I was not surprised to read in this week’s New York Times magazine a quote by Kris Carr of “Crazy Sexy Cancer” fame: “So, what’s your cancer? Some said the loss of a spouse or child, some said divorce, or career dissatisfaction, or chronic boredom.”
In my ten years of teaching creative writing to cancer patients, their families and caregivers, one of the most consistent and initially surprising, aspect of the work has been that often the patient writers want to write not just about the cancer experience, but about other, often traumatic, experiences. Often, what surfaces in the writing is an experience of growing up with alcoholic parents, or a painful divorce, or the beloved child lost to drugs or estrangement. Everyone has a story to tell, and often, before they were sick, no place or time to tell it.
One older woman who had been attending the Woven Dialogue Workshops for about seven months, and who had regaled the group with light, wry stories from her past, surprised the group one day by reading a story describing herself as a seven-year old child finding her father with a gun to his head. Telling no one, she took the gun from his hand, and commenced her life-long vigil of watching over him. She raised her head from reading this story, and there were tears in her eyes. “I’ve never told anyone that story before,” she said. We sat in stunned, respectful silence as that knowledge penetrated us. Finally, someone in the group said, “You can let your father go now, L–.”
We know from rigorous research done by Pennebaker and others, that early traumatic experiences which were not disclosed can correlate with a highly increased likelihood of developing cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. According to Drs James L. Griffith and Melissa Elliott Griffith, in their book, The Body Speaks: Therapeutic dialogues for Mind-Body Problems, the body often expresses unsolvable dilemmas. If this is the case, how can language or creative writing, help resolve these dilemmas? According to the Griffiths, “Language is a way of being. (Heidegger/Merleau-Ponty)….this significance may be too near to them to be within their usual awareness and hence, is not immediately accessible as an avenue down which they could seek solutions for their problems. In our day, it may be only remembered by the poets.”
What the teaching of poetry and imaginative writing can do for a person who is suffering, is to allow the free play of the imagination and the tools of metaphor, imagery, and symbol to address their dilemma. Patient writers can come to their own material in their own time. They can disclose the events of their lives, most importantly the emotional resonance of those events, to themselves, and then, if they wish to others. They can stick to the historical events, or if those are too distressing, circumvent entrenched defenses by exploring their material through fiction.
As important as the act of writing is itself, I’ve found that the process of having real witnesses who respond in a respectful and rigorous way, increases the efficacy of the healing effect by reflecting back to the writers what she/he has written and allows for further exploration and expansion. In the Woven Dialogue Workshops, we’ve found that the process of observing each others’ writings in a safe, relaxed space, not only enhances the writing, but creates a community of trust and discovery which is at least as healing as the writing itself.