Empowered finding her voice after a childhood marked by trauma and oppression, Rupi Kaur self-published her first poetry collection milk and honey in 2014 while still at university. Now a New York Times
Her fourth book Healing With Words, published this September, is yet another evolution. A collection of guided writing exercises that can help readers delve into themes including trauma, heartache, love, loss and self-worth, it’s a collaboration of sorts and a concept rooted both in her writing workshops and feedback from fans.
“Healing is not really a linear journey. It’s messy and there are constant ups and downs. I initially started writing as a form of self-care and healing, not necessarily to become an author, so this book is bringing it back to those roots—and how we can all use writing as a practice,” Kaur says.
“I started to think about my readers and to have hopes and aspirations for them. And that really stems from the fact that I was meeting so many people after my shows. I remember one woman specifically was telling me, ‘When I was watching you up there something opened in me and I just felt all this power.’ And I remember holding her by the arms and being like, ‘Don’t give me full credit for that. I need you to know that’s your power too.’ Healing Through Words is my gift to my readers because I want them to know that they don’t need to look for healing in me or rely on anything else. That they have the words they need inside them.”
For Kaur, it’s always been easier to put her feelings down on paper than to verbalize them. “It’s a mix of being really shy growing up, really insecure and introverted, and never really having a space where I was empowered to use my voice,” she says. “Rather the opposite.”
Continually silenced by the men in her family and community after she was raped and experienced sexual assault as a child, in high school she was inspired to begin writing after reading poetry by artists like Nizar Qabbani and Khalil Gibran.
“I remember Khalil Gibran’s On Joy and Sorrow, and On Marriage, and my stomach turning in that way that it turns when you fall in love or something like that. And I remember starting to write and creating all those early drafts which of course I would edit and edit. And I got to a point where I knew a poem was done when it would make my own stomach turn,” she says.
“I was always moved to write about difficult topics because I guess those were the things I was dealing with in my life so I was really advocating and exploring themes of sexual violence and gender-based violence, and because I was never going to share it with anyone it felt really cathartic.”
Writing is one thing; being read is another. Kaur first published anonymously in 2012 via Tumblr then migrated to Instagram (where she now has 4.5 million followers) under her own name. Her journey to achieving a comfort level in the public eye isn’t as linear as you might expect.
“It was easier when I wasn’t published. I took it step by step, so it was not so terrifying right away and by the time I decided to actually use my name I’d gotten more comfortable. On Instagram the women gathering around it were telling me, ‘Your work makes me feel like such a woman and your work makes me feel like this and that,’ so sharing was easy. It only got difficult after selling millions of books and knowing all these people are watching. That’s when it becomes more difficult to be more raw and honest. I get inspired by my 18-year-old self, who was much more fearless than I am now.”
With Healing Through Words, Kaur is also exercising patience. “The feedback from my readers isn’t instant. Usually what happens with a poetry collection is it releases and then everybody who preorders it get it right away and within the first week you have everybody telling you what they felt about it. But with this book I knew it was going to take time because I’m asking the reader for more. I’m asking them to create this book with me.”
Grounding the experience are the workshops she led in her largely working-class immigrant community outside of Toronto.
“For a really long time I’ve been facilitating writing workshops within my own community. They were small and intimate, so that we could have a safe space with one another,” she says.
“Writing exercises and activities like this from a very early age became a tool I use to help me break out of my patterns and start the writing process. I wanted to share my tips and secrets and my brain exercises because I think a lot of my readers think writing comes really easily to me and I must never experience writer’s block. And the thing I want them to know is that I probably experience more writer’s block as a ‘successful writer’ than I ever experienced before.”
Beyond writing, Kaur has developed a parcel of practices to take care of herself. The process isn’t perfect—and she’s just fine with that.
“I’ve found over the years it’s not going to be just one thing for me. No matter how busy I get I’m still going to see my therapist every two weeks at minimum, and I know exercise is the No. 1 thing that helps with my anxiety. I’m open about being on medication, and also I know meditation has really helped.”
“But I think one of the things that’s helped me the most in recent years is forgiving myself for not being perfect at any of those things. I used to discover something that was really helpful, like mediation, and then I would be like, ‘I’m going to be the most perfect meditator in the whole world and I’m never going to be depressed again.’ And then I would ruin the experience for myself with such focus on the outcome,” she adds.
“Now gotten to a place where I’m like, ‘OK cool. My meditation practice isn’t perfect. I can do better and I’ll get there.’ Becoming more relaxed about all the self-care practices has probably been the best self-care.”