Word Medicine

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Voice Lessons October 26, 2011

For months, I’ve been receiving promotional emails about voice lessons. I’d “phished” for them in a moment of weakness, but then decided I couldn’t afford them. Finally, on my birthday, they were offered very reasonably. So I splurged. I could cancel anytime with no penalty, so I figured what was the problem? Still, I was skeptical. How good could a video lesson be, anyway?

I have sung in the church choir for years, but always hiding behind stronger, more confident singers. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to sing. I remember belting out some musical tune, maybe something from the Music Man, and being told I was flat. I didn’t know what that meant, but I decided against singing in front of anyone after that. As a teenager, driving alone in the car, I would indulge sometimes, until I remembered I couldn’t sing and my song would peter out. When I first married, my husband, afflicted with perfect pitch, would, in his cool scientific way, observe that I was singing the wrong note as I did the dishes, that the song in question had perfectly reasonable notes and there was no need to improvise.

Never mind. In the privacy of my study, with all naysayers gone, I opened my first lesson. The singing coach, a male confection of blue eyes and a calm friendly voice, told me to forget everything I had ever learned about singing, about breathing. Great by me. He started off with just breathing, exhaling and speaking, showing how singing is an extension of talking. He had me wiggle my head, loosen my tongue, and just make sounds, as if sighing or exasperated. “Never mind about the note!” he said, and he didn’t have to ask twice. I was having fun. And the sounds I made were quite nice, I thought. Then he explained how constriction and tightness create the opposite of what we want, “We want power, not force,” he said, and sang a scale demonstrating force, with his face and neck tight and anxious, and then again, in a relaxed way, so that the sound just poured out of him, like water flowing out of a wide-mouthed pitcher. “See, that’s better, isn’t it?” he said soothingly. “We want trust, not fear. You try.” And he smiled encouragingly. I did, and it was better.

The next day in church I sang with new-found confidence. And that was only lesson one.

In many ways, writing is like singing. Writing to heal is first a form of self-discovery and expression, secondly a performance. When we write, and when we facilitate others, I think we all bear some legacy of constriction. Many people, even professional writers, have fears about addressing the blank page, which is why people like Eric Maisel write books like Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.

If this is true for professional writers, how much more true is it for the untrained folks who brave a writing class. The people who come to us in a healthcare setting have varying backgrounds and varying degrees of confidence and skill. Some haven’t finish high school, and others remember with a sting the heartfelt paper returned to them marked in heart-sinking red ink. Some have set ideas of what writing is, and some have no idea. Most have a conviction that whatever they do will be “wrong,” that there is a “right” way to do it, albeit one that is written in invisible ink. These differences and beliefs offer a huge challenge to the facilitator. How do we get them to “never mind the note,” but to relax and open up?

As in singing, as in drawing, the first way is to allow enough relaxation so that participants can begin to see the process of one of play, of enjoyment. One way to do this is to connect with breath, perhaps by using a meditation that focuses on the breath. This allows people to inhabit their bodies. Then, instead of moving to the mind, we move to movement. This can be done through the kinds of doodling and clustering that Gabriele Rico uses in her seminal Pain and Possibility, so that writing as first experienced is a form of drawing. Another way to do this is to have writers read outloud, from the very beginning, so that the words they write are not merely sounded in the mind, but sounded through voice and body, embodied as in Robert Pinsky’s wonderful poem, “Rhyme” :

Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air……

Slowly, I’m learning to reclaim my voice, to delight in it. I’m finding I can do things I never thought possible. This is what I want for my students: less force, more power; less fear, more trust.

 

After a Long Absence October 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I hope you are still out there.  I guess I needed a long hiatus to swim, relax, just be.  But fall is finally here and I’m half-way through my fall writing class at the cancer center, and as always, I marvel at what a privilege it is to be witness to the richness of so many lives and so much courage.  Because it takes courage to face the empty page, to face, as one of the participants said yesterday, “my demons.”

