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Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives

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In this inspiring book, based on her twenty years of research, highly acclaimed author and teacher Louise DeSalvo reveals the healing power of writing. DeSalvo shows how anyone can use writing as a way to heal the emotional and physical wounds that are an inevitable part of life. Contrary to what most self-help books claim, just writing won't help you; in fact, there's abundant evidence that the wrong kind of writing can be damaging.

DeSalvo's program is based on the best available and most recent scientific studies about the efficacy of using writing as a restorative tool. With insight and wit, she illuminates how writers, from Virginia Woolf to Henry Miller to Audre Lorde to Isabel Allende, have been transformed by the writing process. Writing as a Way of Healing includes valuable advice and practical techniques to guide and inspire both experienced and beginning writers.

240 pages, Paperback

First published March 3, 1999

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About the author

Louise DeSalvo

27 books69 followers
Louise A. DeSalvo (born 1942) is an American writer, editor, professor, and lecturer who currently lives in New Jersey. Much of her work focuses on Italian-American culture, though she is also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar.

DeSalvo and her husband raised their children in Teaneck, New Jersey before moving to Montclair to be closer to their grandchildren.

She also teaches memoir writing as a part of CUNY Hunter College's MFA Program in Creative Writing.

DeSalvo's publications include the memoir, Vertigo, which received the Gay Talese award and was also a finalist for Italy's Primo Acerbi prize for literature; Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, which was named a Booksense Book of the Year for 2004.

DeSalvo is also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar. She has edited editions of Woolf's first novel Melymbrosia, as well as The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, which documents the controversial lesbian affair between these two novelists. In addition, she has written two books on Woolf, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work and Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making.

One of DeSalvo's most popular books is the writer's guide Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.

(from Wikipedia)

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5 stars
403 (44%)
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300 (33%)
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154 (17%)
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33 (3%)
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13 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews
Profile Image for Cass.
68 reviews6 followers
July 5, 2012
I just finished this book, which I started on April 22 of this year. That’s a long time to spend reading a 216 page book, isn’t it? I thought I would review it, but in the moment, I have decided not to. I’m going to write something else instead, and what I am about to write is a direct effect of reading this book. In fact, I could hardly make myself finish it, because this idea gripped me with such compelling force that I had to keep drawing myself back to the page. And now I struggle to begin.

I have, several times over the past few years, struggled to write about my father. Part of the Mary Monologues was about him, and I have written a couple of poems about him, but I have never truly come to grips with him, his life, his death. I’ve felt the emotions and the turmoil, but I have not tried to organize that mishmash of confusion into a narrative that I could integrate into something useful, something I could process. Today, as I was finishing DeSalvo’s book, my mind continued to wander to the trunk in my room. Inside that trunk are photo albums. Several, I don’t remember how many. There are albums in there that hold pictures of my father, albums that my step-mother gave me not long after he died. I haven’t ever really studied them, and have looked at them only briefly since they came into my possession.

I think it may be because by not looking, I could choose to continue to not remember. We have discussed before, you and I, my faulty memory. But I know that my memory can be triggered by pictures. That in fact, if I want to remember something now, I stop and take a mental image of what is happening at this moment. It has, I think, been easier until now to think of him as someone who was never truly part of my life than to admit that I might have had, and then lost, something very precious. The truth is, I don’t know what I will find in those albums. I do know there are at least two images there that I can talk about, because I can see them just as clearly as if I had them in front of me.

Anyway, I had planned to write this summer, but I had no idea what about until today. I have a couple of collaborative projects going, but I’m also pretty sure that this will be the summer I pull all the writing I have already done about him together into one piece. And it will be the summer I pull those photographs from their acidic PVC albums and mount them on proper paper. It will be the summer I let myself tell me the story of My Daddy. There are parts that will be very ugly. Such is life. There is anger as well. But I hope I also find beauty and laughter. Mostly, I want something whole and something true. A piece that says: this is what happened when I was six, when I was seven, when I was 12, and when I was 43, 44, and 45.

