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Crafting Personal Pain: Close Your Journal and Open Your Toolbox

In early interviews, the questions I was most often asked were around the facts of my anorexia itself: How long did it take you to realize you were still ill? Why was it so hard for you to meet your basic needs? But along the way one interviewer asked a question which really stuck with me: “Was writing your book cathartic?” To which I said both yes and no.

When I started giving interviews about my memoir, The Body Tourist, I got a lot of fairly standard questions. The book is about the six years following my “recovery” from anorexia nervosa. Recovery is in quotation marks because, as the reader discovers early on, despite the fact that I have left the hospital and landed a job as a counselor at a halfway house for drug and alcohol addicts, I am nowhere near recovered. The memoir takes an unflinching look into all the areas in which I am unwell, including my inability to weigh in the triple digits, my distorted ideas about the line between counselor and client, and my struggles with how, whether, and why to eat, be sexual, own a bed, have friends, go back to school, and stop playing games with recovery.

This guest post is by Dana Lise Shavin, whose essays have appeared in Oxford American, The Writer, The Sun, Fourth Genre, Puerto del Sol, and others, and she is a lifestyle columnist for The Chattanooga Times Free Press. She is the author of a memoir, The Body Tourist (Little Feather Books). Learn more about her at Danashavin.com.

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In early interviews, the questions I was most often asked were around the facts of my anorexia itself: How long did it take you to realize you were still ill? Why was it so hard for you to meet your basic needs?Where were your parents when it started? All of these were good avenues of inquiry, but along the way one interviewer asked a question which really stuck with me: “Was writing your book cathartic?”

To which I said both yes and no.

The yes part of my answer had to do with finally getting my story of brokenness and survival out of my head, onto the page, and into the world in the form of a book. I felt immeasurable relief at no longer being pregnant with my tale, or with the burning need to tell my tale. Story told, book published, I could move on. I could write other stories, focus on other goals, have other thoughts for that matter. Cathartic? You bet.

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

The no part of my answer had to do with what I’d learned in the process of writing a book that dealt with painful issues, raw emotions, and no shortage of embarrassing personal details. I learned that the wish for catharsis may be what motivates us to write in the first place—the need to express something, to come to terms with feelings or emotions or events, to get something out of our system so that we can begin healing. But the process of it—the raw emoting, teeth-gnashing, and breast beating—is the province of our journals. On the other hand, writing—by which I mean the constructing, shaping, revising and refining of the story—which can take many years of focused study and work—is the province of craft.

We should be careful not to confuse the two. Otherwise we doubly lose out.

Think about it: if you were to write in your journal with an eye toward craft—paying attention to word choice, sentence construction, how to best recount the events of the day or the contents of your heart with the proper distance and narrative stance—you would lose the opportunity to muck around unfettered in the supreme muddiness of your own unrefined sentimentality, or thoroughly enjoyable lake of self-pity, or unbridled bitching or brainstorming. All of which can and often does lead to, or clear the way for, important insights and ideas.

[Learn the 8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal]

Likewise, if you allow the craft of writing to get bound up or confused with your need to emote or rant or divest yourself of pain, what ends up on the published page (if it manages to get published, that is) will read like something that belongs in your journal. You won’t have proper distance from your material, and your readers will feel as if they are reading your diary. And not in a good way—chances are, that unrefined sentimentality, self-pity and bitchiness will come across as exactly that.

So how best to write about the personal, painful events in our lives? First ask yourself what your purpose is. If it’s to garner sympathy, wrong a right, or begin the process of healing, tell it to your journal first. Get it out of your system. Way out. When you’re no longer Velcroed to your emotions, when you’re ready to explore your story with an eye toward uncovering not just your own truths, but the universal ones that good writing inevitably reveals, you will truly be free to craft.

And won’t that be cathartic?

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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