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September 02, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #5: A Shopping Spree


You are again invited to suspend disbelief.  In this case you are invited to imagine that you have five thousand dollars to spend solely on something—anything—any combination of things—that will contribute to your healing.  Your task is to prepare a list of how you would spend this five thousand dollars if the sum were handed to you tomorrow.  In addition, you can, if you’d like, include a narrative as to why these particular purchases might be important to your healing.  If, after careful consideration, you decide that you need more than five thousand dollars, then go ahead and write about that. 

September 04, 2006

What should people write about to enjoy the health benefits of writing?

The seventh chapter of The Writing Cure, an anthology by researchers in the field of writing and health, is written by Laura King, a research psychologist at the University of Missouri.  Near the end of her chapter she poses this question: “What should people write about to enjoy the health benefits of writing?”  Her conclusion is succinct.  “Writing about topics that allow us to learn about our own needs and desires may be a way to harness the positive benefits of writing.”

It’s the kind of sentence that seems worth writing again, for emphasis: Writing about topics that allow us to learn about our own needs and desires may be a way to harness the positive benefits of writing.

And how then does one begin this process?

September 06, 2006

The Boxcar Children: A Primer on Gathering the Essentials

I liked the book, The Boxcar Children, when I was a child.  I liked the original book in the series, the one that describes how four children survive as orphans by making a home in a boxcar.  The children are so competent, and so resourceful.

After they become orphaned, the four children spend their small savings on milk and bread and yellow cheese.  They pick blueberries in the woods.  They discover an abandoned boxcar and they begin to make a home there, carrying pine needles into the boxcar and heaping them into four piles to make beds.  They discover a creek that spills over into a waterfall. The water is cold.  They find a hole in a rock behind the waterfall and the hole becomes their refrigerator.  They’re so ingenious.  They haul stones to build a fireplace.  They dam the creek to make a swimming pool.  They scavenge a dump and bring back treasure—a white pitcher, a teapot, a kettle, a bowl, three cups, five spoons.

Henry, the eldest boy, manages to get a job caring for someone’s yard.  One of his chores involves thinning the vegetable garden.  He saves the vegetables he’s thinned—baby carrots and turnips and tiny onions.  He then buys meat with the dollar he’s earned and carries all of this back to the boxcar.  The oldest girl, Jesse, takes the meat and miniature vegetables and makes a stew. 

It’s a bit of a fantasy, how neatly things work out for the children, and it becomes even tidier toward the end of the book when their grandfather finds them, and he turns out to be not only kind but rich and he takes the children into his home.  But the fantasy is such a satisfying one.  It offers, I suppose, a kind of catharsis.  The book opens with the four children standing in front of a bakery, looking in through at the window at the bread and rolls.  The children are hungry, frightened.  They’re like Hansel and Gretel, children out in the world without parents.  And then, bit by bit, they manage to secure precisely what they need.  Shelter.  Water.  Food.  Fire.

At one point the three oldest children decide they want to teach the youngest child to read and the older children make a book for him using salvaged paper and a stick blackened in the fire.

Shelter and water.
Food and fire.
Paper and a writing implement.
The essentials?

September 08, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #6: Discovering Needs and Desires

Here’s that succinct sentence again by Laura King, researcher in writing and health:

One could stop right here, right now, and write this question at the top of a clean sheet of paper: WHAT DO I NEED?  Or, WHAT DO I WANT?  Or, WHAT DO I LONG FOR?  And one could write pages for an entire month (or a year) in response to this question.  I suspect this would be life-altering.

Or, then again, one could imagine one is an orphan, out on one’s own, and one discovers a boxcar like those children in the book.  How would you set up your boxcar?  What provisions would you lay in?  What do you absolutely need to survive in your boxcar?  And what else do you need?  And then, if you like, you can consider that which you do you not particularly need but you’d really like to have it in your boxcar—because it would make your boxcar more comfortable—or more beautiful—or just because——

September 11, 2006

Still Life with Chickens: A Recommended Book

I like books that name the concrete things—the resources—it takes to make a life. I also like books about starting over. Thus, The Boxcar Children. And, a more grown-up version of starting over: Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea. The memoir, written by Catherine Goldhammer, and published this past May, describes Goldhammer’s move, newly divorced, with her 12-year-old daughter, from a spacious house in an upscale neighborhood to a small cottage on a pond near the ocean.

