Word Medicine

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

Breath, Movement, Image September 29, 2017

One of the gifts of age is being willing to do things you might not be terribly good at. For me those things are singing and drawing. I also dance, which I’m slightly better at, but which is a challenge with my illness. When I was younger, I didn’t attempt things at which I might fail. I also had enough on my plate, raising children and working, and had to scramble to write. I didn’t want to take energy away from writing. I have more time now, and I’ve found that playing in other disciplines has things to teach me about writing.

From singing I’ve learned to breathe—or am learning to breathe. Every choir practice when I pick up a new piece of music to sight read, I panic. I have no training in music, and have taught myself to read over the years, very imperfectly. Somehow my church choir puts up with this. I have to get past my panic and trust that I’ve done this before, countless times, and if I listen and pay attention, it will come. The beauty of choral singing is you can get your pitches from your comrades, although I’m working on not leaning on them. I have to let go of the fear that freezes my diaphragm and plunge in, knowing I will make lots of mistakes, but that eventually, I’ll get it. And I usually do, just minutes before show time!  I’ve also learned from singing that power is not force. Forcing never works. Ironically, powerful singing requires relaxation as well as engagement of abdominal muscles.

51445299-Dancing-couple-icon-isolated-on-white-background-Argentine-tango-Tango-dancers-vector-illustration--Stock-VectorDancing gets me out of my head, an occupational hazard of writers. I have been studying tango off and on for years, but I approach every class with beginner’s mind. Once you have a few basic steps, the beauty of tango is that it is, at least for followers, almost entirely intuitive. For someone who has always been a “bossy pants” it took a long time for me to learn to follow! Tango is very Zen, in that you can’t think, you have to feel it. I cannot anticipate what my leader might do; I have to trust him and be entirely in the moment. The minute I think about what I’m doing I ruin it. As Bruce Springsteen said about performing, if he thought about what he was doing, he couldn’t do it. Same idea. When I’m in sync with my partner and feeling the music, nothing is as exhilarating.

I love to draw, and yet am terribly self-conscious about it, coming from a family of visual artists. But for two years when I was bedridden, and unable to read or write, I began drawing. What I found then was if I let go of expectations and allowed myself to be in the moment, I could become totally immersed in my subject. Often I was overcome with love for what I was drawing—a dog, a person, a stool at a doctor’s office. Then I began seeing differently, even without a pencil in my hand. Really noticing the graceful arc of a tree branch, or the rough texture of its bark. The visual world became enlivened. Strangely enough, the same principle of relaxed breathing found in singing applies to drawing, as does the principle of intuitive feeling and movement found in dance. The more freedom of movement I allow myself in making marks, the more alive the drawing.

So what does all this have to do with writing and healing?

On my desk is a quote: “Writing is a negotiation with ourselves: it is about mercy and it is about breath.” (Jacqueline Jones Lamon). Writing, I suppose, is the most intellectual of the arts, and I think that can work against writers. Too often we start with ideas that conceptualize, rather than with breath, movement, images. For writing to be powerful, I think it needs to partake of all these, but especially images. Here is another quote from my bulletin board, “Images roost in our minds, consciously or not, because they have something more to say than we have yet to comprehend.” When an image draws you, even or especially when you don’t know why, stay with it.

Here is an exercise I’ve used in workshops that can help “call up” images. Write the first dream you remember, and then stay with the central image of the dream until it changes of its own accord. Notice what it becomes, but don’t force it.

I wish you breath, movement and imagery in all your writing.

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State of Mind May 30, 2016

Filed under: The Art of Ficition,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 8:27 pm
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I learned a lot from my friend Cecily Gill, who died this spring at a good old age.

We used to paint together during her long convalescence.  I was the last in a long tradition of amateur painter–nieces, friends, granddaughters–who tromped off into the woods of Maine to paint with Cess. Only, we didn’t tromp—she could barely traverse the few yards from bed to dining room table. I’m only a middling artist, but I treasure the times we spent together painting. I learned not from her direction, because she gave very little, but from her presence. When painted, she was in conversation with the canvas, totally absorbed.  A kind of full stillness descended a vibration of peacefulness alive with movement. I too was able to drop into my work, too. When I got stuck, I would ask her for help, which she gave in a direct, no no-nonsense way, with a large helping of encouragement.(I come from a family of artists, so my standards are high and my confidence low.) When we would talk about the paintings afterwards, I was struck by how she acted as if she was as much a participant in the process as a creator. Sometimes she would shake her head with wonder and stare at her painting, saying, “Hmm, what is it?” It was as if her paintings surprised and sometimes delighted her as much as anyone else. Her openness to process and her willingness to go into the unknown, wrestle with it and come out with something—whatever it is.

From Cess, I learned to trust the drop down into myself and be safe there. The process of writing is not unlike that of visual art. Jim Harrison, the author of many books, including The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who also died this spring, has this to say about the process of writing: “….I feel absolutely vulnerable, and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer….your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job, unless you are writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself….”  (from The Ancient Mariner).

“….unless you go beyond yourself.”  The desire to create comes from a longing to not only go into yourself, but also beyond yourself.  The intense effort, the willingness to not know, to offer yourself openly, to be surprised, to make a fool of yourself, to fail or not fail, and to be OK with either, and consider the time well-spent—that is what I learned from Cess.

The last time I spoke with Cess, I told her how her paintings made me calm and happy. “Magic,” she said, her eyes shining, acknowledging their mysterious provenance.

gill

 

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Letting Go January 19, 2015

I am reading Shaun McNiff’s book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, about the creative process, and finding it instructive not only for creative endeavors but also for relationships.

We’ve all heard the phrase. Maybe it conjures up images of Woodstock, of hippies in tie-dyed tees.  Nevertheless, McNiff, an artist and internationally known figure in creative art therapies, brings a nuanced and in-depth perspective to the concept.

