Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

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You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

The Two Conductors February 22, 2013

peanuts_choirI’ve turned into my grandmother. And I owe her an apology.

Now, this was not my aim.  In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler.  She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music.  I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.

However, I find my self  in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.

A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day,  “We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.”  I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing.  I’m playing.  Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind.  The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun.  There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun.   I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.

Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression.  I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive.  I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading.  I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them.  We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking.  Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice.  I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.

I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir.  I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed.  The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in,  I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer.  I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed.  I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.”  He was giving us permission to make mistakes.  Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section.  We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support.  I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself.  The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time,  with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good.   I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece.  I found out I could sing, given the right conditions.  And the right conditions are not fear.  This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement.  I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support.  He and the group have created a safe space in which to play.  Bravo!

I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind.  We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough.  But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves.  We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best.  In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.

On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”

Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.

 

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.

 

When is Writing Not the Answer? February 13, 2012

Is writing or journaling always appropriate?  Does it always lead to healing?

Last week, one of the participants in my class read a short piece,”Why do I Journal?” in which said, “Sometimes pain doesn’t go away…..Hope–the jury is still out.”  I appreciated her honesty, and even more her pain-filled eyes as she turned to me.  Writing wasn’t helping her.  She was in a dark depression, a cyclical depression, and nothing she could pull up was helping her.  It had helped her greatly in the past, and the journal had been her companion.  But now–nothing. I thanked her for her honesty, which led to a discussion about the times writing may not be appropriate.  I suggested that finding comfort in other ways might help, and if she wanted to keep to her journaling rhythm, that haiku, with its focus on the external world, on nature, might be a good place to start, but not to add any more stress to herself by forcing introspection.

In contrast to her, another woman, new to the class, wrote several powerful laments about feelings of abandonment by her family when she became chronically ill.  Her poems were full of feeling–of hurt, rage, fear, despair.  This woman did find relief in her writing, at last expressing all the feelings that had burdened her as much as her illness burdened her.

What was the difference between each of these women’s experiences?  Is one experience “better” than the other?  What are the variables a writing facilitator should keep in mind when encounter such different responses?

Findings involving journaling suggest that “dwelling on emotions alone may be counterproductive in terms of health outcomes. …writers may be able to relive the physiological and emotional activation of the trauma during its recall, but because they are focused on the affective experience, they may not be able to work through the trauma to reach a state of resolution from which they have a different perspective.” (Lutgendorf and Ullrich in Lepore and Smyth,The Writing Cure, 2002, p.182).   In the case of an intractable depression,  intense introspection may not yield relief.  What is needed is a connection outside the self, as in nature, and a sense of being part of a community.  In this sense, the fact that this woman attends the class, responds to others, and is able to read of her failure to find comfort in writing, is in itself, salutary.

On the other hand, the second woman’s writing provided for her a strengthening of her voice, a relief of a burden of unexpressed emotions.  By writing about the chaos of her illness, she was able to come finally to an imagination of a place of refuge, where “No Harm is Done Here. ”  The class, by witnessing to her struggles, provided the very support that she had found missing previously.  She seemed to come into focus, both for herself and for us.  Her writing had been a gateway into a stronger sense of self, something that we would hope for all participants, yet it is not the only response.

As writing facilitators, I think we have to be aware that there is no one template for responding to writing.  Writing is not always a panacea.  I think we need to be aware of formulaic thinking, of assuming that one size fits all.  Sometimes confronting trauma head on is curative, sometimes it is destructive.   Sometimes introspection is fruitfull, sometimes it is not.  In this way, we can bring a more nuanced sensiblity to the process of leading writing workshops.

 

 

 

 

 
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