Write it Out

On the surface, this seems like straightforward wisdom, akin to a parent imploring a toddler in mid-tantrum to “express” their muddled mix of rage and incoherence with words.  Use your words…don’t pull the dog’s tale…tell mama what’s wrong. 

An awful lot is expected of the toddling tykes, come to think of it.  Just because they MIGHT have the emerging skill sets and vocab for the task, doesn’t mean they know the ins and outs of communicating.  Likewise, that old chestnut of ‘use your words’ doesn’t work at all for infants who have limited, emerging skills at their disposal.  Rage is often the most compelling means of communication for the wee ones (well, that, plus the contagion of giggling that babies are cherished for).  Still, I think we set the bar awfully high for toddlers.  Hmmm…I’m digressing already.  Sorry!

Here’s where I’m headed. Despite the fact that most adults should have the verbal chops to articulate the whirlwind within, it ain’t that easy.  As grown-ups, we’re expected to nimbly name the feeling, the emotion on the fly – every day – as we’re in motion with endless amounts of input swishing through our brains. 

Some days I need a beat or two to remember my own name. 😉 Don’t ask me to do emotional work by classifying, daring to understand and ‘make meaning’ while I’m whirring along.  And yet…if I don’t tend to the errant bits at some point, I run the risk of them nesting and multiplying.  Overstaying.   

James Pennebaker, the social psychologist credited as a chief proponent of journaling for wellness wrote about the power of expressive writing and reflection in his landmark book Opening up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions  Pennebaker’s research highlighted the impact of reflective writing as a pathway to well-being.  I’m a fan, in part because I believe Pennebaker’s premise is true, no matter how it manifests in life:

”…there appears to be a basic need to reveal ourselves to others…”

When I read “Opening Up”, the first edition – years ago – one additional a-ha permeated my brain.  It came at a time when I was wrestling with the idea of writing about my mother’s complicated life. I wondered if her story of addiction, Alzheimer’s and Munchausen by Proxy/FDIA was a story worth telling.  For all out there who are writers at heart, contemplating writing about our mixed-up families, the prospect of launching headlong into a manuscript chock full of painful recall and first-person accounts of madness is overwhelming, no?  It surely was for me.

In my corner?  My best friend Linda who was on “Team Vicki” for 40 years as the ‘story of Sue’ (my mom) unfolded.  Often hilarious, definitely bawdy, salty, and shameful, Linda was at my side for the entire ride as mom descended into a life unrecognizable.  Less functional, more violent.  Lost in her own reality but ever capable of inflicting harm. 

Most of all?  Mom was burdened by a life of lies.  Some were crafted as necessities.  Protective shields to buffer an onslaught of shame, except the lying became a finely tuned, practiced skill – one that she deployed to control and manipulate the people around her while retaining, she thought, status and respect.

And that’s where more wisdom from Pennebaker resonated – just when I needed the clarity.  As he described ‘expressive writing’ – not purely as a therapeutic tool but as a mechanism for wellness – he addressed the power of prose in solving puzzles, bringing secrets into the light, putting the pieces together. Two aspects of Pennebaker’s premise hold true when I examine the burdens mom carried, toting a complex web of lies across decades of her life.  Pennebaker wrote (p.10):

  • Keeping secrets is physical work.  When we try to keep a secret, we must actively hold back or inhibit our thoughts, feelings, or behaviors…or in some way exert effort to not think, feel or behave.
  • Secrets can produce short-term biological changes and influence long-term health…over time, the work of keeping secrets serves as a cumulative stressor on the body, increasing the likelihood of illness and other stress-related physical and mental problems.

As I examined my mom’s life, both of those points held up.  The compounding impact of complex, orchestrated realities.  Lies, on top of lies and the associated stress, the compulsion to self-soothe while keeping a shaky structure intact.  I saw Pennebaker’s point, firsthand. Mom’s compulsion to weave fantastic tales? It drew people in because she was gregarious, lively and fun-loving but as lies swirled in every interaction, she created insurmountable cognitive hurdles. Too many tall tales to keep track of, contributing, I’m sure, to her eventual diagnoses. 

With best friend Linda’s encouragement, I began writing about my mom.  Just one day at a time.  If only 500 words rolled out, so be it.  Linda read as I wrote – often recalling episodes and sharing in the mixed-up memories of madness and humor.  There was humor.  For all the crazy antics surrounding her, mom was a showstopper.  A giver, a lover, a whirlwind.  And Linda said…every day…for months:  Keep writing.  It’s good.  It’s a story worth telling.  More importantly, telling her story IS your story.  Don’t stop. 

