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10 posts categorized "A Different Perspective"

January 03, 2007

Have You Gotten to the Good Part Yet?

The theme for this month—Figuring Out the Good Part—springs from an essay, “The Good Part,” written by Dennis Covington and found in the anthology, The Healing Circle, which I’ve mentioned here before. Covington's essay is funny and sharp. It asks excellent questions. In fact, the entire essay constitutes a kind of question in and of itself—a question that’s terribly relevant, I think, to writing and healing and to the way we try to make sense of the stories of our lives.

The essay begins with a pair of Florsheim Imperial wingtips. These are, apparently, a somewhat expensive line of men’s shoes, but this particular pair was bought on sale for $5.88 by one Bunky Wolaver, a man who loves a bargain and who also happens to be married to Dennis Covington’s sister, Jeannie, a woman confined to a hospital bed with a severe flare of lupus. She’s undergoing a painful procedure—having her blood cleansed—and she passes the time with her brother and his wife, Vicki, by telling stories. So she tells about her husband, Bunky, buying these shoes in a size six, even though he’s a size nine and a half, because he does love a good bargain. He’s been trying for days to find someone to give the shoes to—no luck—and then that morning he calls, Jeannie tells him her doctor’s there making rounds, he asks her if maybe she could just lean over the bed and check and see what size the doctor’s feet are.

The story goes on. Another lupus patient, a woman in Jeannie’s support group, stops by to visit. Both women have advanced disease and Covington relates that the visit is mostly a somber one, but then at one point Jeannie tells the woman about Bunky’s Florsheim Imperial wingtips and the woman starts laughing so hard that the chair she is sitting on collapses.

Covington writes:

Jeanie’s stories have always seemed particularly Southern to me, and on the way home from the hospital that night, Vicki and I entered a serious discussion about the nature of Southern storytelling. The good part of Jeanie’s story, I thought, was Bunky asking her to check out the size of her doctor’s feet to see if the shoes he had bought on sale might fit. Vicki thought the good part of the story was the moment when the other lupus patient’s chair collapsed.

We didn’t resolve the issue, but we did conclude that every story, Southern or not, has to have a good part. “Have you gotten to the good part yet?” we often ask each other when one of us is reading a novel the other has recommended.

But what exactly constitutes the good part of a story? And since our lives themselves are stories, where in this sea of misery, this vale of tears, does the good part lie?

Covington proposes then that the answer to this last question can best be found in another story, and he proceeds then to tell a long and winding story which includes, among other things, his father, twelve armadillos, the loss of two of the armadillos (the father left the latch to the cage open and afterwards felt horrible about it), a stint of alcoholism, a marriage, getting sober, two daughters, his father’s death, a trip to Florida with one of his daughters to look at a piece of scrubland his father had left him, a baby armadillo by the side of the road, a decision to take the armadillo in as a pet and name him Joey, then Joey’s illness, Joey's death, his daughter’s tears in the wake of Joey's death.

The good part? At the end of all this, Covington writes how he and his wife disagree a bit on just when exactly the good part of this particular story begins. He thinks the good part may have started on the way to Florida, spotting the armadillo. (The redemptive armadillo?) Or maybe at the moment when his daughter asked him if they could keep it and he decided they would try. His wife, he says, thinks that the good part began at that moment when she asked their daughter why she was crying. And the girl said she was crying for their father.

One of the things that interests me most about this essay is what Dennis Covington doesn’t suggest. He doesn’t suggest that the good part of the story was when they stumbled across a pot of money. Or when one of his daughters got accepted into Yale. Or won a soccer championship. It wasn’t even when he got sober (though being sober, one could argue, allowed him to recognize the good part when it came along). The good part wasn’t when he found out his father wasn’t going to have to die. Nor when Joey, the armadillo, was able to be miraculously cured. His father did die. So did Joey. And yet still there was this something Covington recognized—something that happened between him and his daughter and his wife, something that echoed a moment that had happened once between him and his own father-----

I like the kind of writing that asks more questions than it answers. It gives me that sense that the work—the larger story—is still unfinished and that all of us—every single one of us—might yet have something to contribute---

What does constitute the good part of a story?
Who decides?
And how in the world will we recognize it when we get there?


