One of the gifts of age is being willing to do things you might not be terribly good at. For me those things are singing and drawing. I also dance, which I’m slightly better at, but which is a challenge with my illness. When I was younger, I didn’t attempt things at which I might fail. I also had enough on my plate, raising children and working, and had to scramble to write. I didn’t want to take energy away from writing. I have more time now, and I’ve found that playing in other disciplines has things to teach me about writing.
From singing I’ve learned to breathe—or am learning to breathe. Every choir practice when I pick up a new piece of music to sight read, I panic. I have no training in music, and have taught myself to read over the years, very imperfectly. Somehow my church choir puts up with this. I have to get past my panic and trust that I’ve done this before, countless times, and if I listen and pay attention, it will come. The beauty of choral singing is you can get your pitches from your comrades, although I’m working on not leaning on them. I have to let go of the fear that freezes my diaphragm and plunge in, knowing I will make lots of mistakes, but that eventually, I’ll get it. And I usually do, just minutes before show time! I’ve also learned from singing that power is not force. Forcing never works. Ironically, powerful singing requires relaxation as well as engagement of abdominal muscles.
Dancing gets me out of my head, an occupational hazard of writers. I have been studying tango off and on for years, but I approach every class with beginner’s mind. Once you have a few basic steps, the beauty of tango is that it is, at least for followers, almost entirely intuitive. For someone who has always been a “bossy pants” it took a long time for me to learn to follow! Tango is very Zen, in that you can’t think, you have to feel it. I cannot anticipate what my leader might do; I have to trust him and be entirely in the moment. The minute I think about what I’m doing I ruin it. As Bruce Springsteen said about performing, if he thought about what he was doing, he couldn’t do it. Same idea. When I’m in sync with my partner and feeling the music, nothing is as exhilarating.
I love to draw, and yet am terribly self-conscious about it, coming from a family of visual artists. But for two years when I was bedridden, and unable to read or write, I began drawing. What I found then was if I let go of expectations and allowed myself to be in the moment, I could become totally immersed in my subject. Often I was overcome with love for what I was drawing—a dog, a person, a stool at a doctor’s office. Then I began seeing differently, even without a pencil in my hand. Really noticing the graceful arc of a tree branch, or the rough texture of its bark. The visual world became enlivened. Strangely enough, the same principle of relaxed breathing found in singing applies to drawing, as does the principle of intuitive feeling and movement found in dance. The more freedom of movement I allow myself in making marks, the more alive the drawing.
So what does all this have to do with writing and healing?
On my desk is a quote: “Writing is a negotiation with ourselves: it is about mercy and it is about breath.” (Jacqueline Jones Lamon). Writing, I suppose, is the most intellectual of the arts, and I think that can work against writers. Too often we start with ideas that conceptualize, rather than with breath, movement, images. For writing to be powerful, I think it needs to partake of all these, but especially images. Here is another quote from my bulletin board, “Images roost in our minds, consciously or not, because they have something more to say than we have yet to comprehend.” When an image draws you, even or especially when you don’t know why, stay with it.
Here is an exercise I’ve used in workshops that can help “call up” images. Write the first dream you remember, and then stay with the central image of the dream until it changes of its own accord. Notice what it becomes, but don’t force it.
I wish you breath, movement and imagery in all your writing.