She did not, she tells us at the outset, have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. What she had was her cottage in a town on a peninsula wedged between the Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, a town she describes thus—

Once the home of a large amusement park with a famous roller coaster, it had developed haphazardly, with recreation rather than posterity in mind. Big houses sat cheek by jowl with tiny ones, shoehorned together on tiny streets. Some of them were beautiful and some of them were decidedly not. The seaside lawns tried valiantly to be green, but they were small, and some of them had remnants of the amusement park in them: an oversized pink teacup with bench seats, a faded turquoise bumper car.
Goldhammer’s memoir is filled with vivid tangible named things:

That oversized pink teacup

A large salt pond

A new coat of off-white paint

Wood floors


And, of course, chickens

Specific chickens—

Rhode Island Reds

A Silver Laced Wyandotte

A Light Brahma called Big Yellow

And then all the supplies needed to take care of those chickens—

A brooder light

A rope



A refrigerator box

Duct tape

A utility knife

Hardware cloth

A handsaw. . .

Here’s something else I like about Still Life with Chickens—Catherine Goldhammer is as resourceful as those boxcar children. She makes do. She does not, for instance, have that year in Provence. Nor does she have a table saw. At one point in her story, she sets out to make a particular kind of chicken run—a triangular structure called an ark. Before she builds the ark she names what she needs: a table saw, an electric miter saw, and sawhorses. Then she acknowledges that she has none of these things. What she does have: a dull handsaw, a right angle, a pair of green plastic chairs. She makes do. All in the company of six chickens who cause her at times to question her sanity.

But then—the eggs. Page 112.

Eventually we got blue eggs and green eggs, pink eggs and brown eggs. We got whitish eggs, speckled eggs, freckled eggs, and eggs with white patches. We had one enormous egg with two yolks, and a wide variety of other sizes: small and oval, big and round, tall and thin. Sometimes I found eggs that had just been laid, warm and slightly damp. Finding a warm egg felt miraculous. Putting a warm egg into someone’s suspecting hand was like handing them the moon.
Ah, the eggs.

Unlike The Boxcar Children, there’s no rich grandfather who steps in at the end and makes everything easier. That’s one of the things I like about Still Life with Chickens. It’s one of the things that makes it a grown-up book. And ah—those eggs.

September 16, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #7: Has Writing Ever Changed Your Life?

Consider a time when you wrote something—a letter—a journal entry—a word—a blog entry—that changed something—anything—then begin to write about it—write about what you wrote—and then the change that happened after—or during—no matter how large or small the change—no matter how quiet.

Or, alternatively, consider a time when you read something—a poem—a book—a letter—a blog—and the words you read caused something to shift—something—anything—write about the words—the experience of reading those words—write about the change that happened.

Consider these words from a poem, “The Class,” in a collection entitled, The Crack in Everything, by Alicia Ostriker:

Perhaps it is not the poet who is healed

but someone else, years later.

September 20, 2006

Gathering Resources for Writing and Healing: A Supply List

Yesterday I decided to make beef stew.  My grocery list was straightforward—stew beef, a large onion, red potatoes, one sweet potato, carrots, and a can of V-8 juice.  (I make a pretty simple stew.) There's something satisfying about such clear simple lists. 

When Harry Potter is preparing to start his first year at Hogwarts he’s handed, by Hagrid, an exceedingly straightforward list.
Pages 66 and 67.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  By J.K. Rowling.   

Three sets of plain work robes (black)
One plain pointed hat (black) for day wear
One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)
One winter cloak (black, silver fastenings)
7 course books, titles and authors listed, including The Standard Book of Spells (Grade I)
1 wand
1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)
1 set glass or crystal phials
1 telescope
1 set brass scales

And, finally--
An owl OR a cat OR a toad

I love the details—the specificity—in Rowling’s list.  And I wish I knew of such a straightforward list—such a specific list—for the process of healing.  Or for the process of writing and healing.  I don't. The problem: every person is so different. Or, to put it another way, we’re not all going to the same school.