McNiff claims that there is an intelligence working in every situation, and if we trust it and follow its natural movements, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems—and even make use of our mistakes and failures.

 I am particularly drawn to his assertion that errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression.  Sometimes, as well, the spontaneous expression or mistake which is outside our intended design, brings riches from the unconscious.  Those who work with their dreams know that a dream will often strike us as peculiar, that we “don’t know where it comes from,” but the images of that same peculiar but powerful dream may bring us the very healing images that we need, but for which our ego has no room.

McNiff also points out that while the artistic process may bring relief, joy and harmony, the process thrives on tension. Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.

 I think a similar process can happen in relationships.

I once met an accomplished woman, a writer and therapist, ten years ago at a writing conference. She was a little older than I was at the time, and her children were grown. She was lovely and gracious but there was an air of melancholy about her. We fell to talking about parenting.  She said that our mistakes as parents are as important as our successes.  I was still hoping to be the perfect parent and was puzzled by her statement. Surely not!  Oh, yes, she said, because our lacks are what push them out of the nest, and send them out into the world to do it better.

pathMistaken moves and slips of intention reveal that creation involves more than single-mindedness, McNiff writes. We create together with the world.  If we believe that there is an intelligence moving in the world that we can partake of and trust in, then conflict and uncertainty are no longer so frightening, in our work or in our relationships. We can approach them with curiosity, knowing that, if we stay with the process, we will be moved to a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013

They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter.  I stand accused.

matisee

I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art.  But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are.  I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers,  he talks about the importance of practice in any art form.  I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes.  In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward.  So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it.  I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.

Make a move.  This might be my mantra.  All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity.  I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do.  Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.

One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it.  People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling.  There is no entry for it in most dictionaries.  At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis.  For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news.  I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way.  I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly.  I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts.  I rant.  I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down.  But because I have no expectations, I feel free.  I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.

For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals.  I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight.  Had I dared think that?  Was that really how I felt?  What if my family found out?  No, better to just leave those monsters be.

But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings.  Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are.  When we journal, it is much like dreaming.  We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational.  Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams.  Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate.  When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited.  We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns.  But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out.  There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost.  There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together.  Often these become the basis of a story or poem.

While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live.  Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying.  And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales.  At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell.  I just came across this:  “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….”   And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy.  Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.”  The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise.  Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.

I look at my painting.  I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.

 

My Morning with Matisse December 3, 2012

30MATISSE1-articleLargeLast Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings.  There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette.  At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness.    But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.”  According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””

I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images.  But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art.  Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it.  The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.

Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process.  I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.”  Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece.  I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.

In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him.  What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing.  So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.

What does all this have to do with writing and healing?  Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art.  However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.”  Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing.  By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.

 

Willing to Make Mistakes January 23, 2012

Because of my health, I have had to let go of almost every outside activity.  I know by now the trouble I will be in if I don’t respect my limits.  I have let choir go, and tango is on the back burner.  I am grateful to be able to teach, grateful for taking the dog for her daily walk.  Still, I mourn those other activities that kept me feeling alive.

There is one thing I still make time and energy for, though.  A dear friend’s mother is an accomplished painter.  Cessi, like me, is confined to a small life–time has slowed her down.  Yet, there is in her the artist still.  So Cessi and I paint every Wednesday.

Paining with Cessi, I must re-learn beginner’s mind.  I have a good eye, but my skills are minimal.  I must practice the elementary.  I set up a still life: green bottle, a blue and white bowl with bananas and a pink grapefruit.  The bananas lie heavy and tumid in the bowl, the bottle soars up behind them.  How to give the bananas weight, how to suggest the bright, juicy roundness of the grapefruit?  How to paint the light on the fruit, the bottle, the way the fruit holds the light even as the winter evening fades?

I paint the ellipsis of the bowl, the outline of the bottle.  The first strokes feel bold, and it is a relief to have broken the blank space of the paper.  I continue, tentatively, feeling awkward, unsure.  I’m not used to acrylics, not sure whether to make them opaque or transparent, and am hesitant about mixing colors.  I step away, become self-aware, critical.  I freeze, unable to go on.  Cessie looks up at me and smiles encouragingly.  “You are paralyzed.”  It is an acknowledgement, and that is all I need.  “Just keep going.”  I see a way to go on, not with the freedom I long for, but a next step.

Why do it?  It is tiring, and I’m smack up against all my insecurities.  But for those two hours, I’m not in monkey mind.  I’m not obsessing over my daughter’s wedding or work.  For those ours I am in the now.  It is meditation of a sort.

Cessi’s granddaughter, Giordana, comes in.  “You look serene,” she says, noticing the hush in the room.  We speak very little, Cessi and I .  Yet doing it with her makes it less frightening, more companionable.  I feel her supportive energy–she helps contain me.  We go deep into ourselves, together.

It is good for me to remember what it feels like to be a fledgling.  This is how so many of our participants feel, who come to us for guidance and containment as they delve into themselves, seeking the words that will release them.  We are not there to teach them what to write, but to encourage them to listen to themselves.  Maybe one of our most important functions is simply help contain them, giving them practical suggestions as needed, but also to look up and nod and say, yes, I know, you are stuck, or scared, or go further.

Katherine Dunn spoke to this issue of being paralyzed  in Poets and Writers in this last issue: “Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes.  There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy.  This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze.  At times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘to hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong.  I can’t do it well, so I’ll do it badly.’  Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on the right way.”

My still-life turned out better than I expected, although the lip of the bowl lists.  But I learned a lot, a whole lot, and I’m less scared now.  I’m more engaged.  Ready to go on and make more mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 
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