It was as if I had my very own Pennebaker on my shoulder 😉, cheering me on.  So, I kept at it and before I blinked, I had 90,000 words all about the ‘story of Sue’.  As my publisher reviews the manuscript to provide feedback, I’m looking forward to what comes next, but I’ve made peace with any outcomes beyond what I’ve already achieved, pleased to have followed the advice of Socrates that I’ve loved throughout my professional life: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Tell me about writing from your point of view.  How does it figure into your life these days?  Does it help you ‘find what matters most’?

Big hugs,

Vicki 😊

Please visit my personal blog at www.victoriaponders.com And if you want to follow me, you can find me on Instagram: @victoria.atkinsongroup

44 thoughts on “Write it Out

  1. Personal memoirs can be a challenging mountain to scale. When my parents were still alive, I found it difficult to tell their stories accurately and honestly. I found myself in the role of protector – you know, that weird parent/child role reversal. I did not want people to judge the somewhat flawed parents I loved so much. Congratulations on finding your way with this.

    I write because I must. It is the one creative aspect of my life always present. My friend, my confidant.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you for sharing that with me, Maggie. I love what you shared about that duality — and the reversal of parent/child roles. Yes…and although our parents…as people…were human/imperfect, it doesn’t mean we loved them less. In my case I needed to love them differently and it took me a while to figure that out. You write because you must…your creative aspect…your confidant. I wish you could see me smiling. I am! Sending virtual hugs as well! Have a lovely day, Maggie! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like the idea that we can learn to love our parents differently. Your post was inspiring. Thank you for the thought provoking question. Have a wonderful Sunday.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. When my father was still alive, I asked him to write about his life, so his story would “remain.”

      Ever since my mother passed away, I still have something to tell her every day, but she’s not there to talk to. I shared this with a friend who suggested I write “to her” instead of talking to her. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do it…

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sending love and hugs, EW ❤️ as I know the loss of your mom is a more recent event. I adore your friend’s advice and I suspect you’ll know when the time is right to write about your mom — or to her. ❤️ So lovely. Xo! ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The first step of the journey might be difficult, but if you still have words to say, I believe you will find a way to say them. Maybe when you write it is not ‘to’ her, but ‘for’ her. I find that small shift can be freeing. I wish you the best as you approach the way forward.


  2. I recently started a new journaling thing where I write ten things in a journal. In the morning I write one or two, and before bed I add the rest. (I’m one of those people who needs to let it out at night so I can rest easy) I blog every day which helps and I’m working on a book so I try to write even just a little bit every day (though I failed at that yesterday….)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, LA — I’m so glad to get to know you here! What you shared about the need to “let it out” so you can rest easy? That’s me as well and I love that you mentioned that some days we fail – even though we have good intentions — to write every day. I’ll absolve you if you do the same for me! Cheers and hugs! 😉😉😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always ‘sketched’ through my writing, and it does feel therapeutic, just like when I doodle for no reason at all. I’m a huge proponent of journalling and morning pages. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. What an incredibly beautiful, personal, and compelling post. I love this sentence, “And yet…if I don’t tend to the errant bits at some point, I run the risk of them nesting and multiplying. Overstaying. ”

    And I love Linda for her ever-present encouragement as you wrote out the story of your mom. To me it seems like writing is so much about the details like word-choice and tone but also about the big picture of health, sanity, and growth like you paint in this post. Beautiful, Vicki!!

    Can’t wait to read your book!! XOXO

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Ah, Wynne! Thank you for being my chief cheerleader and compadre in ALL of this! Yeah…those errant bits like to ‘roost’ if I don’t acknowledge them and you’ve got me! I write because it helps me paint the big picture, helps me ‘make meaning’ out of all sorts of stuff. Hugs to you! 😉❤😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great, Vicki! Just as Wynne mentioned, this bit struck me: “And yet…if I don’t tend to the errant bits at some point, I run the risk of them nesting and multiplying. Overstaying.” Wow, I can relate to that. I so look forward to reading your mother’s story (and your story, through the lens of her life). And I love that we’re on the same wavelength with our posts on writing today! 😉

    For me, writing feels like a compulsion at times. It an exercise to work through emotions–positive, negative, complex, confusing, and everything in between–and better understand my experience. Sharing those writings also feels like a compulsion–a desperate plea into the universe to make sure that I’m not alone. It’s therapeutic, which now makes me chuckle because nearly everyone I know goes to therapy… maybe I am too, with pen and paper as my facilitator. 😂

