Writing to save your life: defining moments become your story

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By JO PARFITT

I started a diary at 11 years old, excitement such as ‘got up, had breakfast, went to school’. When adolescence caught me in its clutches my journaling went up a gear.

Private writing became my friend, my confidante and my saviour when I became a serial expat in 1987, following my brand new husband from the UK to Dubai.

I could ramble away, examining my thoughts, dreams, ideas, pain and joy, even before I knew the value of writing as therapy and how the defining moments in our lives become our personal story.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones started me on that journey, with Sheila Bender’s Writing it Real and Anne Lamott of Bird by Bird rekindling my motivation whenever it waned. Once these gurus of stream-of-consciousness urged me to ignore the inner critic and just write, even for ten minutes a day, I gave myself permission to express what needed to be said.

Back then in Dubai, I thought I had said goodbye to my career thanks to a stamp in my passport: ‘wife not permitted to work’. I turned to poetry with telling titles like ‘Nihil’ and ‘The Box’. (In 2009 a lifetime of poetry became my memoir, A Moving Landscape.)

In Oman I discovered The Artist’s Way and the therapeutic value of speedwriting. Jobless again, in Norway, I began a journal to my children, then three and five, which surpasses any photographs, video or personal diary of that time and place. Now in the Netherlands, I’m sharing everything I’ve learned with students in a workshop about writing life story.

My private expat journals have become the rich source for books, articles and columns. Publishing them has allowed me to retain my professional identity, despite crisscrossing the globe.

When you feel unmoored has writing ever saved your life — figuratively or literally?

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Jo Parfitt is a writer, author of 50 Steps to a Book in Your Hand, speaker, publisher and writers’ mentor currently based in The Hague, Netherlands.
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  • Anastasia

    Hey all. I was just adding a page to this site — my essay “The Accidental Anthologist”, a behind-the-scenes look at how I came to be involved in the Expat Harem ‘movement’ — and thought of this post. You ask Jo if writing has ever saved our life. When I came to Turkey I had an expat survival plan. It *was* writing, and life writing in particular. That would keep me from losing my voice and disappearing. What happened in fact was that the country had an unexpected effect on my writing, and helped focus not only my book project but also provided a new cultural context for both my career, and my conflicted life as an expat.

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Hey all. I was just adding a page to this site — my essay “The Accidental Anthologist”, a behind-the-scenes look at how I came to be involved in the Expat Harem ‘movement’ — and thought of this post. You ask Jo if writing has ever saved our life. When I came to Turkey I had an expat survival plan. It *was* writing, and life writing in particular. That would keep me from losing my voice and disappearing. What happened in fact was that the country had an unexpected effect on my writing, and helped focus not only my book project but also provided a new cultural context for both my career, and my conflicted life as an expat.

  • http://thejcconline.com Laura Cococcia

    Jo – wonderful article…I just wrote about coming across my childhood journals and what rich sources of information they gave me, but I never thought of actually isolating the ones from my travels to look for themes and see how they were really companions on my journey. Thank you for this!

  • http://thejcconline.com Laura Cococcia

    Jo – wonderful article…I just wrote about coming across my childhood journals and what rich sources of information they gave me, but I never thought of actually isolating the ones from my travels to look for themes and see how they were really companions on my journey. Thank you for this!

  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Thanks for those links, Anastasia. Three books I had not heard of. Brilliant and now on my wish list.

  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Thanks for those links, Anastasia. Three books I had not heard of. Brilliant and now on my wish list.

  • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/ Anastasia

    Thanks for this Jo, and Rose, Barbara, Sher, Michele and Catherine I appreciate hearing about your own practices.

    I’ve also been journalling since 7 or 8 (starting with Mexican travelogues in second grade “to remember where I’d been”), and a personal essayist for decades. However, the concept of truly writing about my life is a work-in-progress and tied to my own goals for that writing. What’s it for? Who will read it? How deep am I prepared to go? So in a way, writing life story is not just about where I’ve been, or where I am now, but also where I’m willing to go.

    Other autobiographical writing resources: I like YOUR LIFE AS STORY by Tristine Rainer (1997), also the author of THE NEW DIARY. Judith Barrington’s WRITING THE MEMOIR is really practical and addresses the ethical dilemmas of writing our truth.

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Thanks for this Jo, and Rose, Barbara, Sher, Michele and Catherine I appreciate hearing about your own practices.

    I’ve also been journalling since 7 or 8 (starting with Mexican travelogues in second grade “to remember where I’d been”), and a personal essayist for decades. However, the concept of truly writing about my life is a work-in-progress and tied to my own goals for that writing. What’s it for? Who will read it? How deep am I prepared to go? So in a way, writing life story is not just about where I’ve been, or where I am now, but also where I’m willing to go.

    Other autobiographical writing resources: I like YOUR LIFE AS STORY by Tristine Rainer (1997), also the author of THE NEW DIARY. Judith Barrington’s WRITING THE MEMOIR is really practical and addresses the ethical dilemmas of writing our truth.

  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Wow! Michelle – I have your book on my shelf. It should have been added to the list! Thank you for commenting. You do great work and I take my hat off to you.

    Catherine, what a super link to that piece. Thanks.

    And Sher, keep writing … and get Michelle’s book too

  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Wow! Michelle – I have your book on my shelf. It should have been added to the list! Thank you for commenting. You do great work and I take my hat off to you.

    Catherine, what a super link to that piece. Thanks.