January 14, 2007

Wild Geese: An Image for Writing and Healing

Three times in the last month I have come across, in three different places, the poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. After the third time, I thought this might be a poem I ought to pay some attention to.

The poem opens with the speaker telling us, her reader, that we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. And, then, this line:

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

It’s a radical line. Maybe a radical poem.
It goes against the grain of business as usual.
(The way the mind and the will are so often, for so many of us, yanking the body around to places it doesn’t really want to go—places even, sometimes, that can make the body a tad sick—or sicker.)
(And sometimes maybe this is one of those silver linings of getting sick—or so people will sometimes tell me—the small good part—how a person can begin to learn to quit yanking the body around. The stakes are too high anymore to do all that yanking. Sometimes illness is the beginning, for some people, or so they tell me, of beginning to pay closer attention to what the body loves and needs—and what it doesn’t.)

I’ve been carrying the poem with me this month, looking at it now and then, and now, today, there’s one particular word that seems to jump off the page: meanwhile.
MEANWHILE as the good part?
Because after the speaker of the poem tells us we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles, repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves, after that she invites us, the reader, to tell her of our despair and she will tell us hers—
And then there’s this shift—this leap—and she writes:

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes. . .
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again. . .

It’s as if the camera had been close in—a history of despair—or a history with some despair in it--but then—a shift—the camera pulls back---a shift to a larger landscape—a leap—meanwhile—somewhere—those wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home.

January 18, 2007

Fiction Writing as a Prescription for Grief?

Last week there was an interesting article in our local paper, the Winston Salem-Journal, entitled “Lee Smith’s Pain,” by Martha Waggoner. The article describes how Lee Smith, the novelist, now living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, found writing to be a remedy for grief. But—and I think this is the interesting part—she didn’t write directly about her grief. She found a remedy in writing fiction.

Lee Smith is the author of several novels, including Black Mountain Breakdown, Family Linen, and The Last Girls. A little over three years ago now, her son Josh, only thirty-three, died of acute cardiomyopathy. Lee Smith describes herself as feeling, afterward, as if her finger was stuck in an electrical outlet, all the time. She had, before her son’s death, been working on a new book, a story of an orphan girl named Molly in post-Civil War North Carolina. After her son’s death she put the story aside.

She describes herself as being unable to eat, unable to sleep. She had trouble finding the school where she’d been teaching for twenty years. She had trouble finding the grocery store. She lost thirty pounds. She began seeing a therapist. And when, after several weeks, her therapist offered to write her a prescription, she figured it would be for some kind of drug that might numb her pain—and she was ready for such. Instead, the prescription simply stated: “Write every day.”

Specifically, her therapist (I suspect he was a psychiatrist if he was writing prescriptions) told her he thought she would benefit by getting back to the book she’d been working on, that she might benefit from working on a narrative other than her own.

And that’s what Smith did. She went back the story of that orphan girl, Molly, that she’d put aside after her son’s death.
And, in the article, she’s quoted as saying this about returning to Molly’s story:

I was in a very heightened emotional state the whole time I was writing it, and it meant everything to me to have it to write. And Molly’s story became my story, or at least a receptacle of all this emotion I didn’t have anything to do with.

Molly’s story became my story. That seems somehow at the crux of it. A way to write her own story without writing her own story. The kind of catharsis that can come sometimes with a bit of distance.

Incidentally, that story of Molly as an orphan became a book, On Agate Hill, Lee Smith's twelfth novel, published in 2006, and well-reviewed, including this review in the Washington Post. I’ve not read the book yet, but I plan to look for it.