    Thanks for this, Vicki! Big hugs to you, and hope you have a great weekend. ❤️❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my…you said so many things that I adore in your comments, Erin. First — yes, yes, I love that we’re on the same “page” (LOL!) about writing today — the place it holds in our lives. Your post this morning was inspirational and moving. I’ll be going back to it to print it out…I want to hold on to it for a while, in hard copy. 🤍 Second – your thought about writing being a compulsion, our efforts to ask the universe ‘is this mic on?’ 😉 I think it’s what I love best about the connections I’ve made with beautiful people, just like you, here in the blogging world. As much as I’m a proponent of “therapy” – however it manifests – I’m with you. The best facilitator in the world for me has come from within…as I express myself through pen, paper, keyboard. xoxoxo and a little more xoxoxoxo just because! 💕💕💕

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this is packed full of such great stuff! I love how you begin by acknowledging that identifying our feelings doesn’t always happen immediately. Very true for me. But not doing so eventually – the overstaying (love that way of describing it!)- can be damaging. And the keeping secrets part resonated because I’ve found transparency to be a key part of healing. As to writing, I don’t journal, per se. But there have been a few times when I was really upset, and I decided to sit down and write it out. This allowed me to release those feelings – and then I could let it go. Of course, the writing involved with blogging helps makes sense of things too. Just a lovely post, Vickie – educational and inspirational all at the same time!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Kendra! Yes to the unfolding — the idea that we make meaning of things over time. That’s true for me, too. And great point! I don’t think of “journaling” in the conventional sense — a pretty, blank-paged volume. In fact, I have a few of those pretty things that I’m looking at right now that I rarely use. Instead, I find my way to my keyboard and let thoughts fly…or I use the notepad on my phone to capture bits and pieces. I think I’ve romanticized the leather-bound journals and sometimes wish I would use them, but it just doesn’t happen. Hugs to this Sunday morning…and smiles to your beautiful family, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As usual, I’m late to game, commenting. I’m finally getting a chance to add my two cents and I want to add a “ditto” to everything that everyone has said before me. Let me say with an exclamation point for emphasis, I can’t wait to read your book! (I wish WordPress allowed you to make a comment in bold face.) I’m in, I’m ready to start reading!

    Back to what you wrote today: I’m not sure if it’s having kids or what, but my wife and I still use the phrase: “use your words” in conversation. It’s a way of saying, “c’mon, this is a safe place, let’s be real, what’s really wrong.” Who says adults can put two cogent thoughts together? I know I can’t always.

    You’ve got me curious about Pennebaker’s book. I’ve seen other books on journaling, but how have I missed his? (It’s in my Amazon cart as we speak.) I’m stuck on the quote you cited about needing to reveal ourselves. It’s definitely a part of me. I write to better understand myself, what makes me tick . . . and the more I think about, yes, to reveal myself to others. I’ve been thinking too what you wrote about secrets and writing about family. There’s a lot to unpack there. We like to keep our secrets don’t we?

    I definitely need to do more journaling to get to the heart of what I’m feeling inside. I find my blog writing becomes my therapy, hence why it’s often so personal. I have a piece coming this week on HoTM that falls in that category. I swear I’ve read it 100 times the past two days and each time I question the tone and the details, and if I want to reveal certain things. I hesitate, but then I remind myself that writing for me is breathing. I need to be authentic. I need to be honest. I need my writing to include some things that make you think, some things that make you laugh, even if it’s just poking fun of myself, and even some things that make you cry. To me . . . that is good writing.

    Great post Vicki. So when is this book coming? Ha, ha, I know it takes time. Looking forward to it!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. First, let’s just say this — there’s no fun, no party until Brian arrives! LOL! Thank you for the treasure trove of comments. I love that your house still resonates with ‘use your words’ ideology. It’s pretty timeless, right? You’ll need to let me know what you think of Pennebaker’s book. There are so many resources “out there”…I like his approach and admire how he demystifies expression – like you said, whether it’s a conventional journaling or just our individual, unique ways of making meaning out of things. As for the piece you have coming up – can’t wait to read it. I find the posts I struggle with the most are troublesome for the same reasons you mentioned. Too much, not enough? And your thought about ‘writing is like breathing’. Wow. I love that…and your writing which reveals all the facets of who we are — the laughable, the cringe-y bits and everything in between. Yes!
    As for the book…only my publisher knows for sure, LOL! It’s in his hands now and I await editorial direction…hopefully soon. Thanks so much for all of your input today, Brian. Appreciate you, my blogging buddy! 😉😉😉

