encouraging and strengthening them in the process. The healing potential that comes from committing our pain-

ful experiences to writing is not confined simply to grief over a lost spouse. Neither is it a practice reserved for those who have experienced many decades of living (that is, writing about their pain is not just for old folks). Overcoming the pain of life by writing about it is a gift available to us regardless of our age, regardless of the source of our sorrows. The proof of this has been beautifully expressed by Dr. James

Pennebaker in his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others. A professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, Pennebaker and some of his SMU graduate students conducted a study in which they asked groups of students to write down the stories of the most painful experiences in their lives. It should be stressed that these exercises were optional and the students were not required to share what they had written. Those conducting the study were first surprised that there

was a universal willingness to participate on the part of the stu- dents and an equal willingness to share their stories. The second surprise came in the gravity of what they shared. After all, as Pennebaker wrote, the “grim irony is that by and large, these were eighteen-year-old kids attending an upper-middle-class college.” In other words, these were children of privilege. Yet they had stories of real suffering to share: horrible instances of abuse, death of beloved family members, guilt over the tragic results of their own mistakes. The third surprise came in the months that followed the study

when it was discovered that those students who had written down the stories of their personal pain were less likely to grow ill and require medical treatment than identical control groups of stu- dents. Pennebaker concluded, “Writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumas resulted in improved moods, more positive outlook, and greater physical health.” The bottom line is simple: if we write about the pain we’ve experienced, it promotes our emotional, intellectual and physical healing. Someone might respond, “Perhaps what you’re saying is true,

but I can’t bring myself to write those things down. If I told the truth, it would devastate others. It would end causing more harm than healing.” This is actually a quite common issue. Very likely this is akin

the dynamic that drives so many servicemen and women to go to their graves without telling even their closest loved ones about the horrors they have seen in war. It’s worth asking, “If I wrote the truth about the gravest pain I have experienced in my life, who would be harmed? Why is my need to heal from what I have experienced less important than protecting the feelings of others? Am I using others as an excuse not to write, because writing it down will force me to face the pain I want to avoid?” Sometimes there are mitigating reasons that prevent us from candidly sharing our stories of the traumas that we have experi- enced in life. Perhaps we have legitimate reasons to think we might harm others if our words come to light, or we fear we might end up reengaging with individuals whom we don’t want to let back in our lives. In these circumstances, there are alternative ways that still allow us to write the story of our pain. Some have written fictionalized versions of the painful pas- sages of their lives. One of the more sensational examples of this came in the form of the “roman á clef” (fictionalized book about real people) Primary Colors. Originally attributed to “Anony-


mous,” eventually the author was acknowledged to be Joe Klein, who had reported extensively on the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. The book records a number of questionable ac- tions and political procedures of a fictional southern governor on his way to becoming the President of the United States. Perhaps a more symbolically beautiful example of this is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most highly regarded books. After the critics savaged his previous novel Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway wrote the timeless The Old Man and the Sea. In it he symbolically describes himself as an aged Cuban fisher- man who catches an unimaginably perfect marlin that is too large to take into his small boat, then watches helplessly as sharks destroy the great fish while he paddles back to port. It’s no stretch to envision the marlin as symbolic of the author’s flawless con- ception for a story that is too grand to fit within his boat (that is, his ability to convey the vision) and the sharks as literary critics (unthinking, merciless and savage). Authors have also used poetry, plays, journals and other

literary forms to deal with the suffering they have experienced. William Wordsworth, one of the great English poets, used his literary gift to express his grief over the loss of his three-year-old daughter Catherine in his timeless poem “Surprised by Joy”: “I stood forlorn,/Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;/ That neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.” In a marvelous way, experiencing

Helen Wheeler

the healing that can come through writing also serves to inspire more writing—about the joyful, exhilarat- ing, uplifting experiences of life as well as the painful ones. Helen Wheeler is a wonderful example of this. Her essay “The Porch” inspired her to continue writing, to engage in a series of essays, vignettes, poems and short fictional pieces. As she has shared these in recent years, they have been quite well received. In 2017, her essay “Traits Learned from My Parents” was awarded the red ribbon at the Dixie Classic Fair. That same year, three of Helen’s pieces won Gold, Silver and Bronze awards in the Pied- mont Plus Senior Arts literary compe- tition. In 2018, she published 50 of her short pieces in her first book Old Ladies Can Zipline Too. For Helen, the poignant memo-

ries of losing her husband have not disappeared. Through the healing power of her writing, however, those remembrances have found a right, serene place in her heart. And she continues to write with joy, wisdom and wit.

Mike Simpson is the publisher of Empower Publishing, part of a Piedmont Triad literary team that has published 600 titles from 150 authors in the past 12 years. He can be reached at empow-, 336-257-9276, PO Box 26701, Winston- Salem 27114 or See ad on page 8.

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