1. Write for wellness.
I was 14, still months away from the courts emancipating me from my mother. My thoughts were thick with the gray-green fog of self-doubt and helplessness that is the mental climate of abused children. I could not conceive of a different, happier life with my father, only a few months and fifteen miles away in the curative isolation of the desert. A friend I had known since 5th grade, Tami, suggested, “Maybe you should keep a journal.” This many years later I can still hear her say those words. And so I began to write, pages and pages of mostly solipsistic nonsense and crushes and fears, and that first composition book grew over the years into boxes of old journals, some journals filled margin to margin, some two-thirds empty, some abandoned after only a few scribbled pages.
Here is a study confirming what Tami, also 14, somehow knew:
Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
Improved immune system functioning
Reduced blood pressure
Improved lung function
Improved liver function
Fewer days in hospital
Feeling of greater psychological well-being
Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations
Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms
Social and behavioral outcomes
Reduced absenteeism from work
Quicker re-employment after job loss
Improved working memory
Improved sporting performance
Higher students’ grade point average
Altered social and linguistic behavior
2. Invite people into your life.
One of my closest friends grew up on a strawberry farm in northern Minnesota. Cordelia can sing every line of every song from The Sound of Music from memory and with perfect pitch. Fully Midwestern in her reserve, she might nevertheless appear in some odd hat or other, or a malapropos ball gown—seafoam green. We met as college girls studying linguistics in North Dakota, eventually performing the awkward duty of friendship by wearing a strange dress in one another’s weddings. She was present at the birth of my first child, and I at the birth of hers.
Cordelia recalls me singing Silent Night as she labored in the dark car on the way to the hospital. I have an image of her standing in my driveway a few hours before my son was born, snapping pictures. “The next picture you take will be of us leaving without you,” I said. Pre-email, we wrote one another prolifically; there is wardrobe box in my bedroom filled with letters in her diminutive, looping script like tiny unraveling threads; dozens upon dozens of Cordelia’s stories and observations stitched up in silence under my bed. She lives in Southeast Asia now, with her husband and four children. We are a world apart.
We still write to one another, mostly email now, inviting and inviting, feeding our friendship as if it is a living thing, because it is. This is how Cordelia invited me to her new house, 9,000 miles away: “This is on the side of the house. Over the wall is the overgrown lot. We don’t have any fish in the fish pond. Fish ponds are quite popular in these parts. It’s actually quite deep, maybe almost four feet up to the top of the wall.
This picture was taken in August, just after we got here. Everything was newly painted, including this blue area. By now, the paint doesn’t look quite so clean, bright and cheery. The place where there are all the aloe vera plants has now become quite lush, crowded with ginger plants and other plants that appeared when the rainy season started. The dead papaya tree behind R. is now gone, replaced with a little passion fruit vine. There is green grass where it was brown. This much yard is not at all common here, even with much bigger houses.”
3. Improve your thinking.
In a nice little article on How Writing Leads to Thinking, historian Lynn Hunt shares advice from poet Donald Hall, who told her, ” . . . writing requires an unending effort at something resembling authenticity. Most mistakes come from not being yourself, not saying what you think, or being afraid to figure out what you really think.”
Say what you think. Be a truth teller. The best way to crystalize your thoughts is to write them. Write and rewrite and delete the fluff and ambiguity.
A friendly correspondence with someone who disagrees with you is an opportunity to examine your prejudices and convictions on paper, to challenge your sloppy reasoning and examine the purity of your intentions. Lay out your complex, authentic, naked self on the page.
4. Hoard against the winter of forgetfulness.
“There is, of course, always the personal satisfaction of writing down one’s own experiences so they may be saved, caught and pinned under glass, hoarded against the winter of forgetfulness. Time has been cheated a little, at least, in one’s own life, and a personal, trivial immortality of an old self assured.” ― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, North to the Orient
5. Leave a legacy.
Reading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, I learned about Mormon women’s strong tradition of keeping journals. The book begins with the author’s mother on her death bed, leaving instructions:
We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. “I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. . .
What Tempest Williams discovers in her mother’s tidy stacks of clothbound journals leads to this book-length meditation on her mother’s legacy and voice.
A discovered letter, a note that falls from the pages of a book, a few words scratched in the margins of sheet music are lambent missives from the dead, able to seize us and remind us of the their essence. The most insignificant note we write is a potential emissary of comfort to someone we love after we are gone.
What are you writing today?