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.

 

 

 

 

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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