Word Medicine

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

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.


The Uses of Adversity January 9, 2009

Filed under: Medical Humanitites,Writing and Self-Making — saratbaker @ 6:08 pm
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I was very moved this morning to read Holland Cotter’s art review of the Rembrandt show at the Met, In The Gloom, Seeing Rembrandt with New Eyes. He describes how the 17th century Dutch economy went bust, taking the art market with it, and how Rembrandt plunged from wealth and reknown into poverty and obscurity. He compares Rembrandt’s style before and after his reversal and describes a simplicity and looseness in the latter paintings:

Living in near-poverty, public reputation shot, with nothing to gain or lose, Rembrandt was painting in a fresh way because he was painting mostly for himself. The color in the Stoffels portrait is unspectacular: shades of tawny brown with flicks of red like ruby chips. The brushwork is loose and undescriptive. Technically the picture is unfinished, but it’s as complete as it needs to be to deliver the image it does: a devastatingly candid and loving portrait of woman, not young, leaning forward from darkness into light.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own work, how it is evolving, its reception and lack of it. We all write for ourselves, but we also are influenced by the traditions we work from and the innovations around us. Painting and writing are always arts in dialogue with themselves, and artists are always aware of their relationships with other artists, even if only in their work. So, with the art market plummeting and the publishing world already limiting only 1/2 of 1% of its publishing to “literary fiction,” chances are more and more of us will work in obscurity. What will that do to our work? To what we make and why we make it?

I think of Einstein, of how he labored far from the centers of science and came up with the theory of special relativity. Walter Isaacson, in an interview about his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, says:

I think he was lucky to be at the patent office rather than serving as an acolyte in the academy trying to please senior professors and teach the conventional wisdom.

Not many of us are Rembrandts or Einsteins. But it is heartening to know that they, too, labored in obscurity, and that the obscurity freed them in some ways to discover their truest work. I think that illness can also have that effect, of winnowing one’s creative ideas down to the most essential elements, of freeing one from distractions. I am often humbled by the power of the writing that comes from my workshops with cancer patients, work which has as its aim nothing more than to express the “cry from the heart.”

For a wonderful read, check out the rather obscure Rembrandt’s Whore, by Sylvie Matton.


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