    And Sher, keep writing … and get Michelle’s book too

  • http://skaiangates.blogspot.com Catherine

    I’ve been thinking about this piece all day, wondering exactly how to say how important writing is to me. Then reading an article my mother cut out for me from an August Irish Times I found Dermot Bolger had said it for me:

    “Writing starts as a deeply private business because memory is private. But writing is a public act too; it is the ultimate two fingers to those forces that wish to label you merely as a consumer, to funnel your thoughts in certain ways, to discreetly sell you lifestyles and packaged lies. The moment you begin to write – be it fiction or journalism, song lyrics or simply a diary – you are making a declaration of independence, determining to think for yourself, to leave a record of the person you actually are as against the person that other people would like you to be.”

    The full article is here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2009/0820/1224252939791.html

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    I’ve been thinking about this piece all day, wondering exactly how to say how important writing is to me. Then reading an article my mother cut out for me from an August Irish Times I found Dermot Bolger had said it for me:

    “Writing starts as a deeply private business because memory is private. But writing is a public act too; it is the ultimate two fingers to those forces that wish to label you merely as a consumer, to funnel your thoughts in certain ways, to discreetly sell you lifestyles and packaged lies. The moment you begin to write – be it fiction or journalism, song lyrics or simply a diary – you are making a declaration of independence, determining to think for yourself, to leave a record of the person you actually are as against the person that other people would like you to be.”

    The full article is here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2009/0820/1224252939791.html

  • http://www.micheleweldon.com Michele Weldon

    This sounds all very much like my 2001 book, “Writing To Save Your Life” that was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2002. I have been giving Writing To Save Your Life workshops since 1999 around the country and just had my 2004 trademark for “Scribotherapy” (the process of expressive writing used in healing) upheld this week by the USPTO. Check out the book for tips and exercises; it’s on amazon and hudnreds of other sites,including my own. Seems like we’re on the same page.
    Michele Weldon

  • http://www.micheleweldon.com Michele Weldon

    This sounds all very much like my 2001 book, “Writing To Save Your Life” that was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2002. I have been giving Writing To Save Your Life workshops since 1999 around the country and just had my 2004 trademark for “Scribotherapy” (the process of expressive writing used in healing) upheld this week by the USPTO. Check out the book for tips and exercises; it’s on amazon and hudnreds of other sites,including my own. Seems like we’re on the same page.
    Michele Weldon

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com/ Sher

    Yes, I have also used writing as a form of therapy throughout my life. I’m currently an expat in the Czech Republic, and started writing a blog two years ago as a form of therapy to help me cope with all the new feelings and experiences of living in a foreign country.

    I’ll certainly look for those books you mentioned–they sound very helpful!

  • http://sheroffthebeatenpath.blogspot.com Sher

    Yes, I have also used writing as a form of therapy throughout my life. I’m currently an expat in the Czech Republic, and started writing a blog two years ago as a form of therapy to help me cope with all the new feelings and experiences of living in a foreign country.

    I’ll certainly look for those books you mentioned–they sound very helpful!

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  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Yes, those two books are the ones I dip into whenever the muse flags. I also love the work of Sheila Bender, whose Writing in a New Convertible With the Top Down is so so sadly out of print. Her other stuff is wonderful too. Goldberg’s new ‘Old Friend From Far Away’ is super, about writing memoir, not least because the hardback has the most gorgeous handcut pages! You know, whenever bad things happened, I always thought ‘at least I can write about it’ and I did. Blogs were invented for people like you and me!

  • http://www.joparfitt.com Jo Parfitt

    Yes, those two books are the ones I dip into whenever the muse flags. I also love the work of Sheila Bender, whose Writing in a New Convertible With the Top Down is so so sadly out of print. Her other stuff is wonderful too. Goldberg’s new ‘Old Friend From Far Away’ is super, about writing memoir, not least because the hardback has the most gorgeous handcut pages! You know, whenever bad things happened, I always thought ‘at least I can write about it’ and I did. Blogs were invented for people like you and me!

  • http://www.rosedeniz.blogspot.com Rose

    Jo, you mention two books that were crucial to me, the Artist’s Way for “daily pages” – got me through college -, and Writing Down the Bones later for inspiration and exercises to break away from tedium. Without them, I wonder where I would be today. Thank you for drawing attention to these books as they relate to your life. I have no doubt they were excellent companions on your (continuing) journey.

  • Anonymous

    Jo, you mention two books that were crucial to me, the Artist’s Way for “daily pages” – got me through college -, and Writing Down the Bones later for inspiration and exercises to break away from tedium. Without them, I wonder where I would be today. Thank you for drawing attention to these books as they relate to your life. I have no doubt they were excellent companions on your (continuing) journey.

  • http://www.turkishmuse.com/ Barbara Isenberg

    Like you, Jo, I have also been writing since I was a child. No matter what I was doing in life, or where I was, whether times were good or bad, I always liked writing it down, turning it into a story, crafting an event into something concrete that I could go back to again and again. I write now on my blog, mainly for myself and anyone else who cares to. It keeps me sane, living here as an expat in Turkey. At first, the blog was meant to keep family and friends in the US updated, but very quickly the writing turned out to be a necessary part of my life. It keeps me grounded and keeps me remembering that other expats are going through the exact same stuff I am everyday.

  • http://www.turkishmuse.com/ Barbara Isenberg

    Like you, Jo, I have also been writing since I was a child. No matter what I was doing in life, or where I was, whether times were good or bad, I always liked writing it down, turning it into a story, crafting an event into something concrete that I could go back to again and again. I write now on my blog, mainly for myself and anyone else who cares to. It keeps me sane, living here as an expat in Turkey. At first, the blog was meant to keep family and friends in the US updated, but very quickly the writing turned out to be a necessary part of my life. It keeps me grounded and keeps me remembering that other expats are going through the exact same stuff I am everyday.

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