How many of us use the page as a mirror as we search for clues about how to be a human in the world?
Whether we take to the page to try and find out what we’re thinking at any given time or to create alternate realities, writing is an act of self-reflection.
Whenever we let words tumble out of our head and onto the page, we’re often engaging in some amount of self-examination. This is the case with personal essays that tackle societal issues through an individual lens to try and humanize them.
We write for the same reason we read: To understand ourselves and to understand one another. Whatever the format we choose, from poetry to essays and anything in between, the enigma of human existence is at the heart of writing.
Storytelling is how we humans record the passing of time and make sense of key events. Even though we’re not longer wearing animal pelts and drawing on the walls of our caves, we continue to document our shared humanity, one insight at a time.
Driven by the compulsion to articulate that which defies language, we preserve moments and epiphanies in words.
So we might remember them.
Writing is a form of alchemy.
Articulating that which seeks to remain hidden and hinders us can free us from shame, as is the case when you write about mental illness as I do.
It’s not something I planned or chose, it just happened to be the material I had. I lost five years of my life to major depressive disorder and my livelihood with it when the illness did away with my writing voice.
Alas, being an experienced journalist didn’t insulate me from this; for five years, no amount of editorial habits could help me think. And as long as I couldn’t think I couldn’t find the words with which to share my reality.
And when I did it became immediately clear that recovering my writing voice was contingent on tackling what bothered me the most.
If I started unpacking mental illness and all its attendant consequences like shame, hardship, and the loss of love, it was to salvage my vocation. Back then, I was desperately trying to remember who I was after depression had erased everything that made me me. All I knew is that my sense of self had always been intrinsically linked to vocation.
If I could recover it then I’d be fine so why not attempt to write a new life into being?
Turning human pain into fertile ground to grow visions, dreams, and new projects was such a counterintuitive approach I had to give it a go. It turned out to be the right move for me as it forced me to break out of isolation, communicate again, and challenge myself on an intellectual level.
In short, writing put me in a position where all the things that didn’t happen for five years were forced to happen again.
We never write for ourselves.
Behind even the most narcissistic essay, there’s an attempt to reach out to at least one fellow human so we might feel less alone. Or less wrapped up in our respective predicaments, predicaments still so taboo they sometimes smother us.
No one wants to admit to the absence of tender loving care within a marriage or to a dead bedroom. No one wants to confess to being too broke to afford therapy despite having insurance. No one wants to out themselves as mentally ill. No one wants to admit to loneliness so searing they considered taking their own life countless times.
But when those admissions take the form of public confessions in a personal essay, they’re a radical act of communication. Not only do they expunge the shame associated with the unspeakable but they also honor our shared humanity in a truthful, honest way.
To be human is to be imperfect, and writing should contribute to building bridges between us rather than divide us further.
Each of us gets a choice in how we use language and what we use it for. With attention comes great responsibility, and writing implies we tacitly accept we all have a duty of care toward one another.
Poking life with a pen helps demystify the human condition, one shared narrative at a time. It’s tentative work that calls for curiosity, the willingness to question everything, and the ability to take stock of ourselves.
Writing is a quest, a yearning for some understanding that will always feel beyond reach unless we find the right words. There’s never any guarantee that we will.
So we keep writing in the hope life might eventually start making a little more sense.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.