At the same time, there are, it would seem, these common threads.  And these common threads can act as a kind of template—a jumping-off place—for a person who might want to develop—or revise—their own individualized supply list.

Here are a few common threads I’ve observed over the years in writing and healing supply lists:

Something to write with (pen, pencil, crayon, laptop computer, etc. . .)
Nourishing food
A room of one’s own—or a desk of one’s own (or maybe a chair of one’s own)
Green growing things
Healing landscapes
Time to think and daydream and walk
A time and a place to grieve what needs to be grieved
People who get it (whatever it is)
Animals who get it (dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc. . .) (owls? toads?)
A bit of a sense of humor about the whole deal
Good books
Some kind of work or activity that matters (though not necessarily one’s day job)
A connection to some larger sense of meaning

This is not meant by any means to be an exhaustive list.  These are merely some common threads—a kind of template.  And when it comes to individual supply lists—I think each one is probably different.
What might your own individualized list look like?

September 22, 2006

A Healing Resource Center: Food for Thought (and Writing)

I’m imagining, this morning, a place. Perhaps in the mountains of North Carolina, a place like Wildacres Retreat Center. Or on the Pacific Coast, a place like Asilomar.

I’m imagining an old summer camp, but one that’s been refurbished—with modern buildings, and amenities. A fireplace in each of the guest rooms. Decks. Wide porches. A juice bar in the lobby. Perhaps an espresso bar. And then, on the grounds, a short walk from the lodgings—five centers:

• A Nutrition Center
• A Fitness Center
• A Center for Addiction Recovery
• A Center for Creativity
• A Center for Meditation and Rest

Say it’s early afternoon when you arrive at the center. Plenty of time to unpack, take a shower, settle in, rest for a while in your room. When you’re ready you can wander down to the lobby and request a tour.

You have, let’s say, two weeks to spend at the Healing Resource Center. And you’ll be informed upon your arrival that you can spend these two weeks however you like. But first--a tour.

The tour begins at the Nutrition Center—a low sprawling building of stone and glass. You follow the guide into a large room, find a long buffet table arranged with platters. Blueberries and orange sections. Slices of watermelon. Slices of whole-grain bread. An array of cheeses. Also peaches. Plums. Tiny carrots. Bowls of walnuts and almonds and sunflower seeds. Several pitchers of clear water with slices of lemon. It’s late afternoon and, before you go back to tour the kitchens, the guide invites you to take a plate and help yourself to a snack, pour yourself a tall glass of water if you’d like.

As you walk down the length of the table and begin selecting your food, the guide explains: “The goal here at this center is to provide a kind of immersion experience with healthy food. The goal is to engage your senses. Colors. Touch. Smell. Taste. And, eventually, if you wish, you can work with one of the chefs back in the kitchens. . .” As he’s talking you pick up a plum. You bite into the plum. . .

And then what happens? What happens next?
You could, if you wanted, write about it. Like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories where you get to choose the ending. (Okay, maybe it's not a big adventure. But it could be a little adventure--or it could turn into an adventure---)

September 26, 2006


In Frederick, the children’s book by Leo Lionni, a chatty family of field mice live in an old stone wall. Winter approaches. All the mice set to work, gathering corn and nuts and wheat, except for Frederick, who sits apart from the others, doing nothing, or at least he appears to be doing nothing. He’s the daydreaming mouse. The lazy mouse? The other mice scold him. Why isn’t he working? He tells them he is working. He tells them he’s gathering sun rays for the winter days. Yeah, right. How does one gather sun rays? They ask him again. Why aren’t you working? He tells them he’s gathering colors. Right. Sure. Finally, Frederick tells them he’s gathering words.

Winter comes. The mice hole up in the stone wall. At first all goes as well as can be expected in winter. The mice are well-fed and content. But the time comes when they have used up all their provisions. It’s cold. They’re feeling a bit less chatty. Finally they turn to Frederick. They ask him about his supplies.

He tells them to close their eyes. When their eyes are closed he begins:

‘Now I send you the rays of the sun.
Do you feel how their golden glow. . .’
And as Frederick spoke of the sun
the four little mice
began to feel warmer.
Was it Frederick’s voice?
Was it magic?

