Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives

April 9, 2018 § 25 Comments

zz slavinBy Nancy Slavin

“I write because writing helps bring life into clearer focus and give shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards.”  – Joyce Thomas

I read the Joyce Thomas quote above in a 2011 issue of Poets & Writers and practically hummed out loud in my attraction to it. The urge to write for me is a primordial need to make sense of experiences that often happen in pieces. The way I make sense of the pieces is by creating the story, which hopefully turns out whole. Certainly in the case my daughter’s birth, the pieces of a fifty-four hour labor are disconnected, fragmenting more and more with each passing year, making me wonder which pieces are important enough to keep? And yet, long as the labor was and as bloody the outcome, I don’t use warfare metaphors to discuss that birth or write about my body as a battlefield, or even discuss the experience in sharp-termed images like shards. I have a choice in how to name that experience; I get to write my own story.

Being cut open crosswise below my belly button has made me feel at times like I have two parts of a body, and writing about that experience, even after therapy for post-partum depression, has actually been the best work I’ve done to connect the two parts, to make a new whole. As a former writing mentor once said, “if you write it down, it can’t own you.” For me, writing about the difficult parts helps me own that experience, rather than it owning me.

People often ask, when they hear I’m a writer, “what do you write?” I answer I write words. But I write in many forms – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I’ve taught all of those genres, too, and love thinking about the different elements between each form because I’m a believer in form follows function. Each story demands its own structure, and each story, eventually, will tell you in what form to write it if you’re willing to listen.

I also believe: the greater the pain behind the experience, the greater the need for precision within the form. Joyce Thomas, in her Poets & Writers essay, tells us that after she was raped at gunpoint, she wrote her very first poem. She wonders why she turned to poetry at that moment, but I don’t wonder, I know: the greater the pain, the greater the need for poetry, the most precise of forms, to connect the shards. For the same reason, the first time I wrote about birthing my daughter, I wrote a poem in rhyming heroic couplets, an exacting form that helped me stitch together our dual experience.

The other question people ask when hearing I’m a writer is “what do you write about?” That question is quite a bit more complicated and I’m sure there’s not one answer any writer could give, although at least one famous writer claimed each writer writes the same story over and over. But finding out what you need to write about is important. Find your themes. When I teach writing classes, one of the first exercises I do with students is to have them write a one or two word “top ten” list of topics they think are important to write about, topics that would excite them and get their engines greased. They come up with weighty subjects like the environment, God, being a mother or father, daughter or son, and sometimes less weighty subjects like cars or video games. Still, every subject has potential for deeper exploration, and certainly can be crafted into a story. When I do that exercise, I often write “human relationships” as my number one topic, but I think the bigger truth is I write about “healing in human relationships.”

Writing, in the form of essays, fiction, and poems, has helped me figure out and heal disparate swatches of myself, swatches torn from the whole due to traumas or losses or disappointments. Writing literally helped me stitch together the initial frayed pieces of motherhood, and continues to do so as my child grows. I’ve also written about family, partners, therapists, and friends. All the writing allows me to connect pieces of my life and figure out my constant thread within my life. I’m grateful not only that I have this primordial need to write, but also that I have the wherewithal to abide to that need and act accordingly. I wish the same wherewithal for you, for we all have a need to express our “top ten” list. May the disconnected shards of your experiences be assembled into a whole.

Nancy Slavin is a freelance writer and editor. She was longtime community college writing and English literature instructor and a violence-prevention educator. Her work has been published in Oregon Humanities Magazine, The Manifest Station, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, among others. She’s the author of Moorings a novel, and Oregon Pacific, a collection of poems.


§ 25 Responses to Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives

  • ateafan says:

    I am certainly writing the same story over and over again – it is the first time I have heard this. Even when I try not to write about my top subject it comes out in coded form. I’m pretty sure if I wrote a shopping list it would emerge! Making a top ten list sounds like a good idea.

  • Pete Mercer says:

    I found this thought provoking. I’ve written about different kinds of experiences. Traumatic right through to funny and ridiculous. When the urge to write comes it is precise, in terms subject, and compelling. I know what I need to write but I don’t understand why.

