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7 posts categorized "Forms for Writing and Healing"

December 03, 2006

A Collage or Mosaic: A Form for Writing and Healing

In A Community of Writers, this a textbook for writing students, Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff offer a definition of a written collage:

A ‘collage’, in the original sense, as used by artists, is a picture produced not by painting or drawing but by pasting actual objects on the canvas—objects such as theater tickets, bits of colored paper or cardboard or metal. A written collage consists of separate, disconnected bits of writing rather than one continuous piece. Usually there are spaces or asterisks at the ‘joints’ between the pieces of writing.

I like the word mosaic for this form. The image comes closer to what I see when I look at a written collage. In a collage the fragments often overlap—a ticket, for instance, overlaps a piece of colored paper. But in a written collage, like a mosaic, there’s no actual overlap. There’s white space—the mortar. The white space both separates the pieces, and holds them together.

December 04, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #17: Steps for Making a Written Collage or Mosaic

[steps adapted from instructions in the text, A Community of Writers, by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff]

1. Write on only one side of the paper.

2. Choose a point from which to start. Like a word. December. Snow. Wind. Or an image. Broken plate. Fractured bone. Mirror. The more a word or image resonates for you—calls to you—and the more it calls up emotion inside you—the more fruitful and deeper the writing is likely to be. But you don't have to start with the deepest or most fruitful word. You can start with any word or image that feels promising.

3. Write first thoughts about this word or image—whatever comes into your mind. Write for five minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes at a time.

4. Find lines of poetry or song lyrics that speak to this word. Or newspaper headlines.

5. Write moments and stories and portraits. Notice if a particular moment comes into your mind. Or a person or a landscape. Describe these as if you were describing them to a person who does not know you at all. Describe a moment or a scene as if you were trying to recreate it for a movie.

6. Write dialogue. Between two characters. Between two images. Between you and a friend. Between you and an adversary. Between you and a broken plate. The possibilities are endless.

7. Try exaggeration. Write in superlatives. The plate doesn’t just break—it shatters. It was the most important plate. It was a singular plate. It can never ever be repaired. And there will never ever be another like it.

8. Collect all the fragments that you’ve written. If you’ve written on a computer, print the pieces and gather them together. Print or cut them so that each piece is separate and not connected to another.

9. Choose the pieces you like best. You can also choose a part of a piece. You can choose three sentences that you like—or three words.

10. Take several days in which you don’t look at the pieces at all.

11. Then come back to the pieces. Lay them out on a table or on the floor. Move among them and try to sense a kind of order. Try different things.

12. Consider a title.

13. If you like, write one or two more short pieces. Linking pieces. One way to do this is to ask the question, “So what?” or “What does this all mean?” and then write to try and answer the question. A title can also help guide these linking pieces.

14. Put the final pieces together in the order you choose, and with spaces between and around them.

15. Save your work.

December 15, 2006

Notes in Bathrobe Pockets

Foggy this morning. I’m thinking (again) about those pieces and images that can pierce through fog. For a writer. Or for a reader. The kinds of things that Janet Desaulniers is talking about, I think, when she talks about collecting. In his book, A New Path to the Waterfall, a book about, among other things, navigating loss, and navigating the approach of death, Raymond Carver includes an apparently simple poem: “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”. The poem is made up of of thirteen fragments. Here are three:

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up

the house after being away for three months.

“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able

to maneuver.” Spock to Captain Kirk.

The rabbi I met on the plane that time who gave me comfort

just after my marriage had broken up for good.

March 04, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller (Part One)--The Restitution Narrative

There are certain books that I can remember where I was when I first began to read them. Perhaps something like this has happened for you. I found this book in the Wake Forest Library, and I took the book and began reading it on a low stone wall near a creek not far from the library. This was several years ago now. As I read I had a feeling as if thoughts and stories inside my head were literally rearranging and falling into new patterns. It was as if the author, Arthur Frank, had taken the thousands of stories of illness and loss I’d heard in my life—many of these told to me by patients—and he’d placed them into a kind of new and pleasing order, one that made an inordinate sense.

Arthur Frank is a medical sociologist and a survivor of testicular cancer. He opens The Wounded Storyteller by quoting a woman, Judith Zaruches, with chronic fatigue syndrome. He quotes from a letter that she wrote to him:

The destination and map I had used before were no longer useful.

The Wounded Storyteller speaks to the stories people tell (and write) when the old story—the one used prior to illness or loss—no longer suffices. The book is a dense book—it contains many things. The part I have found most useful—most illuminating—is in the middle chapters of the book, where Arthur Frank names three kinds of stories that people tend to make in the wake of illness and suffering. He acknowledges, at the outset, the fluid nature of these stories. People move back and forth among the three kinds of stories—the stories intersect and overlap. Still, he points to the value of naming the kind of story one is tending to tell. (It’s a bit like beginning to know where one is on the map—or perhaps knowing which map one is using.)

