I’m about to start a new class, and as always, I have some trepidation. I often work with very ill people, and my intention is to create a safe, nurturing environment. But I am aware that the trauma of cancer creates disorder and destabilizes a sense of self, often triggering memories of earlier traumas. And this is not always a bad thing. In the past, I have seen participants, through the ordering process of language and the stability of a community of witnesses, express emotions that have been locked up inside them for years. For most of them, this has been cathartic. For a few of them, it has been frightening, and they have had to back off from writing from their own experiences. I encourage the use of the third person and fiction or essay writing for these people, respecting that too close an inquiry into their own history can be re-traumatizing to them.
I think that while the lyric poem or memoir can be the most direct route towards healing writing for some people, for others such direct routes can overwhelm them with emotions. Patients are in various stages of treatment, with various prognoses, so that their ability to withstand anything they feel is threatening is variable. They also come with differing personalities: one study shows that for high avoidance women, disclosure actually is more traumatizing , while for low avoidance women disclosure is cathartic.
It was a patient of mine who taught me all this. She had been doing so well, writing poetry and responding to the fairy tales that we worked with. But when we came to memoir, she balked. She couldn’t do it. So I suggested that she write what was “too hard” as a story, which she did. As long as it was in third person, with enough fictional elements, the story she needed to tell could be told. I think the important thing here is that she accessed the emotional truths of her past, without having to go into the particulars of her own history.Jayne Anne Phillips said much the same thing in a recent interview. When asked if her book Motherkind was based on her own life, here is what she answered:
The book seems to be the blow-by-blow account of a real life, and it was my hope that it would seem that way. In truth I didn’t really remember what happened during the time that I was caring for my mother. It’s like the drug they give you during surgery: the drug numbs you and also blocks short-term memory. It keeps you from remembering what happened and that you were scared or confused. We have a kind of psychological counterpart. The book is based on the idea of a woman with her first baby who loses someone who is part of her identity, a parent, slowly and painfully, and being caretaker to that person. And that did happen to me. But I blocked it out. I didn’t write the book until ten years after the experience.
I reentered the experience and made up those details. There were certain things, like the paper she uses to line the baby’s drawers, that were real and certain key moments that I did remember and put into the book. But most of it was reentered and reenvisioned and seen by the character Kate, who is just as much an invention as Lark or Termite. What is it that Wordsworth said, something like, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.” Writing is that. Living requires our full attention, as does writing. I, for one, can’t do both. An element of the writer is always held apart. You sit in a chair inside the space of the material, and you’re able to enter experience in a way that is not open to you otherwise.
The goal in healing writing is to access emotions and express them, build a coherent story, impose some order on disorder, and to create something that can be shared, so that the burden of suffering can be lifted. How this is done, through the practice of which genre, matters less than that it is done. As practitioners, I think it is important to be aware of the variable levels of comfort patients have about disclosure, and to offer as many different kinds of writing opportunities as possible.
“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it,” wrote Isak Dinesen. In the end, we are simply helping our participants find their story.
Read the full interview with Jayne Anne Phillips about her new book, Lark and Termite, on Narrative, https://narrativemagazine.com/issues/winter-2009/jayne-anne-phillips