Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives
April 9, 2018 § 25 Comments
By 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.