The first story is one he calls the restitution narrative. At its simplest it goes like this: I was sick and then I recovered and now I am my old self again. Or, perhaps: I am sick now but I will recover and then I know I will be my old self. This is the narrative that arises most naturally in the wake of an acute illness—after the flu, or ordinary pneumonia, or a broken bone. It can occur in the wake of certain kinds of cancer, when, for instance, the surgeon comes back with the report that he or she got it all, that the margins are clear. It can also occur in the wake of a replaceable loss. A tree falls on a house and the roof is crushed—but then the roof gets fixed.

I tend to picture this first narrative like a simple algebraic equation. If I was X before my illness, then I know the story has come to an end—and a good end—when I am recovered to X again. I am back at work. I’m running again, or swimming, or driving, or dancing, or whatever it is that makes me feel like I am my old and familiar self.

X = X.

This is a very useful narrative, I think. It’s a very comforting narrative. It works for many things, including many illnesses. In fact, I don't know that I know anyone who gives up this narrative unless they absolutely have to.

The second kind of narrative--the chaos narrative--can be found here.

And the third kind of narrative--the quest narrative--can be found here.

March 06, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part 2 of 3)--The Chaos Narrative

The first kind of narrative Arthur Frank writes about in The Wounded Storyteller is the restitution narrative. That’s the one where a person goes through some kind of illness or trouble and then becomes restored to one’s old self. (X = X.) The second kind of narrative possible in the wake of illness or loss is much less tidy. I can’t think of a simple equation that could represent it. The second narrative is the chaos narrative. It’s the kind of narrative that results, often, when the restitution narrative breaks down.

Frank writes:

Chaos is the opposite of restitution: its plot imagines life never getting better.

An example Frank uses here is that of a woman with chronic illness trying to take care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s. She’s trying to tell something of what it’s like—a glimpse of the chaos in the kitchen—as she’s trying to make dinner:

And if I’m trying to get dinner ready and I’m already feeling bad, she’s in front of the refrigerator. Then she goes to put her hand on the stove and I got the fire on. And then she’s in front of the microwave and then she’s in front of the silverware drawer. And—and if I send her out she gets mad at me. And then it’s awful. That’s when I have a really, really bad time.

Chaos stories can feel really, really bad.

They’re hard to experience.
They’re hard to tell.
They can also be hard to hear.

But, Frank argues, it’s necessary that they be heard. He writes:

The need to honor chaos stories is both moral and clinical. Until the chaos narrative can be honored, the world in all its possibilities is being denied. To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for. People whose reality is denied can remain recipients of treatments and services, but they cannot be participants in empathic relations of care.

To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for.

He’s saying a lot here, and I’m quite sure not everyone would agree with him, but I think he’s onto something. He continues:

Those living chaotic stories certainly need help, but the immediate impulse of most would-be helpers is first to drag the teller out of this story, that dragging called some version of ‘therapy’. Getting out of chaos is to be desired, but people can only be helped out when those who care are first willing to become witnesses to the story. Chaos is never transcended but must be accepted before new lives can be built and new stories told. Those who care for lives emerging from chaos have to accept that chaos always remains the story’s background and will continually fade into the foreground.

He’s walking, I think, a delicate balance here. Getting out of chaos is desirable. But you can’t get out without first honoring it somehow.

So how is a person to honor chaos?
And how do you eventually find your way out?
Can writing help?

I’ve found it can sometimes help during chaos just to begin to name it as chaos.
Oh, this is chaos.
A person could write just that line, I suppose. Oh, so this is chaos.
Oh, I see.
X is no longer going to be X.

[to be continued. . .]

March 08, 2007

Mary Swander’s Fifth Chair: Honoring the Chaos Narrative

Before I go ahead and finish writing about Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, and make my way to his third kind of narrative, the quest narrative, I thought I’d put in a passage from an essay by Mary Swander, an essay that manages to convey well, I think, something of the chaos narrative—and how hard it can be sometimes to get someone to listen to, and help hold, the chaos narrative.

In an essay, called “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle, that she co-edited, Mary Swander writes about her experience with myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted for her in an extremely painful, chronic, relapsing, and at times immobilizing illness. At one point she finds herself requiring a wheelchair, dreading sunset because her joints had this tendency to lock up during the night, immobilizing her in her bed. And she writes about how listeners—these nearly always able-bodied listeners—had a tendency, to interrupt her story of illness, her at times perhaps chaotic story of illness, and insert their own meaning.