Next he conjures colors. Blue periwinkles. Red poppies. Yellow wheat.

And what happens? “. . . they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.” And they were nourished by them.

Sometimes we forget what nourishes us. The winter comes and we forget. Words are a way to remember. We can write them on index cards, or on the palms of our hands. We can write them on the back page of a notebook, or the front page. We can write them in fall on those days when the harvest feels especially plentiful. We can store them like Frederick, and pull them out on flat winter days when we are most in need.

September 29, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #8: Buy a Box

What do you hold your writing in?
A drawer?
A folder on your computer?
A series of folders?
A box with a lid?

Virginia Woolf was right. Writing does thrive in a room of one’s own. But what about when one doesn’t have a whole room for writing? What about a table of one’s own? A file cabinet of one’s own? A portfolio? A box?

If you don’t yet love the container in which you’re holding your writing—consider buying a good box. (Even if you don’t yet have a lot of writing. Even if it’s just a few loose-leaf pages. Or a couple pages printed from your computer. Or a single page. Or a single word) If you’ve started, or restarted, a new writing project—or a new writing habit—consider buying a good box in which to hold it.

A new box or portfolio can serve as a kind of sign—or signal—that a project is a serious one—and deserving of its own container.

October 01, 2006

Month Three: Finding a Healing Language


Writing and Healing Idea #9: The Mystery of Language

A Apple Pie and Finding What You Didn't Lose

So What Is Healing?

So What Is Healing? (Part 2): Images and Metaphors for Healing

Looking at the Language of Sickness

Questions and Answers

Writing and Healing Idea #10: Conjuring New Images and Metaphors

A Featured Piece: On Velcro and Healing the Writing Process Itself

Healing Circle: A Recommended Book

Writing and Healing Idea #11: A Scavenger Hunt

Is There a Conflict Between Writing to Heal and Producing Good Writing?

Count Crackula: An Example of a Breakthrough in Writing and Healing

Poemcrazy: A Recommended Book

Writing and Healing and Sweets 

October 04, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #9: The Mystery of Language

In Helen Keller’s memoir, The Story of My Life, she describes a now famous moment that occurred between her and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when she was seven:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.

Helen Keller made a connection: between the cool stream gushing over one hand and the shapes of the letters traced upon the other:


Do you remember the first connections you made between letters and words and things?

Do you remember, for instance, your first phonics book?  The pictures in that phonics book?  Or any of your early readers?

What about the way the ABC’s looked in your first-grade classroom?  What about the shapes of those letters?  Or the way it felt to hold a pencil and write those letters?  What about that paper with the dotted lines?

Do you remember what you felt when you first discovered letters?  Or what you felt when you first discovered that words and letters were connected to actual things?

Choose one particular moment of remembering.  Perhaps a moment in a classroom.  Or perhaps you were riding in a car and you were able to read a sign for the first time.  Or maybe you remember one particular book from childhood.  Pick one moment or thing.  And then conjure the details of it.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you feel?  Write the words that conjure the details.  Make the words into sentences if you want.

October 06, 2006

A Apple Pie and Finding What You Didn’t Lose

This week I was thinking about a book that was magical for me in childhood—a book that connected letters and things—a book called A Apple Pie by Kate Greenaway.  Perhaps you’ve read it or seen it.  Well, I typed "greenway apple pie" into google and google knew that I really meant greenaway (with an a) and it led to me this magical site, “The Celebration of Women Writers” which publishes online editions of out-of-copyright books by women authors.  I found there reproductions of all the pages of A Apple Pie, a book first published in 1886 and which I first received as a gift when I was four or five (a bit later than 1886).  After I discovered--actually rediscovered--those pages online, I made my way down to my basement and managed to locate the actual book—a bit worn and water-damaged and with my name and childhood phone number written on the inside page.  Those pages evoke something for me.  They evoke a particular time.  They evoke for me something of that mystery of language that Helen Keller experienced and wrote so well about.

What does this have to do with writing and healing?