I knew it would happen eventually, and I bought the scrapbook supplies last fall. I guess it’s time.
Profile Image for Quinn Collard.
56 reviews17 followers
February 21, 2016
I have mixed feelings about this book. There was some good advice in here to be sure, and I thought it gave some good insight into the relationship between writing and mental health that I hadn't thought about before. I particularly liked the parts about writing as a general practice, not necessarily about writing about emotional pain specifically, and how it can help one do well emotionally.

But at the same time there was an odd thread of judgmentalness towards people with mental illness, which is not exactly what one would expect from a book dealing with emotional pain. The author seemed much more sympathetic towards people who have experienced specific instances of trauma (which seemed to be mainly who the book was written for) but do not have a diagnosed mental illness than people who are just bipolar or depressed. She said some pretty shitty things about Sylvia Plath (who's my favourite author and someone I'm very sensitive about) and said numerous times that she "didn't have a mother" because her mother was depressed and sometimes had a hard time taking care of her when she was growing up. As someone who's bipolar, reading things like that really got to me. I definitely expected more sympathy from someone writing a book like this.

Overall I thought it was a worthwhile read in spite of the parts that bothered me. I'm going to be taking some of the advice into consideration with my own writing.
Profile Image for Chris.
2,854 reviews204 followers
March 30, 2015
DNF. I made it about 35% (into Part Two) before I put it down and decided I didn't want to bother reading more. I found Part One weirdly off-putting as the author repeated over and over, in slightly different and not-so-different ways, what the Exact Specific Only Type Of Writing That Is Therapeutic was.
Profile Image for Rikelle.
157 reviews1 follower
October 26, 2009
I really enjoyed this book. It details how important journaling is. It is a great discussion about how writing can help you heal from the wounds that life invariably inflicts on everyone. Just writing and wallowing in your writing won't help you and could even be hurtful. It is when we use our writing to empower ourselves and to find lessons and hidden gifts that burdens bring we can find healing.
Profile Image for Kendra Hovey.
Author 3 books14 followers
November 5, 2022
I enjoy this book more and more every time I read it! It certainly helps give me the courage to write my stories.
Profile Image for Amanda's.
101 reviews31 followers
September 21, 2017
I found this book... frustrating.

I was hoping it would be filled with practical advice on how to write for healing, along with incisive questions to support the reader in beginning this journey. What I got were a few nuggets of advice hidden among pages and pages of dry anecdotal evidence of how writing for healing helped other writers (or didn't help them, if they didn't write for healing). The whole thing felt rather vague, waffly and very repetitive. I finished it, but I had to force myself to finish.

The practical advice I took away from this book:

1. Write about traumatic events in the past in detail.
2. Write about how you felt about them at the time.
3. Write about how you feel about them now.


"Keep a process journal... to understand our relationship to our writing and the act of creativity... To comment on our writing - how it's going, how we feel about it, ideas we may want to examine, what we're excited about, proud of, looking forward to, what we've learned... Non-judgemental self reflective witnessing of ourselves as writers."

The quote which sums up the whole book for me: "Through writing, we change our relationship to trauma, for we gain confidence in ourselves and our ability to handle life's difficulties... We see ourselves as able to solve problems rather than beset by problems. We enjoy a heightened sense of self."

Profile Image for Michelle.
172 reviews2 followers
June 4, 2009
I found the book provided good how-to exercises and guidelines that one could apply whether you plan on doing long-term and formal writing or short, journal type entries. The first part of the book felt a little long and repetitive as it discussed the benefits of writing. The second and third parts seemed to flow at a quicker pace and provided more practical information for starting to write. I appreciated the guidelines and felt that they could be applied to any creative process or "work", not just writing. I also liked that she included stories about other authors' writing proceses, it was very validating to hear that writers I admire had their humble beginnings and struggles.
Profile Image for Kate Arms.
Author 6 books6 followers
March 18, 2013
There is a lot of gods material in here about how and why writing can be therapeutic. The book intermingles the author's personal experience of writing her stories, theories about how and why writing can help heal wounds, and stories of other writers' healing work. The book is thought-provoking and inspirational. However, for anyone who wants to write their own stories that need healing or for folks who want to lead writers in workshops, there is not enough explicit instruction.

