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.


Movement is Life August 31, 2009

From my journal, a day before the accident, written while I sat at the beach:  “A tern lifts and lowers in the stiff off-shore breeze, popping up like a Jack-in-the-box.  A movement in the sand catches my eye, something shiny, and I see a sand crab slip into its hole.  Movement is life.”

Last week,  a friend brought lunch.  I’m still in my brace and can’t drive, so company was welcome.  She came in wearing very pretty sandals.  I asked her where she’d found them.  “The Potter’s House,” she said. The Potter’s House is our local thrift store.  “Let’s go,” I said, and so we did.  Even though my back hurt and I was tired, it was fun to get out, to poke around for unsuspected treasures.  There was a group of young college men looking for jackets, two middle-aged white women perusing piles of baskets, and an older black woman slowly and methodically working her way through a rack of dresses.  I sat on a plaid couch, waiting for my friend, eavesdropping on the students as they discussed the merits of various jackets. I felt part of the flow of life again.  Like a crab, I’d crept out of my hole, propelled not by necessity, but by simple shoe lust.

When my old dog had a stroke several years back,  she was on her feet in no time, eager to go on her customary walk, despite her off-kilter gait and cocked head.  My vet said dogs heal from strokes faster than people because they don’t realize they’ve had a stroke, they just want to go out and chase balls.

A friend reports that another friend spent the summer in Spain at a tango festival.  This woman is an avid dancer.  A year and a half ago, her most lovely and gifted daughter was brutally murdered.  She might have stayed in her hole, and no one would’ve blamed her.  I imagine her dancing the tango, that most sensual and life-affirming dance, imagine strains of violin and accordion music on a hot Spanish night.  And I imagine her daughter in the candle-lit crowd,  applauding her mother, as I do now, applauding her insistence on living passionately, even in the midst of unspeakable pain.

These two friends are thinking of going to Argentina to dance next year.  I’m thinking of going with them.


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