Word Medicine

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

Miracle Cure October 7, 2011

Last week, one of the participants in my class asked me if writing really did heal.  Well, that brought me up short.  If  it did, I suppose, I should be the healthiest gal on the planet, with the amount of scribbling I do.  But I’m not, I’m really quite sick, and have been going through a “bad” patch for quite a few months now, so that the bad patch is looking like the bottom line.

“Well,” I answered her, ” it is not a magic bullet, clearly, and you need to get physical things checked out, but finding your voice really is empowering…”  I went on to quote research, etc. She looked at me a bit dubiously.  I drove home rather dispritedly.  Was I fooling myself?

I went home to find an email from a long lost friend from the back of beyond, from what my son might call my “hippie” days.  She has started a restaurant in Baja California, and sent pictures, and it looked so beautiful that I immediately wanted to hop a plane and just disappear into that lush oasis by the Pacific.  Maybe there I could be healthy.  My friend, who is deeply spiritual and deeply a free spirit, emailed me when she heard I was struggling with my health, with a “Miracle Cure.”  I absolutely had to try it, she said, and I was back to our free wheeling days as waitresses, where she often wanted me to try substances.  I knew she sent it out of love, and for a nano second, I was tempted.  But I’ve been around the block too many times, I know the chemistry of my body and what is and isn’t working, and I know there is no miracle cure.  Just a long slow process of doing the best I can with the best docs I can find, keeping up with the research and accepting the reality of my life.

The confluence of these two events together got me to thinking.  I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  She is a psychologist and a practicing Buddhist, and her work speaks to the same issues of healing underlying issues of self-judgement, shame, anger and fear that often surface in our classes.  No matter what the reason people come to the classes–grief, pain, suffering, these emotions are the ones that often surface.  How does writing help heal the ways in which people deal with these often overwhelming emotions?  One way can be to create an open inquiry into our feelings–both as sensations and emotions.

Emotions are a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves….they can cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our bodies.  If we can mentally note unfolding experience, the sensations and feelings, layers of historic hurt, fear and anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness.  (Adapted from Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)

This is not an easy process, nor a one time process, but a process of learning to sit with feelings.  How can writing help?  We can begin by naming sensations and feeling them in our bodies.  Here is one way to go about doing this:

Do a body scan.  Where is the tension?  Is it in your stomach?  In your journal, can you describe the sensation?  Can you make an image of it?  Now, what emotion do you associate with that sensation?  Does it signal danger, fear or anxiety?   Now, what story do you habitually put with such a feeling?  Notice that there are three parts to this process.  After you write about the sensation/feeling/story, take a deep breath and check yourself again?  Has it intensified?  Passed?  Could you withstand it?  Are you able to perhaps address it?  Treat it as an old enemy or friend?  Ask it what it wants to tell you?

This practice of noticing, describing, befriending, can begin to slowly to quiet us.  We can gradually begin to inquire lovingly into ourselves, into our felt experience of being in the world.  We can begin to notice stories which have had a hold on us which may not be true.  We may begin to notice areas of our lives which we habitually neglect.  Our journals can be the safe arms within which we can pour out our feelings, even the emotions we are most ashamed of.  This process can free the energy we use to resist our feelings to instead move through them, and thus have more energy to meet life.

Is it a “Miracle Cure?”  No.  But it is a way, one way, to help us heal.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Soul is Shy May 6, 2010

I’m reading A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer.  Sometimes a book comes into your life to answer your questing or to reaffirm an intuition.  This book does both for me.  My workshops are built on the premise that each person’s Self knows what the person needs to be whole, that what we provide are the tools and the space to dialogue with the Self .  The other main premise is that we need to be witnesses to each other’s stories, that a respectful community of people willing to be present and to listen creates the conditions for a person to hear herself more clearly. A Hidden Wholeness addresses both these issues, but fleshes out why and how “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul” and the conditions that he has discovered in twenty years of working and teaching that open a place for the soul, “that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness.”

One of the conditions for holding a healing space is to avoid “fixing, saving, advising and setting each other straight.”  This is one hard discipline, not just for the facilitator but for the other participants as well.

Let me tell you a story.  Two days ago, a member of our group, a wonderful, grandmotherly, lively woman in her sixties, told us that she had been in and out of the hospital for the last two weeks.  Sitting there in a beautiful apple green shirt and gold necklace, with her dancing brown eyes, she described how she had to take her elderly husband, now with full-blown dementia, to the hospital with her because he would not be left with anyone else.  Her heart is failing, and because she had cancer five years ago, has about three other serious conditions, it is clear she will not get a heart, which go to younger, healthier candidates.  She told us her liver and kidneys are shutting down.  She said all this without self-pity and even with humor.  Looking around at our stricken faces, she laughed, “Aw, honey, that’s the least of it.  I could tell you stories.”

The mother/fixer in me was inwardly screaming, “Surely there is respite care!  Surely something can be done!  She deserves to live!”  I really like this woman who I’ve gotten to know over the last two years.  She writes incredible stories of growing up in the South when you still had a mule and chickens in the back yard, and only went to town two or three times a year.  She has described growing up with a nanny and never being able to tell her she loved her, of throwing out her learned prejudices, of teaching in the public schools where she had children plant gardens  and kill chickens to learn about survival out West, of teaching a class of recalcitrant, truant children she was saddled with how to have a proper tea.  She had us in stitches over her descriptions of her  large, shaggy boys holding the teacup with their pinkies extended, politely asking each other if they would like another cup.  Those kids, white and black,  came back to her, and told her how much she much she had meant to them many years later. Why?  Because she saw past their color, their labels, and she believed they could learn to serve tea.  She believed there was more to them than they believed themselves.

