Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Letting Go January 19, 2015

I am reading Shaun McNiff’s book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, about the creative process, and finding it instructive not only for creative endeavors but also for relationships.

We’ve all heard the phrase. Maybe it conjures up images of Woodstock, of hippies in tie-dyed tees.  Nevertheless, McNiff, an artist and internationally known figure in creative art therapies, brings a nuanced and in-depth perspective to the concept.

McNiff claims that there is an intelligence working in every situation, and if we trust it and follow its natural movements, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems—and even make use of our mistakes and failures.

 I am particularly drawn to his assertion that errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression.  Sometimes, as well, the spontaneous expression or mistake which is outside our intended design, brings riches from the unconscious.  Those who work with their dreams know that a dream will often strike us as peculiar, that we “don’t know where it comes from,” but the images of that same peculiar but powerful dream may bring us the very healing images that we need, but for which our ego has no room.

McNiff also points out that while the artistic process may bring relief, joy and harmony, the process thrives on tension. Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.

 I think a similar process can happen in relationships.

I once met an accomplished woman, a writer and therapist, ten years ago at a writing conference. She was a little older than I was at the time, and her children were grown. She was lovely and gracious but there was an air of melancholy about her. We fell to talking about parenting.  She said that our mistakes as parents are as important as our successes.  I was still hoping to be the perfect parent and was puzzled by her statement. Surely not!  Oh, yes, she said, because our lacks are what push them out of the nest, and send them out into the world to do it better.

pathMistaken moves and slips of intention reveal that creation involves more than single-mindedness, McNiff writes. We create together with the world.  If we believe that there is an intelligence moving in the world that we can partake of and trust in, then conflict and uncertainty are no longer so frightening, in our work or in our relationships. We can approach them with curiosity, knowing that, if we stay with the process, we will be moved to a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The White Rabbit July 31, 2013

timeArtists, and the old, and the sick and the unemployed, often experience time in a way that non-artists, the young, and the well-employed do not.

 

This is not all bad, and can be good.  Nora Gallagher in her recent book, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, speaks of her sense of time changing when she learns that she has a rare and serious illness.  She said she looked at the people on the other side of the “glass,”  the non-sick, the “bizzy,”  who had all been like her, and she realized they didn’t see her, didn’t want to see her. Part of her wants to go back to being “bizzy,” because before she was behind glass, she had a clear sense of herself, her importance, her power, and her place in the scheme of things.  She learns, slowly, to acclimate to her enforced slowness and disability, and gradually comes to readjust her inner sense of time.  Instead of planning and executing, she begins to live in the present.  She says,

 

“If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you.  And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you need.”

 

I had an experience the other day of transitioning from one sense of time to the other.  At the drugstore/post office in our neighborhood, I bumped into BJ, an artist friend of my father’s.  I have always felt warmly to him—he is gregarious, funny, and kind. I was also surprised to see him out and about, because he has cancer, and has had it for some time.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure he was still with us until I saw him.  He was jaundiced and seemed to have shrunk a bit, but his eyes were full of mischief.

 

I was just leaving and had in my hand a list of errands to do.  My engine was revved and I didn’t want to linger.  But linger I did, because once we got family news out of the way,  he started regaling me with stories of his adventures with my dad, who has been gone eighteen years.  I was happy to hear about Dad having a good time—I think BJ might have egged him on to some shenanigans.  Then somehow we got on to writing letters, and I told him how delighted I was to get an actual hand-written note from my friend, who refuses to be “social media-d.”

 

We were off and running.  I glanced down at my to-do list with the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to get anything done.  BJ pulled out his pen, a Mont Blanc and told me how he writes with it on Crane stationary.  Then we talked about paper, about the satisfaction of writing on a good thick rag paper, and I felt suddenly nostalgic for stationary and fountain pens.  He says he spends a lot of time writing letters to old friends, all of them decorated with sketches.  One elderly woman had her maid read all her letters because of macular degeneration, and when she died, the maid wrote him and asked him to write her—she missed his letters!  He used to write another friend and when he died he wrote his wife, who shared them with her sister and when the wife died he wrote her sister, who shared them all with her cronies in a home in Florida.

 

Having thoroughly relinquished my future plans for the day, I stood there is awe of him.  Here he was, sick, but keeping all these people entertained and engaged while the rest of the world rushed headlong—no time, no time, said the white rabbit—to what?  Really, what was so important?  What is important, a wise woman said to me a few days ago, is Presence.  And that was what he was sharing with me, and so many others.

 

Funnily enough, I got all my errands done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Morning with Matisse December 3, 2012

30MATISSE1-articleLargeLast Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings.  There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette.  At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness.    But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.”  According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””

I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images.  But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art.  Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it.  The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.

Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process.  I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.”  Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece.  I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.

In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him.  What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing.  So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.

What does all this have to do with writing and healing?  Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art.  However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.”  Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing.  By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.

