Word Medicine

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

Why Write? September 1, 2012

I have been involved recently with trying to save a beloved, historic community  pool in our town.  Activism is so much fun!  You immediately feel part of a community, and there is something new to engage with everyday.  As a kid, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr–that dates me–and now I’m getting my Brenda Starr kicks.  I use my writing skills for the purpose of something concrete and useful.

Sadly, I can’t spend all my time on activism.  I feel the tug of my own work waiting for me, stamping in the wings, getting a little impatient.  I’ve set aside these months to review where I’ve been and where I want to go.  It has been very nurturing, for instance, to look through old letters, finding pieces of myself I’ve forgotten.  I am “feasting on my life,” as Derek Walcott admonishes in his beautiful poem, “Love after Love.”   I sense I’m at a turning point–certainly my daughter’s marriage and my aunt’s death both have pushed the wheel of my life forward, and I’m trying to find my balance in this new place.

Speaking of Derek Walcott, when I was a very young woman, I went to a writers’ conference where he excoriated one of my poems, and I stopped writing poetry for 15 years.  “You don’t understand poetry,”  he raged at me, red-faced.  Since I held his work in high esteem,  I was as hollowed out as a tree struck with blight.  Now, as an older woman, I understand that every judgement of another’s work is in some way a projection of the judge’s own issues.  I would caution a young poet not to give away too much of her power, no matter how highly esteemed the judge is.

Having confidence is important to a writer, but a difficult trick.  Nadine Gordimer once used this simile about  writing a novel :  “it is like tight-rope walking over a chasm.  If you look down, you are lost.”  Stubbornly, a writer needs to go back to the well of his own imagination, even if that imagination is not in sync with the times.

I just read a marvelous review of the work of Gina Berriault by Daphne Kalotay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers.  Ms. Berriault is one of my favorite short-story writers, and even though she had a good career, her work is still little known .  She had a marvelous restraint in her prose, and quiet empathy for her characters.  If you haven’t read her work, you should.  She had a sense of writing as both a vocation and a career, and the vocation came first.  She was never as well-known as many of us thought she should have been, but I think the fact is that she kept at it, she was true to herself, and whether or not she found favor in the marketplace wasn’t her not her primary concern.

I look to her as a model as I attempt to “get my work out” into the world.  I am not unhappy with the choices I have made and where I find myself in life.  I’m no superwoman, and my family came first.  I never stopped writing–even though for two years I was unable to write.  I stayed true to my contract with myself as I slowly recovered, even though I had no energy for a career.  I am even happy for those years of illness and recovery, for what I learned and the places they took me.  I am happy to have found another vocation, that of teaching writing as a healing modality.  Yet now, I find myself coming back to my own work, interrogating it.  What does it want to be, how does it want to be used? At a time when most people are safely gliding to retirement, these questions are still alive for me.

One writes for oneself, but also, in the hopes of readers.  My enduring model of the artist is of the chef in “Babette’s Feast.”  Authentic art is prepared with skill to give pleasure to both the chef and the diners–not all diners will appreciate the skill that goes into it, but the point is the feast itself, and the transformations that may come from it.

I find the vocabulary of the literary marketplace disheartening: pitchings, platforms and pandering.  However, I try to visualize my reader–someone to sit down with to enjoy a good feast.  Maybe fig tarts and lamb stews are not to everyone’s taste–all we can do is put them on the table.

 

On Being a Recluse April 9, 2010

“And then there’s a lecture by Cornell West, and a wonderful Tchaikovsky concert, and how about going to see Spunk at the Morton?”  My friend’s breathless voice reels off the plethora of activities available in our college town this weekend.

I love my irrepressible friend, she of the bubbling enthusiasm and indefatigable energy.  I hedge.  I don’t know how to tell her I’m in no shape to do any of these things. I’ve been active lately, and she’s gotten used to it.

I would have loved to do all these things in my parallel life, the one I live in my imagination.  In my parallel life, I not only volunteer at my son’s school, ride bikes with my son and my husband,  go to concerts and plays, but I also have redecorated my house and give dinner parties “a plein aire”.  I’ve managed to get my novels published and I travel around teaching.  My husband and I vacation in Greece.  I get up early, work out with my personal trainer, and go to bed late after earth-shaking sex with hubby. Well and often.  I collect original art and sing jazz at local dives for fun on weekends. And oh, I just won an international tango contest and my photographs–just a hobby–hang in collections around the world….

In my actual life, I slowly and gingerly make my way into the day. If I’ve “overdone it” in some way–either physically or mentally–the day before, as I did yesterday and the day before, I am in pain and stiff from head to foot.  If I’m lucky, I’m out of bed by eight. Usually not. If I haven’t rested my still recovering broken back, the twinges of pain become adamant sledgehammers by three in the afternoon.  My personal trainer is my dog, Maisie, and on good days we take a half hour walk.  On bad days, like today, I struggle for fifteen minutes, the air in my lungs like knives, and flinging myself on the couch as soon as we return.  I then sort out the tasks that have to be done–teaching preps, doctors visits, the endless filing of claims–from the goals I’d like to get done–work on novel, finish essay–and I try to get the first done so that I can get to the latter.  Some days it is a personal victory to merely get the bed made, the dishes put away, the exercises done and maybe an hour at my desk before brain fog or pain make it impossible. Sometimes my despair at the necessary smallness of my life overwhelms me. On good days I have the energy left over to see friends, to go to a movie, to a party.  And when I’m there, I look and act “normal” and nobody thinks of me as sick.

No one has any idea of the careful husbanding of energy it has taken to have that moment. I even fool myself.  Then, like Cinderella, the clock strikes and I am back in my rags and ashes.

Probably one of the least understood aspects of chronic illness is how it shapes or distorts one’s identity, especially one’s social identity.  We are social animals, after all.  My need to connect with the world, to be part of a social matrix, is just as strong as in a person who is not sick.  But I cannot physically keep up a “normal” level of  interaction.  And I know I confuse people with my popping up and fading-out routines.

So, the question is, how to satisfy the desire to connect with the need to withdraw?

Hillary Mantel, who won this years Booker Prize for “Wolf Hall,”  says she became a writer because of illness.  One thinks of Keats, writing poetry as he is dying of TB, of Virginia Wolf”s essay, “On Being Ill,” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, his meditations on health, illness, and suffering, of D.H. Lawrence.  Forced by their health to withdraw from the active world, they nevertheless were passionately engaged, sounding the depths of  their own experiences and sending the world dispatches. Writing, they refused to be obliterated as personalities by illness, refused to let illness define them, even as they reported, like journalists at the front, on the losses illness entailed.

When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be Brenda Starr, the star-eyed, red-headed reporter .  I remember how avid my twelve-year-old self was for experience of the world.  We spent a summer in Mexico and I remember thinking that I wanted to travel the world as a journalist or work in the UN.  That girl lives on.  She’s just sending dispatches from a very different place.

 

 
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