Archive for October, 2009

Writing for Wellness and Health

This past weekend I attended a conference in Atlanta — the Wellness and Writing Connections Conference. My dear friend and colleague, Julie Davey also the author of  Writing For Wellness (a fabulous book) was the keynote speaker. I conducted a workshop entitled, “The Healing Notebook.” It’s the second year I have taught this workshop and the crowd is always very enthusiastic and includes writers, therapists, and clinicians. The premise of my workshop is to discuss not only the healing power of words, but how regular notebook-writing can empower us. Recent studies have shown that writing down your feelings can help you  come to terms with difficult situations. The good thing is that there are no rules to the healing notebook. You can dictate your own method and do at your own pace. By doing this you will gain control of your life.

Quite a few writers have used their notebooks as a way to heal and they have also gone on to publish their work, including Walt Whitman, Andre Lorde, May Sarton, Hilda Raz, Donald Hall, Elizabeth Berg, Jane Kenyon, Isabel Allende and my favorite diarist, Anaïs Nin who began her first journal as a letter to her estranged father who left the family when she was ten years old. Writing that letter was her way of healing from the pain of losing him. Since that day, Nin became an avid diarist and today has numerous published volumes.

I am also a big advocate of letter writing in the notebook and novelist Isabel Allende began her writing career by writing a letter to her grandfather when he was nearly 100 years old. At the time he was dying in Chile where her novel House of Spirits was set. She admits that in many ways, writing that novel saved her life.

The Healing Notebook has numerous benefits including: it’s a place to capture and record memories, a place to clear the mind, a place to build self-confidence, a place to empower and a place to witness the healing process. I always suggest using proper tools—that is, a notebook and pen which inspires and resonates with you. You want to be motivated to use your journal. I suggest starting with free-writing first thing in the morning, with 15-20 minutes and increasing the time as needed. Basically, this is writing without lifting your pen off the page and seeing where your mind goes. Begin by writing about an experience which has deeply affected your life or which has obsessed you for quite some time.

In general, my only suggestion is that when you sit down to write, you should write as long as you like, but if the pain gets too great, it is probably a good idea to stop. This would be an appropriate time to take a break and do something different like walking or some other form of exercise. The best part about keeping a healing notebook is the ability to turn a negative into a positive and what can be so bad about that?

Journaling Breast Cancer Awareness Month

BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

October is many things, including the anniversary of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although breast cancer awareness should be promoted all year round, this month tends to focus on an intense campaign to promote awareness, education and empowerment to women of all ages. Given my background as an educator and registered nurse, I cannot help, but to share some reminders and statistics.

Statistics show that one in eight women will get breast cancer at some point during their lifetime. Here are statistics broken down in age:

Age 30 to39  – 1 in 233

Age 40 to 49 – 1 in 69

Age 50 to 59 – 1 in 38

Age 60 to 69 – 1 in 27

For more information, check out this website: http://www.nbcam.org/about_nbcam.cfm.

Personally, eight years have already passed since my diagnosis with breast cancer and I have to say that I feel better than ever. Because I feel so good I want to urge women over the age of forty to get annual mammograms. The reason I am still here today is because mine saved my life. My type of cancer, called DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) is sometimes called, ‘precancer,’ and is only detected on mammograms.

Coincidentally, this month the Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Source Newsletter featured an article, entitled, “Ductal Carcinoma: A Highly Treatable Breast Cancer.” The article says that before mammograms very few women were diagnosed with DCIS and now more than 62,000 cases are diagnosed yearly, which also accounts for about 20 percent of all new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year. The good news is that its treatment is extremely successful with a 10-year survival rate of almost 100 percent.

DCIS occurs when abnormal cells multiply and form a tumor or growth in the mammary duct.  The first sign is the growth of calcium deposits (calcifications) which on a mammogram look like clusters of white spots, often confused with talcum powder. In general, DCIS is not life-threatening, but if not treated early, it can progress into invasive cancer. The biggest challenge with this type of cancer is deciding on its treatment. Fortunately due to the diligence of my fabulous doctors, mine saved my life.

Ultimately  we are all responsible for our own health and the more  we understand about our own bodies, the better we can take care of ourselves and maintain a path of health. For me, one of the most beneficial paths to my own health was writing about my experience in my forthcoming memoir Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Story, which will be out in the Summer of 2010, just before next year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s one poem from that book:

To My Daughters

You were the first I thought of

when diagnosed with what

strikes one in eight women.

It was too soon to leave you,

but I thought it a good sign

that none of us were born

under its pestilent zodiac.

I stared at the stars and wished upon

each one that you’d never wake up

as I did this morning to one real breast

and one fake one; but that the memories

you carry will be only sweet ones,

and then I remembered you had your

early traumas of being born too soon,

and losing a beloved grandpa too young

and then I had this urge to show you

the scars on the same breast

you cuddled as babies, but then wondered

why you’d want to see my imperfections

and perhaps your destiny.

I caved in and showed you anyway,

hoping you’d learn to be careful, as

if it really mattered, because your grandpa

used to say when your time’s up, it’s up.

May he always watch over you.

Memoir and Truth

Last weekend  I taught a memoir workshop at the West Hollywood Book Festival. It’s my second year doing so and it’s one of my favorite gigs. The class overflows with enthusiastic attendees who are smart and ask great questions. One recurring question in most of my workshops is, “Are you liable if you write a memoir about a mean family member or unfortunate childhood situation?” In light of all the attention given to the exaggerations and falsehoods in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, many people have begun to suspect memoir writers as a group, but I would like to set things straight.

The truth is when you write memoir, you are writing your truth as you remember it. It is no one else’s truth. It’s your own. You can be sued by a family member, but they might not be able to win the suit. They need to  prove that what you wrote is a lie and often this is very difficult to do. When writing memoir, in either the short or long form, the best advice is to be as honest as possible. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, our memories are not reliable and they tend to play tricks on us.

If Frey would have just written a caveat in the beginning of his book attesting to this, chances are he would have not received all the negative PR that he did. Most memoir instructors, myself included, will tell you that often times, the act of writing will help you remember and that’s why I am such an advocate of keeping a journal. It is a place to practice your writing. In her book, Fearless Confessions, my colleague, Sue William Silverman coined a term, ‘memory truth,’ where she identifies memories as completely subjective. She says, “While it’s not acceptable to make up facts willy-nilly when writing about your life, it is acceptable to convey your individual version of events—your memory-truth.” I cannot agree more with this sentiment. This is great advice,  particularly if you have already decided to head down the road to writing your memoir.

Baby Boomers, Memory and Memoir

If you are like me and most other baby boomers you obsess a lot about memory loss. Sometimes it simply gets frustrating, such as when trying to recall details from books or scenes from movies recently seen. All this frustration has lead me to organize a refresher course for myself on how memory works, with the hope that in understanding memory, I can improve my own. One thing I know for sure is that memory is fickle and unpredictable. We never know how much we will remember and when we will remember certain things and not others. It’s important to know that memory is deeply tied to concentration.

Basically, we only remember so much. We all have selective memories and typically we do not remember what is uninteresting or unimportant. Our emotional states have a distinct affect on our memories. According to a recent study at Penn State University Erie, the brain has an override system that ‘trashes’ information which it finds outdated. While learning new information, if new details are revealed, then the brain has the ability to filter through the details and retain only vital information. So… is that why my husband didn’t remember when I told him that the bulbs in my office fixture burnt out weeks ago?

No matter what your profession, a good memory is important, but if you are a memoirist it is critical. Studies have shown that there are certain things we can do to improve our memories. Getting exercise has been shown to help memory because an increase in circulation improves brain function by increasing blood flow to the brain. Some believe that vitamin supplements can improve memory. The following vitamins are supposedly crucial for memory: Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Folate/Folic Acid (800mg), Vitamin E, and Gingko Biloba.

If you are writing memoir, here are some specific tips:

–       play music from the time period you are writing about

–       prepare foods from the time period you’re writing about

–       prepare timelines

–       look at photographs

–       keep notebooks everywhere to jot down notes

Memory exercises and repetition is also important. For example, if you are introduced to someone for the first time, in order to remember their name, repeat it three times – when introduced, during the conversation and when you’re leaving.

Back to my reading about memory, before I forget to do so! It has also been said that reading out loud improves memory, as long as it doesn’t disturb others around us. This is because it engages many senses and can be particularly helpful if you are reading complex material.

Have a good week!


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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