Stop holding your breath. Writing is breathing for your brain.

It’s a relatively recent development: I am obsessed with documenting stuff. I take thousands of pictures of random shit, and aside from the pictures of my kids hardly any of it is significant subject matter (think trees and clouds and more trees). I recently had to go through and make some tough decisions and cull/transfer a few hundred photos of vegetation and other random stuff after I filled up my 120 GB hard drive. It made me sad because I am like Gollum and hoard files, books, and music like treasure.

I have the same compulsion about writing and over the past few years I have squirreled away bits and pieces of poems, essays, the fledgling beginnings of a memoir (it’s gonna be a best seller, I just know it) (←haha), and even some fiction in various cloud storage accounts and hard drives. Fortunately text files take up virtually no space so I can keep amassing my collection of words without worrying too much about consolidating or streamlining. Unlike my photography obsession, the compulsion to write is less documentation and more exploration. I fixate on certain snapshots of conversations or events and look at those in the larger context of the world around me. When something hooks my attention I consciously place a bookmark in my brain so I can revisit it later. If I’m distracted or driving (or almost asleep) and I fail to purposefully remember (meaning, I forget to say to myself: Hey self, make sure you remember this so you can write it down later), I practically mourn those fleeting thoughts and ideas that pass through my consciousness, their perfect shape and essence disintegrated into fragments of nothing. I just know [xyz idea] would have made the best short story or poem but now I can’t remember a goddam thing…

Then there are those thoughts and moments that (whether I like it or not) stay stuck, fixed in my brain on a loop until I release them in composition. Until the words are out of my head I’m held hostage by my own brain, unable to fully focus on anything else. I had one pestering me this morning, a sharp, clear recollection from Christmas day:


Pre-dawn Christmas morning.

The sky was dark; the sun wouldn’t be up until 7 or so. Still foggy from sleep, I was dressing in the master bathroom and listening to the lilting tones of my children through the walls that separated me from the living room. The sound of their voices traveled uninterrupted but there was a fluffy quilt wrapped quality about their words making them incomprehensible. Most were questions, I assumed, because of the upturn at the end of their muffled phrases. Their father would answer in low gentle tones, occasionally interrupted by the higher voices. I paused and just listened for a minute to the waves of low and high tones like a beautiful song with no pattern.

This was the sound of my home. This was the sound of my family and they were happy. We are happy.

Even though this was not a bad memory to have hijacking my thoughts, after getting that little gem out of my head I felt all limber and comfortable in my brain – once I captured it “on paper” I could move on to other stuff – because the thing is – I just can’t focus on anything else when my mind is otherwise preoccupied drafting prose.

But unlike my beautiful Christmas memory in that paragraph up there, sometimes the memories and thoughts aren’t so nice. Before I realized I could write stuff down and feel better doing it, I spent years with bad memories and terrifying and angry thoughts, to the extent that I couldn’t even remember (or enjoy) the beautiful things anymore.

When I first started dealing with symptoms of what has since been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress, the social worker at the VA hospital recommended journaling. Journaling! I thought it was a giant crock of shit (yes, humble pie is very delicious). Four years ago I couldn’t even look at the silent horror show that was running in the background of my mind and relentlessly skirting the peripheral of my thoughts – so how the hell was I supposed to write about it?

But my anger became all-consuming. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I was drowning in rage and sorrow. I screamed at my children, I screamed at my husband. I collapsed on the bathroom floor more times than I can count, unable to do anything but muffle my racking sobs with my legs as I sat curled up against the wall. I started drinking to dull the sharp edge of my pain. It helped quell my anger for the most part but made the depression more pronounced. I would imagine all the different ways I could end this overwhelming sadness, envisioning just the slightest turn of the steering wheel to guide my car off the side of an overpass or into oncoming traffic. Or I’d picture a quiet end in my sleep, never thinking death but always seeing it and wishing for it.

I finally started to write my pain because there wasn’t anything else I could do. And it hurt so much. I thought I was making it worse at first, because bringing all the scary shit to the forefront seemed to be making my nightmares more intense, my startle reaction more pronounced. But then I started to re-read my own words and re-write so that it was more and more descriptive and narrative [rather than me vomiting my emotions into half-formed phrases], and I realized that I gained power over those memories when I typed them out on my screen. They loosened their hold on me and the vise in my chest began to ease. So I started writing more. I wrote stream of consciousness, I wrote poetry, I wrote short stories and essays. I incorporated all those bad memories into stories about my life, about the things I had witnessed and experienced, and what do you know? I started remembering the good stuff too. Buried in my anger and depression, those good memories began to seep into my writing – just a little bit at first, and then more so as I pushed forward – and slowly, steadily balanced out the anger and fear that had taken over my life.

Now it’s no longer simply catharsis. Writing is my primary mode of creative, emotional, and political expression. It’s how I connect with the world around me, and how I archive my experiences, both bad and good. It’s how my brain breathes.