I have a really clever friend who is both a brilliant psychologist and artist. She writes about creative wellness, a concept I’d been subconsciously processing since graduating with an English degree six years prior. In a recent conversation, we chatted about the sometimes uncomfortable but always fruitful overlap of art making and peace making, and how often, when we make art, we’re making peace, if only just with ourselves.
As humans we tend to compartmentalize, and I may as well have an advanced degree in it – in recent years, I’ve noticed myself dropping my craft in favor of my spiritual to-do list, as if the two are mutually exclusive. In those seasons when the pragmatic prevails over the luxury of art, I categorize writing as an ad hoc part of me and dismiss the urge to put pen to paper as selfish, a hobby reserved for a more seasoned version of myself. Sometimes we focus all our attention and emotional energy on getting our acts together, when what we really need is to just get our craft together. More often than not, our acts will politely follow.
Writing, like any other creative act, is a form of sowing seeds in our souls. Planting anything requires equal parts practice and patience, so it should be no surprise we don’t see a harvest straightaway. What matters is we’re planting something, and when we’re ripe for it and when we need it most, we will explode into harvest. Wielding words is an integrative practice, a steep and winding road leading us to the versions of ourselves we wait around for. Here’s what I mean.
1 | Writing summons emotion, giving us permission to break.
You know how the professionals warn us not to stuff our emotions, lest they seep out in some undesirable way later on in life? When we write, we remind our hearts it’s okay to feel. I wrote a line in a poem once about benching my emotions, blaming whatever melodramatic college season I was in at the time. The line was something pithy about building dams to redirect my pain until a time “better suited for breaking.” Ironically, I was employing poetry to process an emotion about non-emotion, which actually would have lended some texture to my poem. All that to say, the act of writing guides us through our own thoughts, the deeper places of our souls. Putting pen to paper is like a memo from our outer life to our inner life: “you can come out now, old friend, there’s a safe place for you here.”
2 | Writing summons hope, reminding us of what could be.
In practicing our art, we feed our souls the hope they crave. Sometimes the only thing to sustain us in the dark pit is the little glimpse of light we see through the cracks, reminding us we’re not there yet, but almost. Writing down our stories not only tells us what was and what is, but also what could be. In this way, an ad lib journal entry poured out in the thick of things can be about as spiritual as a psalm – a symbol of our humanity, a song we sing to woo the light back in.
3 | Writing creates space, showing us what we believe.
A friend recently told me about a Buddhist retreat she attended at a Franciscan convent. What she observed about herself resonated with me, and it’s something I want to try. She said she noticed thoughts she normally wouldn’t have paid attention to in the intentional time of quiet. Writing cultivates a similar mindfulness. I heard a metaphor once that writing is like dipping your brain in ink and stamping it on paper; in other words, noticing things happening in our brains is a stepping stone to change.
4 | Writing releases energy, guarding us from spending it on anxiety.
Just like exercise is a release of pent-up physical energy, art is a release of pent-up emotional energy. When we’re anxious or frustrated or heartbroken, our bodies physiologically respond to protect us, creating energy that begs for an escape hatch. We could impulse spend that energy on further anxiety, or we can revisit our experiences and work it out of us. I usually choose the former, but when I choose to engage and look my life in the eye through writing, things often move forward.
5 | Writing redeems our pain, shaping it into beauty.
I really believe writing, and all art, mimics redemption. We take our pain, our messes, through the chrysalis of our craft, and it emerges in an altogether different form. Something almost unrecognizable. Something that infuses our lives with meaning. Like a kiln, our writing seals the trial, turning the raw material into art – a piece of art we can hold up to the world as a sign that we are here, we are alive, we are enough.
– image credit: Art and Anthem