Many books were mentioned in passing in the text that would be good further reading, but not were not sufficiently integrated into the text. They would have fared better as lists of related or further reading, either as back matter in the whole book or at the end of chapters.

There are questions and instructions on how to proceed in this kind of writing included, but to put together a project using her approach would require digging deeply into the book and pulling information for sections where she has not laid things out clearly enough to be a practical guide without deep analysis of the book.
Profile Image for Lynda Felder.
Author 2 books5 followers
April 16, 2012
Not that we really need convincing, but Louise De Salva begins Writing as a Way of Healing with proof, example after example, of writers who have used writing as a salve for their grief, illness, trauma and pain.

Henry Miller, despondent and suicidal because June has left him for a woman, writes through the night a piece he calls June, which outlines the famous books he would write over the next 30 years. (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Nexus and Plexus.)

Marcel Proust writes over a million words of Remembrance of Things Past while in bed with asthma.

D.H. Lawrence writes poems about his mother, at her bedside, while she is dying. He later writes Sons and Lovers, a novel that explores their complicated relationship

Alice Walker tells us that writing “is a matter of necessity and that you write to save your life and so far it’s been a very sturdy ladder out of a pit.

2,033 reviews25 followers
February 2, 2012
This is a terrific book about writing and how important it is to those hwo have suffered some trauma. I marked this book up a lot using a green highlightere and can't wait to read the highlighted areas again. Maybe I'll read the whole book again! I expect to be using its advice in my writing in the near future. The last paragraph is important:

"Writing testimony, to be sure, means that we tell our stories. But it also means that we no longer allow ourselves to be silenced or allow others to speak for our experience. Writing to heal, then, and making that writing public, as I see it, is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time."

A big thanks to Ms. DeSalvo for this important book.
Profile Image for Jocelyn Paige.
Author 7 books3 followers
February 4, 2013
DeSalvo's slant on writing as a way of healing stems on the essential aspect of "linking" our emotions with our thinking. It's not just about expressing or venting or more specifically, free writing. It's about engaging with our minds to process our experiences in a way that heals us. If you're looking for a book to give you freewriting ideas, this isn't it.

But, if you're looking for a book that helps people connect their creativity with empathy, this one is perfect.

Profile Image for Melanie.
259 reviews
March 6, 2015
I thought this would be more of a how-to. Instead, it was more like reading a long, boring college term paper. Too many theories and stories of other people instead of helpful advice.
Profile Image for Zac Sigler.
214 reviews1 follower
August 24, 2014
I was introduced to this book/author by the writing of a former professor. I don't want to give to much away, but I think that DeSalvo makes excellent recommendations that really will help people heal more than just writing about traumatic events with no other guidelines.
Profile Image for Steph Sutorius.
10 reviews5 followers
August 8, 2019
I really wanted to enjoy this book more. It was obvious that she did her research in terms of discovering and citing all of the famous authors, their mental illnesses and how they healed through the act of writing but I felt as if the same points were made ad naseum.
Profile Image for Bethany.
866 reviews22 followers
November 3, 2017
This is a compelling book, one that gently nudges the reader to write to find freedom and healing—especially from trauma, but sometimes just from living in the world as we know it.

Some of the most memorable (for me) concepts the book contains are as follows:

"We can't improve our health by free-writing or by writing objective descriptions of our traumas or by venting our emotions. We cannot simply use writing as catharsis. Nor can we use it only as a record of what we've experienced. We must write in a way that links detailed descriptions of what happened with feelings--then and now--about what happened. "

I like how the author says writing can be therapeutic, but can also be the antithesis of such because it's re-living the details of things we'd sometimes rather forget.

