Word Medicine

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

The Two Conductors February 22, 2013

peanuts_choirI’ve turned into my grandmother. And I owe her an apology.

Now, this was not my aim.  In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler.  She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music.  I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.

However, I find my self  in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.

A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day,  “We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.”  I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing.  I’m playing.  Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind.  The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun.  There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun.   I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.

Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression.  I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive.  I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading.  I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them.  We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking.  Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice.  I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.

I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir.  I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed.  The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in,  I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer.  I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed.  I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.”  He was giving us permission to make mistakes.  Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section.  We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support.  I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself.  The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time,  with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good.   I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece.  I found out I could sing, given the right conditions.  And the right conditions are not fear.  This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement.  I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support.  He and the group have created a safe space in which to play.  Bravo!

I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind.  We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough.  But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves.  We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best.  In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.

On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”

Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.


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.


(The) Play’s the Thing February 24, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:58 pm
Tags: , , ,

500062_909094792a9394wx2781211This has been a week.  I was diagnosed with pneumonia, my stepson his wife and two toddlers arrived to spend spring break with us, my twelve-year old was sick, the weather turned cold after a brief flirtation with spring, and we have a project at work that is requiring some extra time and thought.  Just life.  But I felt myself losing focus, worrying about all the minutia, my creative projects suddenly dead weights, and my inspiration for teaching, blogging, writing and even knitting seeping away like water into sand.

I called around to neighbors and friends, attempting to collect all the baby equipment that we no longer owned.  I called  a woman down the street whose kids were just a few years older than my grandkids.  When I told her about the imminent arrival of the Vermont Bakers, her response was “What fun!”  I was momentarily stunned, the way you are when the paradigm shifts, when you realize the lens you’ve been viewing things through may be just a little distorted.  That’s right! I thought, and the idea of fun blossomed in me like one of those silly gelatin capsule toys you put in water and leave overnight–like the grow your own boyfriend toy I gave my teenager daughter.  Only mine would be called  grow your own inner child.

Even though I advocate play and try to create conditions for it, I don’t come to it naturally.  I was a serious child, the responsible oldest of six, and I distinguished myself by my sober nature.  As a teenager, other mothers were always happy when I was friends with their kids, because I never got into trouble. ( Now I find that fact rather damning.)  So it is ironic that I, Dear Reader,  should be preaching the glories of play.

Thomas Moore, in his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, talks about the importance  of reconnecting with your childhood in order to connect with your creativity.  He suggests things as simple as making the food of your childhood, visiting places you lived as  a child, reconnecting with the people who knew you as a child, and learning to be humble as ways to access the inner child.

In my writing workshops, I try to create a space where people can play. I have seen and experienced, over and over, unexpected transformations that arise out of a sense of play.  One of the members of our new group at the Cancer Center said to me last week that she was so happy that we were working with fairy tales and the metaphors and images that arise out of them.  “I was afraid I was going to have to write my story,” she said, “but this is so much more fun.”

What does fun have to do with healing?  Donald Winnicott, the child psychologist, said this about play and healing:

Healing brings the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play….It is only in playing that the child or adult is able to be creative, and it is only by being creative that the individual discovers the self.

Marie-Louise von Franz brings yet another perspective to why play can help restore health.  In play, we are able to connect with the unconscious and with it experience the archetypal energies that she claims leads to healing transformations:

All the techniques we use help people open up to the archetypal experience. But only the unconscious sends an archetypal experience, and that is an act of grace we cannot force. We can only wait and prepare for it and hope it will happen.

In play, we can lose ourselves, and enter into new possibilities.  Paradoxically, it is also where we can find ourselves.

Last night, waiting for my family to come back from the airport, I got a call from my four-year old granddaughter, Ivy.

“We are so close to your house that my mom says she can smell Adam’s feet!”  she shrieked and giggled.  I found myself giggling back.  “Well, I can smell your feet,”  I countered.

Let the games begin.


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