That particular writer wrote a short, spine-tingling impressionistic piece about spousal abuse, using the image of being put into a rotten, rat and snake infested well, of calling and pleading for help, only to have her husband stand at the top of the well, laughing at her.  The visceral images and strong verbs: rotting, slithering, pleading, had the group by the neck.  We felt the terror, without the word terror needing to be used.  In the reflection she wrote about the act of writing that piece,  she said that even though it was hard to go back to that experience, once she got it on paper she felt better, more at peace.

I am reading another friend’s fascinating and lengthy memoir.  On our morning walks she has described how she had to write this tome, to put the chaos of her young experience into some kind of order.  She has for years gone home after work and written, often times feeling guilt at not being more accessible to her children.  Yet, she maintains, she had to write this to be a whole person, and she feels that she is a more authentic parent for it.

The poet Karl Shapiro has this to say about writing and pathology: “The prevalence of the tragic and the pathological in great works of literature has misled many theorists ino the belief that art is symptomatic of psychic disorder, whereas it is the opposite.  Art is a way of reaching for wholeness by way of the assimilation of the pathic into the joyousness of the unified being….”  (Foreward, Life on the Line: selections on words and healing).

Another writer of breathtaking courage I have the honor of having in our class, wrote a long piece about years of being stuck, of facing the feeling of not making a difference, and yet also of affirming that it has only been

through her suffering that she has become “real.”   She ends her lament about “time  (that) cannot be regained,” though, with the observation that it is “time to change how I see…..time to love.”

For those of us attending to these works, we borrow courage to look at our own demons, to know that we can face them and know that we too can survive.  For the writers sharing their work with us, those demons b

ecome less potent because the writers are no longer alone with them.  It is this sharing which I think brings the process of healing to another level.  We are meant not only to create art, but to share it, for our own good and the good of all.

So here we all are, imperfect, striving for wholeness, facing our demons, becoming, slowly, more “real.”  It is time.

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

An Abundance of Need January 21, 2010

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank quotes Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, as saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  I remembered this the other night after my first meeting with my winter class at the cancer center.  I had not taught for almost 6 months.  In those months, my life revolved around therapy for my broken back, and it has been less than a month since I shed my body brace and have been able to drive. In the months of rehabilitation I lived a twilight life of sleep and physical therapy. Slowly the more normal rhythm of life claimed me: church on Sundays, lunch with friends, short forays of shopping, longer walks with my dog.  But I still feel fragile and tired. So when I drove to work Tuesday afternoon, I was more aware of that fragility than my competence.

This class was a mixture of women who had taken the class before and several newbies.  That is always a challenge because I need to bring in new material instead of relying on the tried and true, and perhaps more importantly, I need to make sure that the newbies were made  to feel part of a group that has already forged its own dynamics.

So, the first thing I asked of the group was to tell their stories.  They didn’t need to be coaxed.  A new, lovely, quiet lady opened up with a harrowing tale of  family members felled by breast cancer, gene testing, prophylactic mastectomies, and then finding that she had a rare form of cancer in her abdominal lining.  Another woman told  how she rejected implants and instead had flowers tatooed on her flat chest. Each story was like that, trauma upon trauma, terrifying diagnosis and painful treatments, including stories of loneliness and heartbreak.  By the time they were done, I realized I was the only woman at the table with breasts.  The storytelling, though, had brought the women into a deeper connection with each other, an almost palpable feeling of sisterhood.

Yet fragile myself, I felt in danger of being swamped by the sheer concentration of pain.  I was tired and in pain myself, and stressed by my wish to hide those facts. How could I offer anything to counter the pain of these brave women?

