In our workshop this week, we ended up talking a lot about the sounds of a piece, and how each writer has her own signature sound. This was most apparent in rhythm. We noted that one writer’s prose has a “stately” feel to it–understated, elegant, with gentle lifts and falls. Another writer’s work surges forward in an urgent, emotional tide that builds to a climax, then dissipates, just as a wave does, and ends in a peaceful resolution. Still another writer’s work could be distinguished by her rhythmic repetitions. All her work has an incantatory quality, the kind of repetitions you find in witches’ spells, or in prayers. That is how the work comes to her, she says, she doesn’t choose to write like that. She just does.
Gregory Orr in his book, Poetry as Survival, writes that incantation is the third “ordering” power of the lyric, “capable of dealing with even more extreme disorderings, catastrophes so powerful that the self is unable to shape them towards the coherence of story or the complex concentration of symbol. With incantation, the self discovers that it can be sustained, if all else fails, through rhythmic repetition alone. In these instances, incantation is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos.”
The writer of incantations in our group has been slowly emerging out of such floodwaters. Her history includes her mother’s early death, life in an orphanage, a raging, mentally ill stepmother, and a traumatic marriage, not to mention cancer and other health issues. Her writings have always had this incantatory bent. In addition, they often have been written in third person, which has created a distance between her own traumatic experiences and the emotions and words on paper. It has only been in the last several months that she has started to use first person.
I think that for some of the other participants her incantatory pieces were perplexing. So many repetitions! Where was it all leading? I didn’t always know. Yet, I held fast to the principle that the “self”, the healthy ember at her center, was guiding her process. And slowly but steadily, she has emerged like a butterfly from her chrysalis–an image she often writes about. She has lost weight. She reports more and happier interactions with her family. Other members of the group remark on the positive changes they see. She now talks about herself more, about her plans, and even her past.
As facilitators, we don’t always know what participants are working through or how their writing helps them move towards wholeness. I only recently stumbled on the Gregory Orr quote as I was reading Poetry as Survival and had a real “ah,hah!” moment. This is why I think it is so important to respect each person’s process, to give them the space and the tools to find their own rhythms, rather than to too narrowly define therapeutic goals for them. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we are able to understand how their writing sustained them.