 

Practicing Simplicity July 18, 2012

Filed under: artists,Process,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:58 pm
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This past spring, my son Adam, fifteen, had to take a mandatory PE class.  Now, Adam will tell you that by and large, organized sports are not his thing.  He is a terrific artist, musician  and thinker, and an active kid who has ridden his bike to school since he was in pre-school.  Nevertheless, when his dad coached T-ball, seven-year old Adam would invariably be inspecting a ladybug on a dandelion or watching the clouds form interesting patterns in the sky when that ball whizzed past him.  Yet this spring, as the class sampled various sports, Adam amazed his class and even more himself by hitting not one, not two, but three home runs, two of them out of the park.

How to account for it?  Here is my hypothesis: Adam had no expectations of himself.  He wasn’t thinking of how he would make his mark in baseball.  He had no ideas about it.  If anything, he might have expected to not do well.  But at any rate, I think he was simply in the moment.  A ball was thrown at him, he hit it, he ran.  He had beginner’s mind; he was in the flow, not obstructed by how things should be, but simply letting them unfold as they are.

How enviable.  Could it be repeated?  Will he be a star if he tries out for fall ball?  I wonder.  I suspect that if he takes up baseball, he will begin to accrue expectations and fears about performance, as we all do.  And then he will have to practice arduously in the hopes of once again finding that sweet spot, that place of being in the moment, that simplicity.

We practice our sport, our craft, our art, in order to return to simplicity.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch the Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” series at the Corchoran in Washington D C.  As I gazed at the huge canvases filled with blocks of color, I was struck both by how simple and also how complex they were.  Yes, one might say, a child could have done those, and yet it was because the artist had studied and executed more realistic works–figures, interiors, landscapes–that the paintings were so resonant.  The viewer enters into a complex conversation the painter was having with himself and with Matisse, with Bonnard, and with all his influences.  Yet also, and maybe more importantly, a canvas opens up an expected door in the viewer, a moment of freshness, a new way of seeing,  echoing the unique encounter the painter had with media and moment.

Frederick Franck in his book Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, encourages his reader to draw as a way to encounter the actual, not the projections of the mind.  Drawing becomes not product, but investigation.  It is a way to return to the simplicity of what is, rather than a way of   fancying-up reality.  It takes practice and it is hard.  Why do it?  Because in the middle of the struggle to render, there are those moments–where your pencil and the tree you are rendering  and the hand holding the pencil and the eyes seeing the tree are all one and everything else falls away.

Isak Dinesen said “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.”   To get to beginner’s mind, that is what we have to do.

 

Willing to Make Mistakes January 23, 2012

Because of my health, I have had to let go of almost every outside activity.  I know by now the trouble I will be in if I don’t respect my limits.  I have let choir go, and tango is on the back burner.  I am grateful to be able to teach, grateful for taking the dog for her daily walk.  Still, I mourn those other activities that kept me feeling alive.

There is one thing I still make time and energy for, though.  A dear friend’s mother is an accomplished painter.  Cessi, like me, is confined to a small life–time has slowed her down.  Yet, there is in her the artist still.  So Cessi and I paint every Wednesday.

Paining with Cessi, I must re-learn beginner’s mind.  I have a good eye, but my skills are minimal.  I must practice the elementary.  I set up a still life: green bottle, a blue and white bowl with bananas and a pink grapefruit.  The bananas lie heavy and tumid in the bowl, the bottle soars up behind them.  How to give the bananas weight, how to suggest the bright, juicy roundness of the grapefruit?  How to paint the light on the fruit, the bottle, the way the fruit holds the light even as the winter evening fades?

I paint the ellipsis of the bowl, the outline of the bottle.  The first strokes feel bold, and it is a relief to have broken the blank space of the paper.  I continue, tentatively, feeling awkward, unsure.  I’m not used to acrylics, not sure whether to make them opaque or transparent, and am hesitant about mixing colors.  I step away, become self-aware, critical.  I freeze, unable to go on.  Cessie looks up at me and smiles encouragingly.  “You are paralyzed.”  It is an acknowledgement, and that is all I need.  “Just keep going.”  I see a way to go on, not with the freedom I long for, but a next step.

Why do it?  It is tiring, and I’m smack up against all my insecurities.  But for those two hours, I’m not in monkey mind.  I’m not obsessing over my daughter’s wedding or work.  For those ours I am in the now.  It is meditation of a sort.

Cessi’s granddaughter, Giordana, comes in.  “You look serene,” she says, noticing the hush in the room.  We speak very little, Cessi and I .  Yet doing it with her makes it less frightening, more companionable.  I feel her supportive energy–she helps contain me.  We go deep into ourselves, together.

It is good for me to remember what it feels like to be a fledgling.  This is how so many of our participants feel, who come to us for guidance and containment as they delve into themselves, seeking the words that will release them.  We are not there to teach them what to write, but to encourage them to listen to themselves.  Maybe one of our most important functions is simply help contain them, giving them practical suggestions as needed, but also to look up and nod and say, yes, I know, you are stuck, or scared, or go further.

Katherine Dunn spoke to this issue of being paralyzed  in Poets and Writers in this last issue: “Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes.  There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy.  This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze.  At times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘to hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong.  I can’t do it well, so I’ll do it badly.’  Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on the right way.”