Sometimes with her students and clients, the author asks, "Tell me something you never want to write about." And that query often results in unlocking the chambers of things we'd like to keep hidden.

Seemingly unrelated, but referring to making writing goals: "An important study of Harvard graduates discovered that the people who considered themselves most successful and content (despite difficulties encountered in their lives) differed from those who didn't consider themselves accomplished or satisfied in one major way: they wrote down their goals and plans."

"Many researchers, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, like Alice Miller, Anthony Storr, M.D., and Albert Rothenberg, M.D., believe that mental illness and suicidal despair are not caused by trauma itself. They occur because the survivor can't verbalize what has happened and what has been suffered: they are caused 'by not being able to describe our feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness, says Miller. Feeling suicidal, then, means that there's a story that hasn't yet been told, that there are feelings linked to that story that haven't yet been expressed."

On putting your healing work out there in the world: "Whether [our listeners] like [our work] or not can't help us heal. It is impossible to "like" important survival narratives that nonetheless must be told." (Maybe this explains why I've struggled to like some of the memoirs that others raved about.)

Writers write for others, not just themselves: "They write about what they have lived through--experiences that might not be commonly known--to heal themselves. But they also write to help heal a culture that, if it is to become moral, ethical, and spiritual, must recognize what these writers have observed, experienced, and witnessed. All are writing to right a human wrong--one that affected them, surely, but one that affects others too. Writing testimony, to be sure, means that we tell our stories. But it also means that we no longer allow ourselves to be silenced or allow others to speak for our experience. Writing to heal, then, and making that writing public, as I see it, is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time."

Overall, a great book that has planted seeds about how exactly I write. I recommend to anyone who wants to write for their own healing.
Profile Image for Catherine.
45 reviews
November 1, 2020
This book opened my eyes to whole new ways to think about writing. I learned how to approach memoir writing from a variety of different angles, instead of limiting myself to just one way of thinking or narrative "lens" for my story. From Louise DeSalvo's book, it dawned on me that I shouldn't be limiting myself to a singular focus or format.

Also, DeSalvo taught me from this book how necessary it is to write about our lives, especially anything that was particularly painful from our past, and how if we don't , we risk a serious lack of understanding for what took place, which can prolong our pain.

I found this book to be very motivating for getting started on my writing and making it a part of my daily routine. Because she stresses the importance of daily writing, DeSalvo includes many tips for structuring your life to allow for writing and emphasizes how doing so has the power to transform our lives for the better by challenging our thought patterns and perceptions.
Profile Image for Danie Botha.
Author 4 books16 followers
November 9, 2017
The transition from victim to survivor to victor is possible!

In an eloquent fashion DeSalvo succeeds in showing and guiding the reader on how it is possible to write one’s way out of the darkest pits of despair. Writing can heal. Writing that is more than keeping a journal. Writing which takes the writer on a path of understanding and growth. What stood out for me is the overarching message that it is crucial to grow and progress from victim to survivor and not become complacent but to move on and become a victor, a witness of tenacity and resilience and refusal to remain broken or to quit. A logical and therapeutic next step is to share the journey, if not the details, with the world. By learning how to take care of the self, in addition to writing, healing becomes possible.
15 reviews
October 1, 2021
I had very high expectations when I bought and started this book but I disappointed pretty badly. My expectations were that I can have some tips to use when trying to heal from my traumas and mental illness, but I was wrong. The book was in my opinion just story about teacher who teaches writing as a healing progress. I felt very much left out of the group as a reader.

