, but to air my emotions. As I wrote, I felt as though all my psychological distress was escaping through a tiny hole in the balloon. My writing became a habit and I found myself putting my thoughts to paper daily. It felt like a clearing of my head.

Jotting down my feelings and insights opened the space for me to become calmer, more relaxed, more focused and less anxious. Over time, it boosted my physical and mental health and made me more self-aware. It also increased my confidence.

Not every woman journals, but those who do echo my experience: They share that they get deep satisfaction out of the simple act of writing. Some write their thoughts by hand; others put them in a file on their computers.

Regardless of the way we choose to journal, translating our emotional experiences into words can change the way we see and understand a particular situation — and clear space in our heads. One friend told me that she writes all of her problems on a piece of paper, then puts a match to the paper and watches it go up in flames. Simply watching this symbolic burning of her problems makes her feel better.

From prehistoric cave drawings to the first hieroglyphic markings, we know that people have written throughout time. While some write to clear their minds, others write for the sheer love of the craft, to share messages, or to research and compile a book.

In her essay “Why I Write”, celebrated American novelist Joan Didion states: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Another quote from a legendary writer, Anne Lamott, mirrors how I felt, and how so many others I spoke to feel. “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”

During the pandemic, one friend, Huey-Min Chuang, decided to write about the lessons her mother taught her. Although she’d never painted before, what she ultimately birthed was an illustrated story, You Are Where I Am.

When I asked her if her creative work had helped her to deal with other issues, she said, “My book connected me to my family and improved our relationships. I was able to convey feelings that otherwise I could not have expressed … Facing a blank page has the healing power to start anew, to tell the truth. It captures our inner selves on a tangible platform.”

I am a courageous woman though it was extremely difficult for me to embrace my new sexuality. Looking for answers, I began to talk with other women experiencing similar awakenings. Because I shared my story, they told me things they had been terrified to tell anyone else before. I realized that writing about this topic could help these women, as my journaling had helped me.

I did a lot of soul-searching before deciding to come out and write Married Women Who Love Women and More. I needn’t have worried though. This book, with my story threaded throughout those of more than 100 women's stories, has become a popular catalyst for self-acceptance and is being recognized as a classic 25 years after its debut.

It all started with my journaling, a practice I know can be overwhelming. I’ve had my writing students ask, how do I begin? Should I write at a certain time? How long should I write for? What about my spelling?

Writing should be fun. Remember, no one else needs to see your work. You can fill your page with doodles if you want to, and sometimes I do. The hardest part of writing is deciding to do it and putting your tush on the chair. The next most difficult part is looking at a blank piece of paper. If you can’t think of what to write, you can use a prompt such as, this is how my day began.

Some people establish a ritual — it might be a certain time, it might be the use of a certain pen. When I attended my first writers' conference, I bought a sweatshirt. For years I had to be wearing it or have it draped over the back of my chair, to begin writing.

I never believed that what began as a catharsis for myself would help me to gain confidence and, ultimately, discover the real me.

Any woman who wants to declutter her mind and air her truth should heed the advice Natalie Goldberg gives in her epic bestseller Writing Down the Bones: “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

 
Do any of you journal? What do you get out of it? Let us know in the comments below.

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