One of our participants gently asked if she knew of the Alzheimer’s support group.  She waved her hands and rolled her eyes. “Oh, lordy, yes, I have all that literature,” but it was clear she had no intention of going.  “He won’t let anybody else take care of him,” she said.   Others made sounds of dismay, spoke soft words of comfort, but I maintained silence and soon we all fell silent.  We were there to witness, to allow her to speak her sorrow, to speak the truth of her life.  Everything in me wanted to excoriate a system that would not save her, to arrange for respite care, to find ways to make this not so.  But it was so.  What we could do for her was to simply hear it.

The silence grew from slightly uncomfortable to more comfortable.  We went on with our group sharing.  We went on to write Renga.  We went on to listen and to attend to each other’s stories.

The soul, writes Palmer, “is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.”   The soul is also shy, and sometimes needs a cup of tea, or a circle of loving hearts offering silence.  

 

Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Got to Fly April 26, 2010

My soon to be nine-year old neighbor, Olivia, brought over her big find of the spring: a tent caterpillar .  She had found an old glass fish tank and lined it with dirt and leaves, put her new friend in and then “asked Google” about the critter.  She and Google must have had quite a conversation, because Olivia was there to tell us that he was an old caterpillar, and look, there he is beginning to spin his web.  “Where does it come from?” she said, looking at the creature.  Her mother and I squinted.  “It seems to be coming out of its mouth,” her mom said.  I told her spiders spun their silk out of their tummies (probably the limit of my great repository of knowledge about the physical world.)  We sat and watched the tent caterpillar do its thing.  “Google said it turn into a moth and only lives three days,” Olivia said gravely.  We all wondered at this.  My husband added that tent caterpillars are despised in this part of the world, their large webby cocoons festooning trees obliterated by the animal’s hunger.

Today I was talking with a friend, a painter, who is going to teach painting at a seminary, where all the seminarians are required to take classes in all the arts.  What an idea!  I told her about my interest in medical humanities, and we compared notes on teaching seminarians and med students, often young people who have had only limited exposure to the arts.  “I’m not trying to make artists out of them,” she said, “but bring them into the flow of the process, let them get lost in the process.”  I told her of often having people in my classes who had had little or no previous training, and how, once they got past fear and inhibition, they often produced powerful work.  “Creativity is part of us,” she said.  We talked about how creativity grounds us, heals us, quite contrary to the popular idea of it being the purview of a select, esoteric few.  It is, indeed, our birthright.  What teaching art to these students does is simply give them some tools to explore themselves, their life situations, their feelings.  It comes out of us naturally, just like the tent caterpillar’s cocoon.

I’ve always felt a great love for the “writing spider”, the large black and yellow spider that, if you are lucky, graces a summer garden.  Just as the spider must weave her web, so to I must write, others must dance, make art, sing their songs, knit, design bridges, solve equations.  I met a wonderful artist at the Hambidge arts colony once who said the how wasn’t the question, it was the why.  She could figure out how, but she didn’t know why.  She just knew it was what she had to do to be whole.

Olivia’s caterpillar is making great strides on his cocoon.

 

Craft and Catharsis May 7, 2009

How important is it to focus on craft when we conduct a healing writing workshop?

As artists in healthcare, I think many of us get to this to question. We, ourselves, are constantly striving to refine our own work, but the aim of facilitating a healing writing workshop is not to create artists, but to create an opportunity for healing. So what is the role of crafting, of refining style and mastering elements of good writing, in the healing writing workshop?

Belleruth Naparstek, in her book, Invisible Heroes:Survivors of Trauma and how they Heal, states “those who wind up finding something useful to do in the midst of a traumatic event, who can take charge and effect some measure of improved outcome, usually wind up without symptoms of trauma or with feewer or lighter symptoms, than those who are frozen in hopelessness.” She goes on to say that through this doing, traumatized persons experience “the joyous self-love that comes from accomplishment.”

Writing something as small as a fable, or a short poem may seem insignificant compared to the overwhelming task of fighting cancer, but that small text represents an act of self-agency, a defiant rejection of hopelessness. To create out of the self, when the sense of self and its symbolic order has been fragmented, is often an opportunity not to be restored to a former wholeness, but to find a different wholeness, one which acknowledges loss, but is not devastated by it.

So, what does all this have to do with craft? According to Mark Robinson, a British researcher and teacher, a lot. Crafting that text, that artifact, seems to be an inherently important part of the process of healing. He states: “To sum up, there were strong indications that writers of all kinds felt thy gained psychological benefits from their writing practice. Only in a few cases was this separate from the normal literary writing and redrafting process necessary for good writing of any genre, form or school. An interest in quality, in producing a text which was more than instant or an outpouring but in some way crafted, was clearly integral to the process of writing enhancing  well-being.”

Many professional writers became writers first driven by a need to find healing, or stumbled upon writing as a way to experience the “joyous self-love that comes from accomplishment.” Through that experience, we took up the discipline of the craft, seeking to increase mastery as well as joy. I think it is not so very different for patient-writers. Although they may have various degrees of committment to their writing, for most of them, learning to craft their texts with as much skill as possible is an important aspect of their healing.

 

 
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