  • Reader Runner Writer says:

    I love this. I just wrote a disturbing piece about my own labor and felt so apologetic about it. Labor and delivery is supposed to be all warm and fuzzy and celebratory – and it is, but there is so much more. I also love the recurring themes – I feel much less apologetic after reading this…”what did you think of my 8th personal essay about my dead mother?” – Much needed. Great Read. THANK YOU

    • 54hourmama says:

      I once heard a “famous” writer dismiss another famous writer as a “one-trick pony” for writing about her dead mother over and over. I was not impressed by the latter. Our experiences are ours, no apologies necessary. And when I wrote my blog (which apparently, though in hibernation is how I have to sign in the comment here, a friend said, “I hope you write it all down until you are done.” That was the nicest and best advice, and I pass it on with love to you. NS

  • The urge to write for me is a primordial need to make sense of experiences that often happen in pieces. The way I make sense of the pieces is by creating the story, which hopefully turns out whole.

    Reminded me why I started writing down my thoughts here in post & experiences in the hope of trying to make sense of this life tragic event. I had all these pieces but couldn’t really put them together in the right order until I spent 4+ years trying too. I would wake up in the middle of the night and all these events and experiences would run through my mind but as the events flashed through it just couldn’t make sense no matter what had happen. I described it like a dog trying to catch it’s tail and never being able too.

    So I took one even then another writing them down till it didin’t come and trouble me anymore. Then the next and the next. It wasn’t really designed to do anything about it except to stop the on sloths that triggered nightmares, fear & isolation. It helped me to manage things better but it never healed things.

    Thanks for the post and I hope this message will help others.

  • Ed Dodge says:

    Your essay resonated with me, though I’m an 82-year-old man. I recently wrote a memoir, mainly so my grands and great grands could know the story of my life. The surprising thing is that in writing down this story, the various pieces came together to make a more meaningful whole than I had realized before. Pathways that I thought were disappointing dead-ends at the time turned out to be important and sometimes even essential to the fabric of my life. Writing it down brought this out. Thanks for your thoughtful piece!

  • etod62 says:

    love this Nancy. You summed up my muse with this: but I think the bigger truth is I write about “healing in human relationships. Thanks for a thoughtful piece!

  • lynettedavis says:

    Reblogged this on Memoir Notes.

  • Chex says:

    It is Great.

  • princenosa says:

    Beautiful…..I am writing about my Country, My community, my people!

  • zainabumar says:

    This is an amazing and relatable post. Loved every bit of it.

  • […] This short article sums up in a great way what I myself have been trying for years now: to collage all these scattered bits and pieces of memory and identity and create your own story out of them. A story that makes sense. One that is uniquely yours. One that has the power to heal old wounds. Read it! Inspiring and reassuring.  […]

  • Engineer For All Season says:

    Love it!

  • […] via Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Rinu Bejoy says:

    Your words are really true. Writing has helped me a lot in my life. I can figure out the changes in myself since the day i have began writing.

  • vincseen says:

    Beautiful article. It inspired me to be a better writer. Thanks.

  • caralembo says:

    Your gift with vocabulary is unequaled here thus far and I always seem to find words my own mind has buried after a long hiatus from professional writing. Thank you once again for the non-fiction story this morning.

  • durgaartemis says:

    To write is to give a route of exit to ur thoughts clogged in ur mind…. How well dey flow out determines how beautiful d story is…..
    A really well written article… To a beginner like me… Its all v need for d start

  • blankpaper11 says:

    Wonderful! My thoughts of writing are on my blog, which is barely starting.

  • Margaret says:

    Riveting stuff Nancy. Lots of things in it resonate with me. Working as a public health nurse visiting 10 day old mum’s and babies would often relay their various traumatic birthing tales. As a trained midwife but not a mother myself I could only empathise and offer extra ivisits & input to help them through.
    Age 63 years I am relatively new to blogging although I have journaled for a while. I only wish I had suggested that mothers and fathers/birthing partners write about their experiences.

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