My still-life turned out better than I expected, although the lip of the bowl lists.  But I learned a lot, a whole lot, and I’m less scared now.  I’m more engaged.  Ready to go on and make more mistakes.

 

 

 

 

The Dream of Art November 17, 2011

Whenever I find a quote that strikes me, I write it on a sticky note and put it on my computer.  Needless to say, sometimes my computer looks like it is decorated for Mardi Gras!  Here is one that I especially like, by the poet Louise Gluck: “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden, and the paths  to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”

There are so many ways this quote sustains me and grounds me.   I need to be reminded that “The dream of art”  is not my dream alone.  It is a Tao, a way, a practice, that I am entering into.  It is an everflowing river that I can swim in, but can never encompass.  To engage in art is both an intensly individual act, and yet not an entirely personal one.  This both delights and relieves me.  It relieves my ego and my art of having to be GREAT!  A dream has its own autonomy.  We are not responsible for which images our dreams throw onto the shores of consciousness.  We are only responsible for working with them when they appear.  Similarly, the work has its own autonomy.  We can’t predict where it will take us.  We can only show up, ready to participate. At its best, to practice an art is to be always on the tipping point between mastery and mystery.

“….not to assert what is known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.”  Dreams often show us what we have been unable to look at it in our waking lives; similarly, a poem or story may reveal what we didn’t know we knew. Or what we may need to attend to: an imbalance, an untended sorrow, a hidden yearning for wholeness.  And, I think, the commitment to pay attention, to permit oneself to go into the darkness, and to suffer the loss of illusions, can provide a boon not only for the individual, but for the community.  When I listened to Robert Pinksy read his elegiac poems last year, I was reminded not only of the very real loss of cultures and languages that he addressed, but also that in articulating those losses, he was retrieving something for those who heard the poems.   We were gifted with an awareness of what was of value, of what to attend to.

“….and the paths to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”  Despite our belief in the supremecy of will, the truth is we can not create an agenda to find the hidden world.  Once we think we know the path, it changes.  As writers, we can work on our craft, we can show up, but there is no guarantee our work will “live.”  How often the truly inspired prompting comes in the middle of doing something else, when the determined effort to get it right fails!  To find the hidden paths requires a continual opening of ourselves, as in meditation, to what is.  We may have an intention when we begin a poem or story, but we have to be willing to follow where the work leads us, without knowing the outcome.  It is often those works we enter into with less confidence than take on a “life of their own.”

So, where does this leave us, as writers and facilitators?  We live in a culture that valorizes certainty and will.  Hitching our wagons to the star of art suddenly looks like a dubious enterprise.  Or does it?  Maybe it instead it is an exciting, inexhaustable enterprise, one that teaches us to find our growing edges and learn to be dance partners to uncertainty and change.

For a wonderful and humorous take on the “uncertainty principle” of writing, check out Chuck Tripi’s post “Notes from NJ-#5)  http://haydensferryreview.blogspot.com/

 

A Simple Bowl September 17, 2009

I’ve been trying to use what little energy I have recently to send out query letters to agents. It is a strange process, so divorced from the impetus and act of creating a piece of fiction. When writing fiction or poetry, I feel centered, for the most part, and alive and excited. I don’t feel any of those things when querying agents. Instead, I feel weighed down by the effort of selling myself, by a feeling that the whole process is somehow inauthentic, by the overwhelming odds against any writer, but especially one who has taken a long hiatus due to illness.

Yesterday, sitting in my physical therapist’s waiting room, I was fuming to my husband about a book I’d just finished reading that I found mediocre, despite sensational reviews. A thin, frail man walked in who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment, but then I recognized M.S., a wonderful potter who has been battling leukemia for many years now. Just that morning, I had put my strawberries in his lovely white and black bowl. The bowl has an asian flavor, with a pediment and steep conical sides. It has always given me a lot of pleasure, both the shape and the glaze: it is a perfect small bowl. It is a bowl I can imagine a Buddhist monk using.

M.S. looked up when my husband called his name. He came over and we exchanged greetings–my ever present body brace always providing a subject for conversation. Close up, I could see the sores on his skin, his sparse hair, his face puffy, no doubt from steroids. No matter how many years I’ve worked with cancer patients, the ravishing of the disease and the treatments is always a fresh shock. We asked after his wife, a painter, and he caught us up with her. There was a pause, and then he said, “and I guess I’m just a medical patient now.”

Such a simple statement, but such a painful one. For anyone, the loss of work is painful. For an artist, especially as finally tuned as M.S., it must be a cruel loss. One thinks of Beethoven descending into deafness, stubbornly composing in that silence, of Picasso, the old man, confronting the canvas until his last day. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Making art transforms the maker, just as it transforms the material. It can be a solace, one I wished he still had.

I felt my eyes fill and I didn’t want him to see. Thankfully, I was called for my therapy session. Lying on the table, I felt keenly my own brokenness as well his, and I was washed over with the brevity of life. What I want, I thought, is to make stories as beautiful and functional as his bowls, stories to hold whatever fruit or emptiness the reader’s life needs contained. That is what I’d like to put in my query letter.

 

 
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