As the mother of three sons (who at best can be described as rambunctious), "Use your words" is a phrase I use often to cajole their three-way wrestling or boxing matches into more civil, verbal mediation. As a writer, it is a phrase I use to remind myself that my words can be the tool to my own self-discovery, healing and empowerment.
"Action can give us the feeling of being useful, but only words can give us the sense of weight and purpose," Eric Hoffer wrote in The Passionate State of Mind almost 50 years ago.
Because I make my living by my words (as a journalist, author, university journalism instructor and writing workshop owner), my words give me a sense of professional purpose. But it is the words I use privately and not for publication to explore my own history, insights and dreams that serve to change my view of myself and the world. These words form my empowerment journal, a bible that is not just a listing of positive affirmations, but my written validation of what I know to be true in my life.
Writing in a journal random entries that are flat and superficial—what I call drive-by creativity—are not effective for me. While they can serve as snapshots of my life, they form no meaningful, contemplative collage. Clever phrases about meals shared in diners or strangers observed on trains won't help me to get to my truth quicker or to the heart of whatever issues I need to address in my life.
The difference between writing random journal entries and writing meaningfully in an empowerment journal is like the difference between a simple stretching of your muscles and training for a specific sport, such as baseball. You can get your muscles toned both ways, but you will master the skills of a specific game only by concentrating on baseball and what you need to do to improve your pitching, catching and hitting.
By writing specifically and pointedly about a part of your history, you are honestly coming to terms with your past and moving to a new understanding of yourself. You are not just stretching your muscles to become a better writer, you are becoming more aware of who you are and where you have been.
In an empowerment journal, writing thoroughly and pointedly about an event or feeling requires you to employ the tools of a journalist to excavate your hidden or buried feelings. It helps place these feelings in the context of the bigger picture. I call this "unclogging the kitchen sink." Even if I am feeling blocked by an emotion or past event, by writing about it honestly, without fear of exposure or rejection, I can release the blockage and let my life flow more freely.
This may sound easier than it is.
The Whole Truth
In a recent writing workshop that I conducted, a woman handed me 10 pages of her writing to critique. The long phrases and lofty sentences she used were so difficult to understand that I had no concrete idea what she was writing about, but I only knew whatever it was, it was haunting her. Her truth was hidden in complex punctuation and dissertation-worthy words so that what she was trying to say was almost completely impossible to decipher. Her language was not plain, so her truth was not apparent to her or anyone else. And definitely not to me. So how could her words be helpful to her?
I gently suggested she write the piece again for herself—and only herself—and to address specifically her experiences and feelings in conversational language. I suggested she "write the talk" and not hide behind her words, but use her words to empower herself about this event. Writing is just talking on paper, I told her. Have a conversation with yourself and tell yourself the truth in writing.
She responded that she could never write down the exact truth because it was too hard to face. But I think it is just what she needed to do. Perhaps it is what you need to do. I know it is what I needed to do.
A Sense of Relief In my first book, I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman, I wrote the truth about my marriage, how I got there, how I got out and how I began to get better after the divorce. Even with the stigma of being labeled a victim and pronouncing a truth that was humiliating, I forced myself to honestly use my words. I wrote as if it were only for my own benefit, not by placing myself in a shining light but by being truthful about what happened. I wrote to explain to myself my thoughts and feelings about that baffling 12-year period of courtship and marriage, and how it evolved into danger from such promising beginnings.
The writing unfolded in layers, with my memories sometimes vivid and brilliant, and other times fogged by my own denial. But day after day, week after week, month after month for close to three years, I forced myself to tell the story, face the truth and write it down. I cried at times just typing the words. But I was able to keep writing by convincing myself that I needed to honor my own history and tell myself the story that I refused to tell anyone else for so many years. It was my own form of therapy—"Scribotherapy," I call it.
Out of Your Body and Onto the Paper
What emerged from the process of writing it down was a sense of relief, healing and empowerment. I dared to write the truth, so I dared to learn the lessons held there. I got the truth out of my body and onto the paper where I could examine it and learn from it. Putting your truth into words gives you control again over your past and lets you re-evaluate whatever it is in your life that you want to scrutinize, whether it is a trauma or a triumph.
I could have written pitifully about being a victim. I could have written a bitter, vengeful and blaming treatise that may have helped me to vent, but would have stopped there. It would not have granted me the impetus to grow past the experience. Honest words written plainly are the greatest tools for growth.
Instead the book I wrote was about what this relationship meant to me, without finger pointing or shame. Whatever it is you need to face, you can do the same. Find the words inside you, and set them free.
"Words not only affect us temporarily, they change us," David Riesman wrote in the essay Storytellers as Tutors in the 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd.
Your honest words can change you by becoming the vehicle for you to regain your power, to truthfully explain your past to yourself and give you a sense of understanding and possibly a sense of peace. Your words cannot change the past, but they can explain it to you and help you master the lessons that are there. I know, because my words changed my life. My own words empowered me to face the truth and eventually put it behind me.
This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.