Sunday, February 15, 2009

Writing Makes a Difference

Adapted from remarks given at "The Writer's Journey" seminar series, Finlandia University, January 29, 2009

This afternoon I want to share a few things about my own writer's journey. I organized what I have to say around the idea that writing makes a difference.

The way I see it, writing making a difference on two main levels. Writing can make a difference personally, and it can make a difference politically, even planet-wide.

I believe I am a writer because writing makes a difference. I discovered how it could make a personal difference first, when I was in grade school and began writing in diaries and journals.

What I noticed, as I filled diary pages with teenage angst, is that something happened inside me when I poured my experiences and emotions out onto a blank page. It was a great relief for me to do this. It vented my emotions, helped me clarify my thoughts, guided me through difficult decisions, worked out conflicts. Writing made a difference to me by helping me understand the world and better understand myself. And so it became very important to me to be able to write.

I learned later that much of the writing that had helped me with life's struggles is a type called "expressive writing." This is where you write about some sort of emotional upheaval or trauma, not only recounting what's happened to you, but also writing how you feel about it, letting go and pouring out your deepest emotions.

What I say about it here comes largely from the work of researcher James Pennebaker. It turns out this kind of writing makes an actual physiological difference for us that has been measured scientifically. Expressive writing is good for our health -- it enhances our immune systems, it can decrease blood pressure, reduce sleep disturbances, decrease chronic pain, improve lung function in asthma patients, boost working memory, and reduce stress.

The process of writing about emotional upheaval can be upsetting or saddening as you do it, and immediately afterward. But generally this sadness lifts after a short time – sometimes a matter of minutes – and longer-term effects of well-being set in.

I've experienced this, and my experiences of feeling better after writing got me hooked on the process. As that happened, I began exploring ways to do more of it. Early on, I wrote for school newspapers, and in college, started getting paid for some of my writing.

Speaking at Finlandia. Taken by reporter Layla Aslani, this photo accompanied the news article about The Writer's Journey in The Daily Mining Gazette.

I soon learned that writing for money is a very different process from expressing oneself in a journal, and it is not necessarily as healthy. It brings up a lot of self-criticism, self-doubt, and fears of rejection or judgment from others, and all that in itself can be very traumatizing. So then you have to use expressive writing to get over the trauma!

But when you write for money, and for an audience, you do get into the second way that writing makes a difference: it makes a difference in the broader world as an advocacy tool.

From very early on I had a desire to make the world a better place, and I had strong opinions about how to do that. So I really liked making a difference by using writing as an advocacy tool.

There's a type of writing I've done a lot of professionally which is now sometimes called advocacy journalism. I guess you could define this as nonfiction reporting but with more of a point of view than you'd find in a mainstream newspaper.

One example is an article I wrote for my college paper, one of the very first articles for which I was paid. It's about a food coop that was new in our college town and needed help to keep going. In that article I was both telling the story about the coop, and gently encouraging people to get involved.

Another example comes from the middle of my writer's journey, when I wrote a lot for regional and national magazines. One of my magazine articles was about green cosmetics, and again, it's both informative and encouraging of green cosmetics as a better choice.

A third example comes from a more recent stage in my writer's journey, when I wrote a book called Divorce Your Car! The subtitle, Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, tells you what that book advocates, but I should also make clear that the book is not about wiping cars off the face of the planet – it is really about changing the relationship we have with cars.

I'm fortunate to have gotten some positive reviews for Divorce Your Car!, and my very favorite was a review that said the book is "not as biased as the title makes it sound." And this is my way of making a segue into another kind of writing I've done.

In writing non-fiction, I've also written straight journalism, where I am careful to stick to reportable facts and keep my own opinion out of the writing – an example of that would be the series on climate change in the Lake Superior basin that I wrote for Keweenaw Now in 2007. This kind of writing can also make a difference, simply by raising people's awareness.

To finish, I'd like to share one compelling experience I had, shortly after Divorce Your Car! came out. I was on the west coast in the middle of a car-free book tour, where I traveled to interviews and bookstore readings by bus and train and folding bicycle. I had just finished a reading at a bookstore in Bellingham, Washington, and an older woman came up to me and said very simply, "Thank you for writing this. Your book changed my life." I was so floored that I didn't know what to say. I think we did chat a bit more, but I don't remember what we said. What's seared on my memory is the visual image of her standing there in the bookstore when she said those words. I felt both very humbled and very honored. I am lucky to have had this kind of experience more than once.

So even though the ideal world I envision is not yet out there, I know that writing makes a difference. Whether it's deeply emotional journal writing, or advocacy writing, or straight non-fiction, or even humor, I firmly believe this, and I hope you will find, whether you read or write or both, that writing can make a difference for you.


JoAnne said...

great post Katie. I would love to share your words and accomplishments with my writing friends on Twitter. So, healing from emotional writing is what I've been doing all these years :). I find it interesting that I can learn more from reading your post than from many of the disappointing writing classes I've taken over the years. You have a way with your words that makes one want to read more.

Back when we were in middle school, I remember you not only being very smart, but that you were always nice to everyone. What we seem to not totally understand at that age is that we are not all that much different with our feelings on the inside, regardless of how we perceive it as an adolescents. I am looking forward to staying in touch.

kta said...

Thanks, JoAnne, for your kind words! Please feel free to share what you'd like on Twitter, and invite people to this blog. You are ahead of me if you're doing Twitter -- it was a big leap for me just to join Facebook! ;-) But I suppose Twitter is next.

I'm so glad we are back in touch!