January 28, 2007

When Writing Takes Us Outside Our Own Skins

The thread this month (though this may or may not be apparent) is the way that coming at things from a different perspective—a new angle—can sometimes lead to good things. And when I think about looking at things from a new angle—from a fresh perspective—one of the things that comes to mind for me is something I learned from college freshmen when I first started teaching them.

When I first started teaching writing, I wanted the students in my classes to care about what they were writing. So I started out by telling them they could write about whatever they wanted.

This did not go quite as well as I’d imagined it might. For the most part, the students wrote about their dormitories, their roommates, fraternities, beer. They seemed just a bit bored by their writing—and, I’ll admit, I was a bit bored by it as well.

I suggested maybe they try writing about something more controversial—argument papers. They gave me papers on abortion and gun control. Lots and lots of papers on abortion and gun control. And, well—it was still boring. For them and for me. Their sentences seemed canned, as if someone else and not them had written them. They were giving me what they thought I wanted. They were giving me what they thought teachers wanted.

I kept trying. Then at some point in the middle of the semester I remembered that story the teacher had told us about Sarah and her son—about writing fiction from a new point of view—and I told the students I wanted them to try stepping out of their skins. Their assignment: to write a paper from a different point of view. I invited them to imagine inhabiting some another body—animate, inanimate, I told them it made no difference. Just imagine being someone or something else, I told them. Be a different age. Be a different gender. Be a rock. And then write about it.

And they wrote.

John, an avid hockey player, imagined himself as a hockey player who had undergone a crippling accident and was left in a wheelchair. He wrote a story about this young man sitting in his wheel chair, watching movies, over and over, and then, one day, getting up and out of the wheelchair and travelling into the movie screen, onto a space cruiser, and then deep into the Andromeda System, to a planet called Saturn 9, which was like a place the young man used to dream about as a child.

David became a police officer who got shot in the line of duty.
Sam became a homeless man.
Glenn became Alfred Einstein—Albert’s nephew.
Chris became a white Camaro.

The students leapt out of their skins in ways I had not anticipated. It was as if I’d pointed to a door and they flew through it. Actually, the five stories I’ve just described briefly here were chosen by these students as their best work of the semester, and they were in turn chosen for publication by the editors of the freshman review, a small magazine at the university of the best freshman prose and poetry. And, as it turned out, their stories accounted for half the prose pieces in the review, suggesting that I wasn’t the only person who found these new stories they’d written of interest.

The stories they produced by inhabiting another body were both more compelling and more vivid, by far, than any of their previous writing. And—and this surprised me—the stories were more intimate. For some reason—and I have no clue why—it was the young men in particular who took to these stories. These stories seemed to give them a new vehicle for exploring their imaginations and their emotions.

A story of loss:

He was the cripple. He was the one who would never skate again or feel the cool breeze off the ice as he followed the puck down the right wing side boards, decked the defense and sent the puck sailing into the net through the goalie’s five slot.

A story of young love:

I was just a bashful white Camaro of seventeen, hardly able to catch second gear around a curve on a wet road.

It was as if fiction allowed these students the opportunity to inhabit another body for moments at a time, and somehow, by inhabiting this other body, to break a taboo—to say something tender, to say something new. Fiction gave them permission to explore what seemed like untapped territory in themselves, to say something intimate—even surprising.

I remember having this thought and I’ve never forgotten it: that fiction gave these eighteen and nineteen-year olds just enough cover to reveal themselves.

January 30, 2007

Is Shifting One’s Point of View a Healing Habit?

In 2003, James Pennebaker and R.S. Campbell published an article that carried the intriguing title, “The Secret Life of Pronouns”. The authors proposed, based on the analysis of thousands of texts, that flexibility in a person’s use of pronouns when writing about painful memories is associated with improved health.

This was not a predicted finding. It emerged when Pennebaker and associates persisted in asking the question: Why it is that writing about emotional topics results in better physical health? What actually happens? The most consistent finding prior to this 2003 study had been that people who participated in expressive writing reported that, afterwards, they actually thought differently about the experiences after they wrote about them. Pennebaker’s question then became: “Is this change in thinking reflected in the ways people write?”