She writes:

A huge chasm opened between me and the rest of the world. I looked toward others for support and a cacophony of well-meaning voices rose up to fill the empty spaces. You’re making a joke of everything, taking this too lightly, some said. You’re making too much of a deal of this, others said. You’re not asking for enough help. You’re asking too much. . . I know what it’s like, I had gout for five days. You look good. You look like my grandma. I know what it’s like, I had the flu for five days. You must’ve done something really horrible in your past life to bring this on yourself now. You’re such a good person, why’s this happening to you? Are you depressed? I’m glad you can be so cheerful. Why don’t you move to town? Why don’t you go to New York and see your specialist? Why don’t you move to New Mexico?

I love that paragraph. It sounds so—right. I think she gets it right—that’s what people do. Or that’s what they sometimes do. And Swander’s grace here, I think, is in seeing these voices as essentially well-meaning. There’s also a nice sense of comedy—juxtaposing these voices—conveying the cacophony they make.

But what then?

Swander writes in her essay how she turned away from these voices—took a respite.

I stopped answering E-mail and the phone. I stopped playing the radio and the stereo. I let the silence fill my room. I read Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, Hildegard of Bingen. I read Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, and the Rule of St. Benedict. I read Walt Whitman, the Book of Job, Lao-Tzu, and Mary Baker Eddy.

Whereas before, that cacophony of voices was filling up the empty space, she writes of how—instead—something new—-----I let the silence fill my room.

And that list of writers she chose to read. I’m not familiar with all of them, but of the ones I am familiar with, they’re writers who seem to know something about silence—and about empty space.

Maybe that’s something that the chaos narrative needs—sometimes.

Empty space.

Having written that, it occurs to me to ask a next question: what books would you choose to carry along if you knew that you were going to be entering chaos?

My choices—something by Pema Chodron, I think, and Sogyal Rinpoches’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. And maybe one of Michael Connelly’s books.

March 15, 2007

Toni Morrison on Beowulf and Grendel: Two Very Different Kinds of Quest Stories

Evening before last, Tuesday evening, I got a chance to see, in Greensboro, a lecture by Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Song of Solomon, among other novels. I’d never seen her speak before. She has a wonderful—and inspiring—presence. She’s a natural storyteller—dramatic, funny, pausing in all the right places. She held the audience in her hands. And the stories she happened to tell were, interestingly enough, quest stories.

She began with a brief introduction—her belief in the importance and power of story. She then proceeded to retell the ancient story of Beowulf—an epic narrative about a monster, Grendel, who ravages a Scandinavian kingdom. She told, first, the original story in which Grendel is depicted as the epitome of pure senseless evil, devouring the citizens of this kingdom for no reason other than because he can. And then a hero arises—Beowulf. This hero’s quest involves protecting the kingdom, defeating the monster. He manages, in battle, to cut off the arm of Grendel. But then the story—and the quest—becomes more complicated. Grendel, the monster, returns home to his mother and she turns out to be a yet fiercer monster—and vengeful. She launches her own attack on the kingdom, slaying large numbers of citizens and placing their bodies in her pouch. (Here Ms. Morrison added one of her nice touches, offering a memorable visual image: How wonderful, she said, how perfect, that the mother was carrying a pocketbook.)

Beowulf’s quest continues. He follows the mother monster to her lair, engages her in battle, and manages to take her sword and, with this sword, cut off her head. And the blood from her body proceeds to melt the sword.

The original Beowulf is a bloody quest story—the hero’s quest ends in violence and conquest.

But then, as a counterpart to Beowulf, Ms. Morrison offered another story--a shift in point of view—a different kind of quest story. Drawing from John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, she offered a retelling of the story from the monster’s point of view. There's not enough time or space here to do Gardner’s novel justice—but this is the part that I took away from Ms. Morrison’s lecture. In the retelling of the story, Grendel has an inner life—he is no longer a beast, Morrison told us. And, unlike the original story, he is capable of some degree of transformation. This transformation occurs, at least in part, via a character in the novel, Shaper, who is a poet. And, she suggested, it is through language—the comprehension and use of language (rather than his former bestial sounds)—that Grendel is transformed.

This second story offers a very different kind of quest—a quest that Arthur Frank might call a post-modern quest—a quest that has to do with inner transformation rather than with conquering.

Ms. Morrison suggested two things near the end of her talk that separate humans from other creatures—that separate us, she said, from, for instance, asparagus. First, love—namely the ability to care for creatures that are not our own and from which we may not receive benefit. And, second, language. Ms. Morrison believes language is capable of transformation. She believes, I think, that language is capable of transforming evil. Of transforming individuals. Of transforming kingdoms. Of transforming countries. Of shifting stories from violent ones to stories in which something new happens. And she said this the other evening with such a confident and august presence—it was inspiring----