Word Medicine

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

Incantations October 30, 2010

In our workshop this week, we ended up talking a lot about the sounds of a piece, and how each writer has her own signature sound.  This was most apparent in rhythm.  We noted that one writer’s prose has a “stately” feel to it–understated, elegant, with gentle lifts and falls.  Another writer’s work surges forward in an urgent, emotional tide that builds to a climax, then dissipates, just as a wave does, and ends in a peaceful resolution.  Still another writer’s work could be distinguished by her rhythmic repetitions.  All her work has an incantatory quality, the kind of repetitions you find in witches’ spells, or in prayers.  That is how the work comes to her, she says, she doesn’t choose to write like that.  She just does.

Gregory Orr in his book, Poetry as Survival, writes that incantation is the third “ordering” power of the lyric, “capable of dealing with even more extreme disorderings, catastrophes so powerful that the self is unable to shape them towards the coherence of story or the complex concentration of symbol.  With incantation, the self discovers that it can be sustained, if all else fails, through rhythmic repetition alone.  In these instances, incantation is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos.”

The writer of incantations in our group has been slowly emerging out of such floodwaters.  Her history includes her mother’s early death, life in an orphanage, a raging, mentally ill stepmother, and a traumatic marriage, not to mention cancer and other health issues.  Her writings have always had this incantatory bent.  In addition, they often have been written in third person, which has created a distance between her own traumatic experiences and the emotions and words on paper.  It has only been in the last several months that she has started to use first person.

I think that for some of the other participants her incantatory pieces were perplexing.  So many repetitions!  Where was it all leading? I didn’t always  know.  Yet, I held fast to the principle that the “self”, the healthy ember at her center, was guiding her process.  And slowly but steadily, she has emerged like a butterfly from her chrysalis–an image she often writes about.  She has lost weight.  She reports more and happier interactions with her family.  Other members of the group remark on the positive changes they see.  She now talks about herself more, about her plans, and even her past.

As facilitators, we don’t always know what participants are working through or how their writing helps them move towards wholeness.  I only recently stumbled on the Gregory Orr quote as I was reading Poetry as Survival and  had a real “ah,hah!”  moment.  This is why I think it is so important to respect each person’s process, to give them the space and the tools to find their own rhythms, rather than to too narrowly define therapeutic goals for them.  Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we are able to understand how their writing sustained them.





Is Poetry Therapy? February 9, 2009

One of the issues alive in the world of healing and writing today is whether or not writing poetry is therapy.  This issue is a sticky wicket, because in bringing the writing of poetry into the healthcare setting, we are claiming that there are measurable and intangible therapeutic effects, otherwise why would we do it?  How is the use of creative writing in healthcare similar to and also different from traditional therapy?

Therapists, it can be loosely claimed, analyze an individual according to certain categories, depending on whether they are Freudian, Cognitive-Behaviorists, etc.  Then they establish a goal for the individual and work towards that specific goal.  Artists in the healthcare setting, however, do not analyze the patients they work with.  Their purpose is to transmit their craft as vehicle for the individual to begin a dialogue with themselves.  The artist as facilitator cannot know what the deep needs of the individual are to move towards their healing, although there are specific needs which we must always attend to: for safety, acceptance and boundaries.  By using close reading, by attending to the text created by the individual and make observations about the text, not assumptions about the individual, we model a process where individuals can begin to express and observe their own emotions, and draw conclusions from them, in their own language and in their own time.The goals and methods of therapy can be lifesavers, and there are often times when we have individuals whom we need to refer for therapy.  But Thomas Moore, a psychotherapist himself, makes this distinction between poetic language and the language of popular psychology in  his book Dark Nights of the Soul:

The language of popular psychology tends to be both heroic and sentimental.  You conquer your problems and aim at personal growth and wholeness. The alternative is to have a deeper imagination of who you are and what you are going through…The quality of your language is significant.  In your dark night, try speaking in story and image.

I would suggest that in some ways it could be said that psychotherapy is reductive, in that it aims to conform the individual to an already conceived-of-goal, whereas poetry and story are additive, in that while they may summon not only the wounds of the past, they also invite openness to the mystery of the self, to the creation of something new.  To use the language of psychology, when the ego is fractured, the Self breaks in, speaking not only of pain, but also of remembrance of wholeness.

Gregory Orr, in his book, Poetry as Survival, alludes to the same idea of the dominant paradigm of heroism in the face of pain, despair and disorder as Thomas Moore does:

(My cultural training suggest) I should resist disorder and try to dominate it.  According to the mythic models that shape my response, I should take active control and subdue disorder, by heroic force, if necessary.

But the approach recommended by the personal lyric is the opposite of this: to become vulnerable, to open the door and admit the mysterious creatures who wait on our threshold seeking permission to enter.  We must, the personal lyric tells us, become vulnerable to what is out there (or inside us). Not in order to be destroyed or overwhelmed by it, but as a part of a strategy for dealing with it and surviving it.  Lyric poetry tells us that is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive.  It is in the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves.

Artists bring to the work of facilitating this understanding and this experience.  We know that there are many mysterious creatures who wait on the threshold seeking permission to enter. We have entertained them and survived.  We give them names other than dysfunction or repression, although these names too may fit.  We try to open a space for them, in  ourselves and others.

I believe it is important to keep a distinction between poetry as healing and poetry as therapy.  In the best of all worlds, good therapy partakes of the poetic and good poetry partakes of the therapeutic.  But as artists in healthcare need to be clear about what we do, and do not, bring to the table.


%d bloggers like this: