The written word has ignited revolutions, toppled dictatorships. A well-told narrative, activating the story-telling DNA lodged deep in our bones, has the power to heal rifts or pour balm on festering wounds. With it we can foster new visions about who we are as a people--or who we might become. Writing is one of our most robust artistic instruments for deep social impact, at its best fostering empathy for people we might never meet, inspiring us to compassionate action. Writing can lead us deep inside, altering an internal landscape. How many of us have been forever changed by something we've read at a critical juncture?
While we hear often how influential writing can be for readers, less is said of its impact on authors. The act of composing can also resolve questions within the writer. Even the process of tapping computer keys or placing words on paper can act like a tonic. I discovered this curative ability as a young woman trying to find a path through this chaotic world, longing to become the solid, independent woman I could only imagine while I floundered, jumping from one lover and job to another.
Guided by instinct, I used to steal hours sitting with a yellow legal pad. Wrapped in a tattered terry-cloth robe I scribbled out my loneliness, filling page after page until my breath slowed. Relaxing into the pleasing rhythm of phrases and sentences, I felt each word drop like a tiny bead of courage into my body, nourishment for my journey into the unknown. With every satisfactory sentence a faint trail beckoned me forward. Like the children's book character Harold, who uses his purple crayon to draw settings he can jump into, I wrote my way into maturity.
Once I discovered the hum that writing sang in my bones, I learned to fall effortlessly into a grounded self as words cascaded through my fingers. My simple intention and action mysteriously plugged me into a universal flow. Remembering this power when I felt lost, I began to consciously summon it.
A single mother working low-wage jobs (supplemented by government cheese and peanut butter) attending college at night, when a neighbor told me about graduate studies, I finally applied and was stunned to receive a fellowship. Once there, I had frequent writing assignments. While other students groaned and procrastinated, I flourished, and eventually began to believe myself a person of substance. The more I wrote the more solid I became.
Once I started publishing essays and claimed my vocation as a social justice writer, long days spent writing passed in a contented blur. A member of a biracial family and veteran of the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation Movements that rocked this country in the 1960s and '70s, I began to tell stories of liberation tearing through communities, upending established structures. Weaving personal anecdotes about race and gender into larger political contexts, I settled into an easy conversational voice. Gratefully, I started to hear words of encouragement from readers, but in retrospect I am most thankful for the powerful effect my writing caused in me.
Over the years, each time I suffered a loss—a beloved daughter gone, the deaths of parents, uncles and aunts, best friends—I wept ferociously. But after months of grief I plunged into writing, using it as all custodians of language do, to dredge meaning from anguish. Like breadcrumbs guiding the way home, words reliably led me to my core. Writing ordered the universe again, although in new figurations. As scarred terrain filled with fresh growth, sorrow subsided.
For we practitioners of the word, a remedy for suffering is always at hand: apply rump to chair, hands to keys, and begin. Then the magic takes over. This practice gives me confidence that I can sustain any blows life may fling.
My reliance on this healing power is so deeply ingrained that once, when I lay in a hospital's Intensive Care Unit struggling to awaken from intubation, I'm told I gestured for a pen. My wife Carole says I appeared agitated and kept moving my right hand in small circles. "Please give her a pen," Carole asked the nurse.
"But she's unconscious."
"She's trying to write!"
Reluctantly, the busy nurse brought a pen.
I awkwardly gripped it, Carole says, and scrawled great circles on paper.
"What's she doing?" the nurse asked.
"She's writing," Carole explained as she watched me, drugged so powerfully I couldn't speak or see, yet still trying to form words on paper.
When she told me later what I'd done, I realized how deeply embedded in my soul writing is. My habit of putting words into writing is a daily stabilizer. I don't know who I would be without them, those squiggles on a page that tether me to this earth and give life meaning.
All praises to the ancestors who invented this tool thousands of years ago, using marks scraped on a piece of bark or scratched into clay. With that remarkable creation—the code of writing--those ancient folk changed the world.