In other words, do people become healthier as their writing changes in some way?

To try and answer this question Pennebaker used a computer program developed by researchers on artificial intelligence, a program which performs linguistic analysis on written texts. 7501 writing samples were examined. A total of 3,445,940 words. A virtual sea of words. In this sea, he looked at how a person’s writing changed over successive days—and whether or not these changes were correlated with better health.

The first thing Pennebaker looked at was content. Did changing the content of one’s writing over a period of days affect health? For instance, did the health of those persons who wrote about a different topic on successive days fare better than the health of those who wrote about the same topics? The answer? It appeared to make no difference.

Next, Pennebaker looked at writing style. And he discovered that when people changed their writing styles over several days they were more likely to show improvements in health. When he narrowed down these changes in style, he discovered that participants were most likely to show improvement in health if, over the course of different writing samples, they changed what pronouns they used.

It’s an intriguing finding. For instance, writing from the I point of view some of the time, and then you, then we, then he or she or they correlated with better health. The finding was not a directional finding. It was not better, for instance, to move from first person to third person, or visa versa. What mattered was the simple fact of variability—flexibility.

In his remarks about the study, Pennebaker makes this comment: “Pronoun choice is based on perspective.” He also admits that the finding is enigmatic. It raises more questions than it answers. For instance, does pronoun flexibility actually cause improved health, or is it a feature that merely emerges coincident with improved health?

Is pronoun flexibility a skill that can be learned? Could it be like yoga? Flexibility increasing with practice? Or, to put this yet another way: is there any benefit to be gained from intentionally writing from a different point of view? Is shifting one’s point of view a potentially healing habit?

February 01, 2007

Thirteen Ways: An Image for Writing and Healing

In a letter about his poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", which can be found here, Wallace Stevens writes that the poem “is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or ideas, but of sensations.”

The poem is made of up thirteen stanzas—thirteen sensations—each marked by a Roman numeral. Each stanza has the word blackbird in it.

I like the second stanza. Number II:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

I also like the ninth. Number IX:

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

I like the way that each way of looking at a blackbird is distinct and complete unto itself.

I like the sense in the poem of worlds beyond the landscape of the poem itself—a blackbird marking the edge of one of many circles.

In his book, Writing With Power, Peter Elbow, who is also the author of Writing Without Teachers, suggests a writing exercise in which one follows Wallace Stevens’ example and writes a poem “that looks at or talks about the same thing over and over again.”

Elbow writes [p. 112] of how he did this himself with a cherry tree—looked at it in different ways and made this discovery:

I see now that it is about missing the house on Percival Street where we used to live. . . If I had tried to write a poem about missing that house, it probably would have been terrible. Being stuck with having to write tiny stanzas about that cherry tree did it for me.

The cherry tree gave him a way in to writing what he wanted to write—perhaps to what he was longing to write.

The thirteen ways gave him a way in.
Gave him more than one way in.

I tried this exercise once with a writing workshop I was teaching to women with cancer. I told the women they could choose to write thirteen ways about anything at all and they chose to write about cancer. They wrote as a group, taking turns, the stanzas coming fast, one after the other. They actually ended up writing sixteen ways of looking at cancer. Then one of the women who had been absent came the next week and she added two more ways and they ended up with a poem, “Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.”

What I noticed in that workshop when the women were writing those different ways was that knowing they were writing a lot of different ways had a freeing effect. They weren’t writing the only word on cancer—the last word on cancer. They were just writing one way of looking at cancer, and then another, and then another.

You could try it if you wanted. You could become one of the ones looking. You could write seven ways or sixteen ways or eighteen ways of looking at . . . what?

February 11, 2007

What If?