I’m thinking now of a book by John Fox called Finding What You Didn’t Lose.  John Fox is a poet, a teacher, and a poetry therapist who last year formed the Institute of Poetic Medicine.  The premise of Fox's book, Finding What You Didn’t Lose, is that creativity can be reclaimed by reconnecting to early or significant experiences that may seem lost—but they’re not lost.  Finding what you thought you lost but you never really lost it; you only perhaps misplaced it, or forgot it. 

On p. 7 of Fox’s book he quotes Albert Camus:

A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Perhaps it would be helpful here to restate this quote in a more inclusive way.  (I suspect Camus would have done this himself if he’d written in a different time.): 

A person’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence the heart first opened.

Sometimes we don’t know when our heart first opened.  We don’t remember or we think we don’t remember.  Writing is a way to get back there.  Writing can reclaim an early experience by conjuring its details.  The slant of light in a particular room.  The billowing of curtains.  The sounds out in the street.

I think all of this has something to do with healing, but then I have to admit that I tend to think of healing in very broad terms.  I tend to think it’s all connected—the healing of creativity—the healing of the mind—the emotions—the healing of the soul—the spirit—the body—all of it—I think it’s all connected—though not necessarily in simple or uni-dimensional ways.  (I don’t happen to think, for instance, that people who are experiencing illness in their minds or bodies are necessarily any less healed—or whole—in their souls and spirits than people who are at the moment without illness.) 

What do you think?  Is any of this connected?
Is Camus on the right track?
Do those early experiences of the heart opening matter?
Does reclaiming those experiences matter?
And does this have anything to do with healing?

October 08, 2006

So What is Healing?

This is one of those questions that seems so basic we could almost forget to ask it.  But I think it’s important to ask it--and to keep asking it.

As a way to begin, here is a graphic from a site called Visual Thesaurus. If you visit the site you’ll discover that it also allows you to try out a couple words for free without purchasing any subscription.  You simply type in a word and it gives you a kind of thesaurus map.  I like the site because it’s a way of giving a word a shape—two dimensions.  If you like, you can use this pictorial definition of healing as a kind of template for creating your own definition—beginning to map out your own synonyms and connections.


October 10, 2006

So What is Healing? (Part 2): Images and Metaphors for Healing

The World Book Dictionary defines heal this way: “to make whole, sound or well; bring back to health; cure”.

At WordNet, an online database developed at Princeton University, healing is defined as “the natural process by which the body repairs itself”.

And here is how three women—all in various stages of recovery from cancer—and all participating in an ongoing writing and healing group—pictured healing on one morning in North Carolina a couple of years ago.  The following excerpt is from my notes:

“Healing is movement,” E. said.
“What do you see when you hear the word movement?” I asked her.  “What do you see inside your head?”
“I’m mulching,” she said.  “I’m working in my garden, raking.  I’m thinking about this tee shirt I have that says, ‘I’m not getting older, I just need repotting.'"

“Healing is the apex,” S. said.  “Healing is eureka.”
“What do you see with eureka?” I asked.
“I see myself throwing my hands up in the air,” she said.  “After I’d gotten good news on the telephone.  The doctor called.  I was so afraid it was going to be bad news, but then it was good news.”

Healing is mulching, raking, repotting. 
Healing is the apex, eureka.
Healing is not just one thing.

“Healing,” N. said, “is a taskmaster.”

There was this pause, I remember, after N. spoke.  I could feel a slight shift in the room.  N. had stage four breast cancer.  The tumor had spread to her liver and bones.  In the past couple months she’d become so much frailer than when I first knew her.  But, still, the fierce intelligence was there.

“Would you mind terribly,” I asked, “If I were to ask you what you see in your head when you hear the word taskmaster?”
N. answered immediately.  “Ichabod Crane.”

Ichabod Crane is that stooped and bony schoolmaster in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  He teaches in a one-room schoolhouse.  When students don’t study properly he strikes them with a birch rod, the rod landing with a sharp thwack on their shoulders.

Is this what healing is like sometimes?
Is this what healing is like sometimes for some people?
Is this what healing can be like sometimes for all of us?

