April 22 2018

Lost, Silenced, and Found: On Writing as Salvation

by Mary O’Shan Overton, PhD Graduate, Boston College

"I am thinking of how we can use what we have to invent what we need."
Adrienne Rich

As a single woman well over forty, I’ve entered the final stretch of an interdisciplinary doctoral degree after several years of hard labor. Due to familial and financial obligations, I’ve had to work nearly full time throughout my program. This combination of work and intense study has been costly on many levels—personal, physical, social, and, most of all, spiritual. This is ironic since my degree is in theology and education.

At some point, I noticed that the passions fueling my midlife leap had been depleted. Never-ending professional demands left me ragged. I regretted a lost relationship, my lack of children, the geographical distance from friends and family, and the end of a modest but stable lifestyle as a college instructor. To make matters worse, I was an alien in my own program and new city—a Protestant at a Catholic school; a feminist woman in a field dominated by men; a warm, magnolia-loving Southerner in the frigid land of snow and Puritans. In classes or out running errands, I often felt like I was hearing a strange language. It might have been English, but the dialect was unfamiliar. There was much I didn’t understand. Yanked from my roots, I didn’t know who I was or what I believed in anymore. Even worse, I didn’t know what to say or how to say it, a dire situation for a veteran talker and writer. 

What caught me as I spiraled downward into silence was a big, lovely net knitted together by words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.  The language that I had lost helped me reclaim myself and my spiritual sensibility—in short, I was saved by writing. I kept a daily blog of long-form essays, linking it to my Facebook page where I had at least minimal contact with like-minded folks. They read and commented—not too many of them at first, but just enough to remind me that I was not alone. After my life and studies became too complicated, I abandoned the meaty extracurricular prose and turned my keyboard toward pithy little posts. During the horrendous year of comprehensive exams, these became meditations on flowers, as I forced myself to take daily walk breaks from my studies, during which I photographed whatever was leafing and blooming along the city sidewalks. My growing readership loved the photographs and the vignettes I wrote to accompany them, and I received friendly complaints when I stopped posting them this past year.

My online writing practice may appear to be a desperate effort to be “liked” by people I already know, a grasping at thin straws. And perhaps it was, at first. However, this writing experience has evolved into something much richer than I could have imagined. The available technological tools, yoked to my own creativity, helped me to grope my way out of a silent room. I discovered an unexpected internal resilience as I made connections with people across great divides through words and images. I recognized through writing that I was not isolated and that, no matter how damaging it felt to be “educated” in a university, there was something very animated and curious and talkative still living inside of me.

As a practical matter, my academic writing changed for the better, giving a new lease on life to genres that had become stale under my fingertips. I felt, too, a strengthening in my intellectual processes as my focus took on a new object: academic writing itself. Over the past few years as I’ve read and written thousands, if not millions, of words, I have become a specialist in graduate students’ writing, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. I now guide masters and doctoral students as they navigate these same roads I found myself stumbling on just yesterday.

Some days, as I barely muster the strength to complete a chapter of my dissertation and search for jobs that don’t materialize, I forget what I’ve done all of this for. And I despair. I ponder why I messed up my whole life mid-stream to get a PhD. But then I remember the pleasure of writing and being read. I recall the process of coming to know myself anew through my writing. I see that, by clearing my own trail through a thicket of loss and confusion, I have developed a vision of writing as crucial to educational transformation. Surprisingly, in spite of the losses and silences brought on by my formal education, I have discovered a spirituality of my own invention. Using the tools to hand, I have written exactly what I needed in my own language.