In his most recent book, Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene, a physicist with a particular gift for translating physics into plain language, tells about a game he used to play with his father, walking through the streets of Manhattan.  It’s a game that may have uniquely prepared him to be a physicist, a game that involves shifting perspective.  It’s also, I think, a potentially wonderful game for a writer—or for someone who is interested in looking at something—anything—in a new way.  It’s like playing “I Spy”, but with a twist.  In this game Brian Greene or his father would spy an object on the street, describe it from an unusual perspective, and then the other one had to figure out what was being described.  For example, this from Greene’s book:  “‘I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky.’”

The answer?
An ant walking on a hot dog while a street vendor is dressing it with sauerkraut. 

You can probably think of other examples.

Here’s one: I am repeatedly diving into a hard invisible barrier while an enormous four-legged white creature chases after me and makes high-pitched sounds.
(That’s a fly at the window while our dog—a whippet—tries to catch it.)

Greene says this game did two things for him.  It not only stretched his brain to consider different viewpoints.  But it also led him to consider each of these viewpoints as potentially valid.

Here’s another example: an ant resting on an ice-skater’s boot.  To a spectator in the stands, it appears as if the ice skater, along with her boot, is spinning.  But what about to the ant?  And which point of view is more valid in regards to absolute space?   

This is the kind of question that can give me a bit of a headache.  It’s also the kind of question—having to do with motion and relative motion and absolute space—that physicists wrestled with in the early part of the twentieth century.  And the key to beginning to resolve this kind of question, according to Greene, had everything to do with being able to ask a new question: what if?  What if the way we’re looking at things now is not the only way to look?  What if we look at things from a different perspective?  And what if this new perspective is potentially valid?

I’d never thought about it in quite this way before, but this, Greene says, is what Einstein did.  Einstein asked, What if?  And he came up, among other things, with the special theory of relativity, which says, according to Greene, that space and time are “in the eyes of the beholder.” Einstein didn’t so much answer the pressing physical questions of his time, Greene says.  He reframed them.  And Greene describes reframing like this.  p. 39:

Some discoveries provide answers to questions.  Other discoveries are so deep that they cast questions in a whole new light, showing that previous mysteries were misperceived through lack of knowledge.  You could spend a lifetime—in antiquity, some did—wondering what happens when you reach earth’s edge, or trying to figure out who or what lives on the earth’s underbelly.  But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.

But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.
I have this inkling that sometimes, for some people, healing is like that.

February 15, 2007

Emily’s Story: Reframing Anorexia

The thread this week (which, again, may or may not be apparent) is how looking at something in a different way can shift things. And perhaps one of the clearest instances I’ve seen of this shift happened with Emily, a young woman with anorexia who I’ve written about here before. She had severe anorexia, weighed only fifty-two pounds when I began seeing her. And she had, when I first began to see her, a definite point of view toward her body. She viewed her body as the problem—disgusting actually—a stance that only became accentuated after a meal. Her stomach would protrude a bit after a meal—and she would see and feel this protrusion as disgusting.

The body was seen as the problem. The body, in her point of view, was disgusting.
And the antidote?

It began with horses. Or some part of the antidote began with horses. Horses helped her reframe the story of her own body.

It started like this. Emily began to imagine a safe place where she could experience healing. She imagined herself at a barn among horses. Then, with time—and this was a surprise to me—something I didn’t foresee—she began to realize that it was easier to have a stomach when she imagined herself being around the horses. She felt freer among the horses. She felt free to eat a meal and have a small pouch of a stomach afterward. She didn’t feel so disgusted by her own stomach—so disgusted by her own body. And all of this had something to do with the fact that she felt the horses weren’t judging her. It had something to do with taking a respite, for a while, from human eyes.

It wasn’t that all human eyes that looked at her body looked upon it with judgment—but some did—and some had in the past. She’d had some shaming experiences as a child and into her teen years. And, perhaps because of this history, it seemed, at least for the time being, all human eyes were suspect. All human eyes put her at risk.

But the horses’ eyes. She felt safer with them.