Healing is therapeutic, sanative, alterative.  It’s making whole.  It’s making well.  It’s the natural process by which the body repairs itself.  Healing is repair, therapy, movement, mulching, raking, repotting.  Healing is the apex.  Healing is eureka.  Healing is a taskmaster.  Healing is not just one thing.

What do you see inside your head when you hear—or say—the word healing?
What are the words and images that get at the truth of it?


October 12, 2006

Looking at the Language of Sickness

When I went back to Visual Thesaurus and entered the word illness I didn’t get much in the way of synonyms. But then I put in the word sick—and here’s what I got:


Unlike the graphic of healing which I found appealing—and filled with a sense of possibility—this graphic took me aback. Especially that cluster of words around the word disgusted. And then that cluster of words around the word demented. This graphic got me thinking, not for the first time—but in a new way—about all the meanings and connotations that have gotten attached, at least in some instances, to sickness and illness. Maybe some of these words fit for some people. Maybe some of them don't.

I suspect a person could write an entire book about this cluster of words that radiates from this single word: sick. Maybe one of you will—or maybe one of you will write a poem about it or a paragraph or a something. Or maybe you will revise this graphic--or construct an entirely new graphic that contains entirely new words and new connections.

October 15, 2006

Some Questions and Answers about One Year of Writing and Healing

Yesterday I attended a holistic health fair. What happened at the health fair, among other things, is that I participated in a number of conversations about health and healing and such. In the wake of these conversations—including some conversations about this site—One Year of Writing and Healing—I thought it might be useful to take a step back and both name and answer a few questions about this site:

• QUESTION: Does a person need to have an illness to participate in One Year of Writing and Healing?


• QUESTION: What do you mean by healing?

• ANSWER: Good question. Here’s a working definition of healing, one I’ve patched together from a range of sources and one that’s still a work in progress: Healing is a process whereby the body and/or mind and/or spirit seeks wholeness and restoration and balance in the wake of illness or stress or loss.

• ANSWER: Here’s another working definition: There are many things that can happen to throw the body out of balance. Illness. Stress. Loss. Pain. Childbirth. Injury. Healing is that process by which the body is continually trying to get back into balance.

• QUESTION: Does the body have to be thrown out of balance in order to experience healing?

• ANSWER: Probably not. But this seems to be the way it often comes about.

• QUESTION: What does writing have to do with healing?

• ANSWER: There are a number of things a person can do to support and encourage the process whereby the body begins to return to balance. Good food is one of those things. Deep rest can be one of those things. Exercise. A walk in the woods. Working in a garden. Acupuncture. Herbs. Medication. Writing is no more and no less than one of those things that can support and encourage the process whereby the body returns to balance.

• QUESTION: Who benefits from writing and healing?

• ANSWER: In my own experience, writing with the intent of healing can be of particular benefit for someone who is already attracted to writing—someone who has had good experiences with writing in the past. But it can also be of benefit, I’ve learned, for people who think that they hate to write. Often people hate to write because at some point in the past they’ve written something and they’ve gotten negative or painful feedback. If a person can find or create a new situation in which writing does not result in painful experiences, then sometimes those old and painful experiences can be healed. A kind of do-over. One of the goals of this site is to offer such experiences—where the process of writing itself can be healed. And then perhaps this new writing process can augment healing.

October 16, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #10: Conjuring New Images and Metaphors for Healing

Try this:
Look at the word: HEALING
Write the word: HEALING
Write the word in large letters on a blank sheet of paper: HEALING
Say the word aloud: HEALING

Then close your eyes and say the word again—HEALING—and notice what comes into your mind. Say the word over slowly until some thing or place or person or creature comes into your mind. What you’re looking for here is a concrete something—a something or someone you can see in your mind. Write down this first thing that comes to your mind, even if it seems silly at first, or surprising, or irrelevant. Then write to describe the image in as much detail as possible. What colors do you see? What textures do you notice? What are its details? If you find it helpful, you can pause in your writing, close your eyes again, and try once more to see or feel this something in order to write about it. Summon as much detail as you can. If more than one something or someone comes, feel free to write about these too, but try, first, to write in detail about the first image that comes.

