Friday, May 24, 2013

Writing through Tragedy

Photos by Philip Vassallo
Six months after Hurricane Sandy devastated so much in its path from the Greater Antilles to the United States northeastern seaboard, I visited Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which was especially hard hit by the superstorm. These images of Holgate, the southernmost town on the island, hardly begin to tell the story of the havoc wreaked by a Category 3 storm with 115 mile-per-hour winds traveling across countries and 1,100 miles and causing sea surges as high as 32 feet. The death toll of 285 and assessed damages of $75 billion are likely underestimates considering the population density and property values in the affected region.

Reflecting on this tragedy reminds me of the healing power of writing. I go into some length about this point in the final chapter of my book How to Write Fast Under Pressure, relying on the wisdom of Matthew J. Loscalzo, the Executive Director of Supportive Care Medicine for City of Hope in Duarte, California, and a leading authority on pain management and palliative care. Loscalzo does not believe that time heals. “Sometimes, grief can never be lessened,” he says.

The key to dealing with grief, says Loscalzo, is getting the executive function of the brain active. The executive function is the part of the brain that controls emotions, organizes issues, and solves problems. “Get back into your routine within a week,” Loscalzo suggests. “When you are confronted by another human being, you are impacted by them. It is inherently therapeutic. It gets you out of yourself to be helpful.”

Experience tells me writing can tap into the executive function of the brain. “Writing is a way of fueling the executive function,” Loscalzo concludes.

I have found writing helpful to me in dealing with the loss of many loved ones, including my parents. Writing has also enabled me to manage my emotions over disasters that have struck close to home, such as the September 11 terrorists attacks. So writing can serve as a positive force not only in moments of anger as well as despair. If for no other reason than to tap into unproductive, negative, or paralyzing emotions, try writing.