This went on for a while, imagining herself at the barn among the horses. And as she practiced imagining herself the way the horses saw her she began to imagine that her pouch of a stomach could be a kind of pregnancy. The pouch she’d once perceived as ugly and shameful began to transform when she began to see it from a new point of view. She didn’t think she was literally pregnant. It wasn’t delusional like that. It was subtler, and more in the imaginal realm. She told me that she could sometimes hold onto the thought that the pouch of her stomach was a pregnancy, and inside it she was carrying some new kind of life, and, sometimes, she told me, this made her feel something like hope.

A pregnancy. New life.

She was beginning to imagine her body as nurturing—as potentially good. And it was one of those moments—I can remember thinking this—it was a moment that had the potential to change things. If the body is potentially good, then maybe, just maybe, it would be okay to nourish that body, to feed it, to offer it sustenance.

The moment, if truth be told, was just a glimpse really. The glimpse came and it went. But it also held this potentially life-altering point of view: the body as good.

And it began, like Einstein began, with the question of what if. What if things are not the way that they seem to be, or not only the way that they seem to be? What if the way one has tended to look at the world—and one’s body—is not the only way to see it? What happens if the frame of reference gets shifted?

And what might happen if one were able to do this in writing?

February 18, 2007

A Bit of Writing Advice from John Steinbeck: What He Did to Keep from Going Nuts

Just over forty years ago—on February 13 and 14 of 1962—John Steinbeck wrote some advice about writing to Robert Wallsten (a man who, it turns out, is one of the editors of Steinbeck’s letters).

Steinbeck prefaced his advice on writing this way:

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

One piece of his advice seems especially relevant here to this notion of perspective—the possibility of reframing our stories (and perhaps our bodies? our lives?) in a clearer and somewhat kinder light.

That possibility of looking at our stories in new ways—

Steinbeck writes:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.

It’s sound advice, I think. It also leads quite naturally to a couple of questions:
What does the nameless, faceless audience look like?
What does your nameless, faceless audience look like?
And say that you could address your writing to one particular person—any person in the world—alive or dead—real or imagined—who would you pick?

[Note: I found the above quotes by Steinbeck in Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others, p. 144.]

February 20, 2007

How Do We Recognize a Safe Audience for Writing?

Peter Elbow, in his book, Writing With Power, makes a distinction between safe audiences and dangerous audiences. He proposes that we write more authentically when we’re writing for audiences that feel safe.
He writes [p. 186]:

First, a dangerous audience can inhibit not only the quantity of your words but also their quality. That is, if you are trying to talk to a dangerous audience, instead of finding yourself mixed up or tongue-tied or unable to think of anything to say [which, of course, can happen], you may find yourself chattering away nervously, unable to stop but also unable to say anything important. If, for example, I have to speak to a person or group that I find difficult, I might adopt a voice that hides my real voice and speak with, say, a tinny jolliness or an inauthentic pompousness. If, by contrast, I am with someone I trust, I may say less than usual but talk from my depths—

I may say less than usual but talk from my depths.
Maybe that’s how we begin to suspect we’re in the presence of a safe audience—when we find ourselves speaking from some depth. Maybe we only recognize a safe audience after the fact—when we realize what kind of writing or speech has become possible in its presence.

Elbow also makes a distinction between an actual audience—a person or group we know will actually be reading what we write—and the imagined audience—that audience that we carry around inside our heads, the one we tend to assemble from all our past experiences of speaking and writing.

Say it happens one morning—or perhaps it’s evening—say that we find ourselves writing something true—something that feels authentic. Say we write something that we didn’t even know that we knew, but then, after we write it, the words feel like they have this ring of truth. What has allowed those particular words to emerge? What does the audience for those words have to do with it? How much of it has to do with the outer audience? How much of it has to do with the inner audience?

More questions here than answers-----

Does the inner assembled audience change with time?
And what kinds of things cause it to change?
And does this inner assembled audience have anything to do with healing?