One of the first activities we always do is collaging our journals.  It is a relaxing, fun exercise, allowing for easy exchanges in the group.  More importantly, the images we are drawn to often are potent symbols for healing.  While we were collaging, one of the participants turned to me and said, “I noticed you were moving as if you were in pain. May I do some Reiki on you?”  I told her yes, I was in pain, and I would appreciate her help. Her hands on my back radiated warmth and I could feel my muscles relax.  And that was when I looked around the table and realized that I was not the helper, but that we all helped each other. We all had something to offer, even if it was an abundance of need.

One of the things I love about this work is that I can’t be anything else but what I am at that moment.  Perhaps the main competency is simply that: authenticity.  Driving home that evening, I turned off the radio, and allowed myself to savor the pink clouds in the west, the faces of the people walking in the warm evening air, the new ease of my body.  My own fragility no longer seemed like an obstacle to be overcome, but the very thing which I offered to others.

 

Tell It Slant January 29, 2009

I’m about to start a new class, and as always, I have some trepidation. I often work with very ill people, and my intention is to create a safe, nurturing environment. But I am aware that the trauma of cancer creates disorder and destabilizes a sense of self, often triggering memories of earlier traumas. And this is not always a bad thing. In the past, I have seen participants, through the ordering process of language and the stability of a community of witnesses, express emotions that have been locked up inside them for years. For most of them, this has been cathartic. For a few of them, it has been frightening, and they have had to back off from writing from their own experiences. I encourage the use of the third person and fiction or essay writing for these people, respecting that too close an inquiry into their own history can be re-traumatizing to them.

I think that while the lyric poem or memoir can be the most direct route towards healing writing for some people, for others such direct routes can overwhelm them with emotions. Patients are in various stages of treatment, with various prognoses, so that their ability to withstand anything they feel is threatening is variable. They also come with differing personalities: one study shows that for high avoidance women, disclosure actually is more traumatizing , while for low avoidance women disclosure is cathartic.

It was a patient of mine who taught me all this. She had been doing so well, writing poetry and responding to the fairy tales that we worked with. But when we came to memoir, she balked. She couldn’t do it. So I suggested that she write what was “too hard” as a story, which she did. As long as it was in third person, with enough fictional elements, the story she needed to tell could be told. I think the important thing here is that she accessed the emotional truths of her past, without having to go into the particulars of her own history.Jayne Anne Phillips said much the same thing in a recent interview. When asked if her book Motherkind was based on her own life, here is what she answered:

The book seems to be the blow-by-blow account of a real life, and it was my hope that it would seem that way. In truth I didn’t really remember what happened during the time that I was caring for my mother. It’s like the drug they give you during surgery: the drug numbs you and also blocks short-term memory. It keeps you from remembering what happened and that you were scared or confused. We have a kind of psychological counterpart. The book is based on the idea of a woman with her first baby who loses someone who is part of her identity, a parent, slowly and painfully, and being caretaker to that person. And that did happen to me. But I blocked it out. I didn’t write the book until ten years after the experience.

I reentered the experience and made up those details. There were certain things, like the paper she uses to line the baby’s drawers, that were real and certain key moments that I did remember and put into the book. But most of it was reentered and reenvisioned and seen by the character Kate, who is just as much an invention as Lark or Termite. What is it that Wordsworth said, something like, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.” Writing is that. Living requires our full attention, as does writing. I, for one, can’t do both. An element of the writer is always held apart. You sit in a chair inside the space of the material, and you’re able to enter experience in a way that is not open to you otherwise.

The goal in healing writing is to access emotions and express them, build a coherent story, impose some order on disorder, and to create something that can be shared, so that the burden of suffering can be lifted. How this is done, through the practice of which genre, matters less than that it is done. As practitioners, I think it is important to be aware of the variable levels of comfort patients have about disclosure, and to offer as many different kinds of writing opportunities as possible.

“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it,” wrote Isak Dinesen. In the end, we are simply helping our participants find their story.

Read the full interview with Jayne Anne Phillips about her new book, Lark and Termite, on Narrative, https://narrativemagazine.com/issues/winter-2009/jayne-anne-phillips

 

 
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