Many people see places when they try this. A canyon for instance. A place next to a river. An island. A ship. Some people see creatures. Horses. Their cat. A particular dog. Some see an activity. Gardening. Skiing. Some see a particular person--or they might see themselves with this particular person. A grandmother. A teacher. A character from a book. Some people see a color.

What do you see? Try it. And no matter what you see when you conjure the word HEALING—you simply cannot do it wrong. By the way, if you see nothing at all this can be a beginning. A nothing can be a something. A blank slate can be the beginning of a something. A blank slate can be waiting for something to be written upon it.

October 18, 2006

A Featured Piece: On Velcro and Healing the Writing Process Itself

[S.A. sent me the following in response to a post of mine earlier this week in which I mentioned the notion that perhaps even someone who had come to dislike writing—someone with a negative experience of writing in the past—could benefit from writing and healing. That perhaps the writing process itself could be healed. I asked S.A. for permission to publish her piece, and she, graciously, granted it. Thus------]

By S.A.

Oh, my. The process of writing itself can be healed! I had a high school English teacher who basically did not like anything I wrote on paper. Mrs. R---. Negative. However, as it happens in a rural community, I had a sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Knapp, who also repeated as my high school English teacher my sophomore year. In sixth grade, she encouraged me to read Oliver Twist and she always made positive comments and seemed to enjoy my written topics, even when grammatically flawed.

Mrs. Knapp was a stellar teacher. She read Russell Baker's New York Times column every day during my tenth-grade year. I just loved her and her sense of humor. And she was quick! I disrupted sixth grade one time with my new Velcro zipper. I had sisters who left the farm for NYC and they brought home all the latest ideas. Velcro was one of the innovations they brought to my mother, who sewed most of my clothes. During the class, I waited until Mrs. Knapp started speaking and then slowly peeled the Velcro apart. After about three or four of these episodes, she nailed me. Her words were perfect, kind and humorous, "So we have Mae West in our midst?" Somehow, I knew who Mae West was and it was enough of an embarrassment to stop my behavior. She did not punish.

Today, one of Mae West's quotes is a favorite of mine: "It is better to be looked over, than over looked!" And I think of Mrs. Knapp.

It was not until Andrew, my husband, died and I was in grief therapy that I realized how much I had let Mrs. R--- influence me so negatively. My counselor, Betty, encouraged me to write and I told her I was not capable. I had written a short poem that Betty liked and she asked if she could share it with another grief client. It was called, "Who Am I?" I was surprised and, frankly, thought she was patronizing me.

I did write more after that and I wrote mostly humorous stories via email to friends. Several were sent to a dear friend of ours who died of colon cancer. People, including one sister (a whole story in itself), complimented my writing, saying that it lightened their day. Healing. I had nurtured another. Writing made me get outside of myself and my misery. Healing. I was writing for me...for friends.... and not Mrs. R---.

October 22, 2006

Healing Circle: A Recommended Book

I’ve read Healing Circle more than once since I first got it several years ago. More than twice. How best to introduce it? It’s such a vast book. Two editors. Fifteen contributors. Fifteen separate and distinct experiences of illness and the recovery from illness. Crohn’s disease becomes material for one essay. Also HIV. Fibromyalgia. Cancer. Migraine headache. Lupus. Rheumatoid arthritis. OCD. Depression. A broken leg. A ruptured cervical disc. Diabetes. Fifteen separate and distinct essays, and within these essays so many telling details. So many of the kinds of details that illuminate not just illness and the process of healing, but well—life.

Here is one such detail. In “Back in the Body” by Kris Vervaecke, she describes the room in a cottage in Oregon where she first began to recuperate from a severe flare of rheumatoid arthritis that occurred in the wake of childbirth. p. 130:

My hospital bed was in the living room next to the woodstove, where I could look out the double-paned glass at the sparkling river, and when I was too tired to be propped up and turn my head, I lay on my back and watched ripples of light undulating across the shiny ivory painted ceiling, reflecting the river’s surface.

