Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

Practicing Simplicity July 18, 2012

Filed under: artists,Process,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:58 pm
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This past spring, my son Adam, fifteen, had to take a mandatory PE class.  Now, Adam will tell you that by and large, organized sports are not his thing.  He is a terrific artist, musician  and thinker, and an active kid who has ridden his bike to school since he was in pre-school.  Nevertheless, when his dad coached T-ball, seven-year old Adam would invariably be inspecting a ladybug on a dandelion or watching the clouds form interesting patterns in the sky when that ball whizzed past him.  Yet this spring, as the class sampled various sports, Adam amazed his class and even more himself by hitting not one, not two, but three home runs, two of them out of the park.

How to account for it?  Here is my hypothesis: Adam had no expectations of himself.  He wasn’t thinking of how he would make his mark in baseball.  He had no ideas about it.  If anything, he might have expected to not do well.  But at any rate, I think he was simply in the moment.  A ball was thrown at him, he hit it, he ran.  He had beginner’s mind; he was in the flow, not obstructed by how things should be, but simply letting them unfold as they are.

How enviable.  Could it be repeated?  Will he be a star if he tries out for fall ball?  I wonder.  I suspect that if he takes up baseball, he will begin to accrue expectations and fears about performance, as we all do.  And then he will have to practice arduously in the hopes of once again finding that sweet spot, that place of being in the moment, that simplicity.

We practice our sport, our craft, our art, in order to return to simplicity.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch the Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” series at the Corchoran in Washington D C.  As I gazed at the huge canvases filled with blocks of color, I was struck both by how simple and also how complex they were.  Yes, one might say, a child could have done those, and yet it was because the artist had studied and executed more realistic works–figures, interiors, landscapes–that the paintings were so resonant.  The viewer enters into a complex conversation the painter was having with himself and with Matisse, with Bonnard, and with all his influences.  Yet also, and maybe more importantly, a canvas opens up an expected door in the viewer, a moment of freshness, a new way of seeing,  echoing the unique encounter the painter had with media and moment.

Frederick Franck in his book Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, encourages his reader to draw as a way to encounter the actual, not the projections of the mind.  Drawing becomes not product, but investigation.  It is a way to return to the simplicity of what is, rather than a way of   fancying-up reality.  It takes practice and it is hard.  Why do it?  Because in the middle of the struggle to render, there are those moments–where your pencil and the tree you are rendering  and the hand holding the pencil and the eyes seeing the tree are all one and everything else falls away.

Isak Dinesen said “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.”   To get to beginner’s mind, that is what we have to do.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

“Who knows what he knows?” January 16, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Healing,Writing and Self-Making — saratbaker @ 5:03 pm
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When the student is ready, the teacher appears–isn’t that a Buddhist adage? Or at least the New Age rendition of one? At any rate, sometimes just the right teaching falls into one’s hands at just the ripe moment. That happened to me when I picked up the book Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, and read Reginald Gibbons’ rich and complex essay, “Poetry and Self-Making.” The essay demonstrates what it seeks to elucidate: Why writers write and how writing helps in making the self.

As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I can lose sight of the land I’m rowing towards. I find myself in the midst of a difficult project, and I ask, Why am I doing this again? As a teacher and facilitator, I enter into relationships with my students based on the assumption that what I am teaching carries in it the seeds of self-making. But what do I mean by that? And how does that work? I need an apologia as much as any priest.

The experience of writing can be frustrating, time-consuming and full of struggles that to many might seem a form of masochism. But to any writer who has wrestled out a story or poem, who has entered into a strange and mysterious inner world, knows the thrill of discovery. When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to hop on our bikes and “explore.” We found abandoned houses and hoisted ourselves up into shattered windows, fell through rotted floors, found a “secret garden” next to a mansion inhabited by an ancient alcoholic, followed streams to beavers’ dams, and all the while made up stories about the places we found ourselves in. The world seemed abundant, numinous, full of terrors and beauties, and we were suffused with aliveness. Writing is the place where, as an adult, I can recover some of that same feeling.

Gibbons makes a similar point:”writing delivers us into discoveries of what, til we had formed some way to articulate it in language, had remained unformed, had been unknown to us, and that it must do this if it is to be interesting to anyone–even the writer! The articulation becomes the knowing; the knowing comes out of the process, and it refuels a further effort at articulation. A sense of ecstatic fruitfulness, of rich discoveries, of voyaging, comes to us in the exhilarating moments of being-in-our work-in-progress.”

Research done by sociologist James Pennebaker demonstrates that when realizations, insights and feelings are articulated in language, that language works to “cement” them into the person’s psyche. Other work of his cites measurable health improvements in those able to articulate traumatic experiences which had been previously unarticulated. His work provides another type of apologia for the self-making possible in poetry making, in writing.

We need our scientific data, but I will end here with Gibbons: “What you find if you are lucky, is a sense of the live pace of change in your own life and art, and therein, the reality of your feelings, the reality or truth of your of your intuition, the authority of your imagination, the words for what you now see you want to say–to paraphrase E.M. Forster.”

 

 
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