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh my—this is one pithy post! Kudos to you for the courage to dig in and write it, and to Linda for being the cheerleader that she is. Wow. What an undertaking. A work of this sort is such a gift because it offers hope for others in similar circumstances by allowing them to realize that they are not alone, that others have struggled through and survived similar dramas. Can’t wait to read it!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh golly! You are right about Linda. I’m one lucky lady, aren’t I? She’s my family by choice and I would never have persevered without her help as my “beta reader” and lifelong soul sister. And yes! That’s my hope – that my mom’s story lights the way for others. Xo, Julia! ❤️🥰❤️

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Brava to you, Vicki!

    For me, writing in my academic career began out of necessity: publish or perish. Once I went into full-time practice as a clinical psychologist, I wrote between 2500 and 3000 evaluations of their patients on referral from a range of mental health professionals — the better to understand their patients and find a way to help them heal.

    Along the way, I wrote a few articles about baseball and classical music for two major Chicago newspapers and some additional pieces for the Chicago Symphony. My blog began to leave some part of me behind for my children. Now, with two grandchildren, they are also on my mind.

    In every case after my academic work, I had the typical “inner necessity” found in writers. But I also had a curious mind about the nature of humanity, loved baseball, orchestral music, and, of course, my kids and grandkids. I expect a short legacy in the lives of others, but, for me, this is enough, and I enjoyed most of it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dr. Stein — I appreciate what you shared — the venues your life has taken you to where writing was foundational. I hadn’t thought about that, specifically, but your comment brings it forward. Academic writing, the clinical interview/assessment and evaluation process — and the writing associated with that (my goodness — between 2500 and 3000! I’m in awe!). Along the way, your love of baseball, the symphony and writing for Chicago newspapers?! What you’ve shared helps me to understand the why I enjoy your blogging efforts. All that you do and share in the blogging community rests upon the talents you’ve honed along the way — the rich and varied types of writing you’ve accomplished. I must admit, what I’m most impressed by is the legacy work you’re doing for your family. What a treasure and if I can embody even a smidgen of that, for our dear daughter — as I unwrap the story of her grandmother, my mom, I’ll feel I met my ultimate writing goal. Sending warm hugs and gratitude to you! ❤❤❤

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Every once in awhile, you come across something that feels like it was written for you, and you alone. I wept a bit as I read this one, Victoria, starting with “keeping secrets is hard work”. I also found “Lies, on top of lies and the associated stress, the compulsion to self-soothe while keeping a shaky structure intact” to be particularly poignant and personally meaningful. I have a few stories like that, festering in the corners of my mind. And they want to come out. I have bookmarked this post so I can come back to it and remind myself why I should dare to tell my truth more often… thank you so much for this…🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Patti…you’ve made my heart swell with goodness — it means so much to hear that what I wrote hit notes of recognition for you. That helps me…to feel less alone…so thank you for that. Kinship despite challenging circumstances is the stuff of life, I say! 😊 I’ve enjoyed seeing your comments on other posts recently — and I’m so glad to make your acquaintance thanks to your beautiful, kind reply. Cheers to you, my new friend, with big smiles and hugs from me to you. 🥰💕🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Vicki I read this yesterday but wanted to take some time to reflect before writing my response. As others have said, there is so much in this post … reflective writing/journalling, living with lies, writing about our own experiences and lastly (but not least) relationships with our mothers. I didn’t have a great relationship with my mum, who died in May 2022, but I wrote her a letter which went with her on her final journey, saying goodbye. I can’t forgive some things, but it let me deal with some of the emotions I’d bottled up. Maybe not lies, but written expression is a good pressure release valve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Brenda. I feel the same – sometimes I need to “sit” with my feelings a bit before I can respond. I’m grateful to you for sharing what you did about your mum — and such a recent loss. I’m so sorry for that – and humbled by the story of you writing a final letter to her. ❤️And…yes…release valve — what a beautiful, accurate way to depict the power of written expression. Sending hugs to you. ❤️❤️❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This is amazing! I’ve used my blog many times to try and express all the mess that is inside my head. I’ve started and stopped too many times to count because telling the truth isn’t always what people want to hear or read. I’ve fought with that notion forever, but then when I do write I feel lighter and free. Do the words mean less, no. But having them outside my head frees up room for other feelings or thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s