I always grabbed the book and thought that in this time there would be something useful - but there wasn't. Then I abandoned the book for months until I finally finished this book. It took me something like 2 years to do that (I started this book very long time before I joined to Goodreads). The 2 stars comes from that possibility that if I was able to read it in shorter time period, it would be better. The second thin is, that sometimes I was mildly inspired when I read the book.
Profile Image for Cassandra.
1 review
May 11, 2019
Writing as a way of healing was a strong book on how writing can truly be a healthy way to heal from traumatic experiences in life. Sometimes it was difficult to read because the author would illustrate graphic examples of other people’s depressing situations. I skipped the parts I felt were too much for me and focused on the portions I felt would leave to the most growth and benefit. If you’re struggling with anxiety, depression or just want to learn how to write in the most effective way to heal from past experiences this might be a good read for you. She brought out that by connecting both our feelings to events and not just venting or writing about the events alone we will receive the most benefit.
11 reviews
April 21, 2022
I loved so much about this book, that I had to order a thrift store copy before returning my library book. This treasure trove offers further literature to read of authors who share their narrative arc of illness. It honors that illness begets opportunity to review what is essential, and to develop a way of relating to it in a meaningful way- for ourselves but also as a gift to others.
For those of us who live under the shadow of disability or impediment, writing offers a path which is directed toward regeneration, witness, and generosity. Writing shares testimony of one's own experience in a way that connects with ultimate experience of being human.
Profile Image for Karen Quevillon.
Author 1 book12 followers
September 20, 2020
DeSalvo tells us about her own life but also the lives of many other acclaimed writers and how they are called to write in order to survive life, make sense of what is happening to them, bear witness to what was done to them, and achieve justice for the traumatic experiences they have endured.

For anyone with an interest in the creative process and the practice of writing, this book will give you additional food for thought on the relationship of writing to the self-understanding, care of self, and so many other aspects of literary communication.
Profile Image for Evan Anderson.
Author 6 books
November 17, 2017
Absolutely life-changing; I recommend this book to anyone I know who's been going through a difficult time, yet has the ability to put their story into words. It's a great aid for writers, and, at the same time, a road map for healing and becoming whole again. One is at the service of the other; neither takes precedence. Louise DeSalvo writes from her own experience with disarming honesty. Inspiring.
Profile Image for Heidi.
Author 3 books1 follower
December 13, 2019
I found a lot of insights into writing and journaling by reading this book. There are a lot of great quotes and mental health commentary. I especially loved the insights highlighted from Virginia Woolf.

It did feel somewhat repetitive in places but that could have been issues I had with understanding how those passages were different.

Professor DeSalvo writes in a lot of sentence fragments which was a little difficult for me at times but I got used to it as I read.
153 reviews4 followers
February 21, 2021
I thought this book was helpful about research surrounding how to share one’s experiences through writing as a form of therapy. I don’t agree with all of the author’s views (ex: you should disregard other’s privacy in sharing their stories where it intersects with yours). Also, this was written decades ago and it feels dated when it talks about using technology or the way we live. This isn’t dwelled upon, but thought I may point that out.
Profile Image for Sophie.
15 reviews
April 11, 2021
I have been studying this subject for years for myself and also for my students, in order to help them to write and heal.
I love this book for its honesty and for its authenticity. I thought it was highly helpful. I realized that I really needed to tackle some difficult traumas in order to heal and to develop as a writer. This book speaks the truth about writing and healing and Louise DeSalvo does it in a very loving way.
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 16 books4 followers
August 28, 2019
This could have been so much more, but reading this book is like reading a research paper: Lots of references to what famous and obscure authors have said about their reasons for writing and not enough of what the author has to offer. The "Can you..." bits at the end of each chapter are just a little on the condescending side.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
143 reviews4 followers
November 10, 2019
This is a tough book to rate for me—easily 4 star in places, it can also be quite dry and overstated. I also set it aside for a couple of years around the 120 page mark and just got back to finishing it this week. So clearly not a page turner. But that being said, I'm glad I read it, and for someone looking to write memoir or about trauma it would be worth the read.
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