Here’s another detail taken from Richard Solly’s “The World Inside,” an account of his recovery from a surgical procedure for Crohn’s disease that left him with an open abdominal wound. This passage begins his description of his work with Annie, the home-care nurse who assisted him in his recovery. p. 92:

Annie was not into New Age healing through prayers, meditation, visualization, or even acupuncture. For her, healing would be accomplished only by putting on surgical gloves, cutting bandages, peeling away the soiled gauzes, letting air into the wound, rinsing the wound with saline solution, inserting six-inch Q-tips into abdominal holes. . . Each morning, promptly at nine, she rang the front doorbell and then let herself in. I often left the door unlocked for her. . .”

And here’s an image of recovery that Mary Swander offers from a time when she was in recuperating from a ruptured cervical disc and case of myelitis. p. 125:

I fixated on the small, the tiny seeds. In my case, the literal seeds of my literal garden. Lying awake in bed at night, I’d worried how I would ever prepare the soil, plant, weed, dig, and harvest. I contemplated making raised beds. I contemplated making trellises. I contemplated not having a garden at all. . . . Finally, I got up one morning, clomped down to the basement with my walker, and started my garden seedlings. Two little seeds in each pot.

In this anthology, edited by Patricia Foster and the aforementioned Mary Swander, illness and recovery become material. Not by denying the discomfort and fear and sometimes tedium of it. But by using it—attending to it—the true and actual details of it—and then paying close attention to where those details lead. Paying attention to the images that emerge. The light undulating across the ceiling. The nurse at the door with bandages. And those seeds—two tiny seeds in each pot.

I think I just realized one of the reasons I like these essays. The language, yes. The vivid detail. But, more, it’s because these essays feel to me as if they tell something of the truth about illness and healing. They don’t pretend or preach or gloss over. For me at least these essays have the ring of truth, as if they were told from the inside by someone bent on getting the details of it right—

October 24, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #11: A Scavenger Hunt

YOU ARE INVITED What: A Scavenger Hunt What to bring: Books, catalogues, journals What to hunt for: Images The goal of this scavenger hunt is simple: to hunt for images. But what’s an image? Here’s one way to think about it: in the early part of the twentieth century there was a group of poets in England, France and America who called themselves imagists. Ezra Pound was one such poet. Also, William Carlos Williams, who once said, “No ideas but in things.” An often-cited example of an imagist poem is a poem by Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow," that centers around the visual image of a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water next to some white chickens. The imagists often concentrated primarily on visual images, but an image does not have to be limited to the sense of sight. An image can be more broadly defined as a word or group of words that appeals to one or more of the senses. An image is tangible. It’s a word you can see or hear or taste or touch or smell. A red wheelbarrow. Cinnamon coffeecake. Fresh orange juice. Hot black coffee. A yellow goldfinch. A cricket. A pumpkin. An acorn squash. Geese. The goal then of this particular scavenger hunt is to hunt for images—or things that appeal to your senses. Images that strike you. That surprise you. That please you. Images you want to remember. Or, simply, images you like. In your hunt, feel free to look through books of poetry, novels, children’s books, seed catalogues, field guides, magazines, any printed material including your own written material in the form of journals or pages. If you’ve ever written down any of your dreams, these can be an excellent source of images. Your memory can also be a source of images. Songs. Movies. Overheard conversation. The possibilities are endless. Make a list of images that appeal to you. Save the list.

October 26, 2006

Is There a Conflict Between Writing for Wellness and Writing Well?

Whvenn_2Not all writing is done with the intent of healing.
And not all healing requires writing.
Perhaps this is obvious--but perhaps it's also worth saying upfront.

I'm interested in the place where the two might overlap.  The place where writing and healing might overlap.  I'm also aware that each person's area of overlap might be somewhat different.  A tiny sliver?  A wide swath?

And, at this place of overlap--intersection--I found an article of particular interest: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images.  The article, written by Mark Robinson, a poet and critic in England, appears in the journal, Medical Humanities. In the article, Robinson presents his hypothesis: "that the writing process itself is an integral part of any [health] benefit."  In other words, those same elements that foster good writing may also be some of the same elements that foster health.  And one such element is the use of vivid imagery.  The entire article is available online, and is well worth reading, but I’ll mention a few highlights here:

Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry from 1926, links her depression to having “no power of phrase making.”  In turn, she links her lifting of depression with a gradual recovery of the ability to write.  She writes: “Returning health: this is shown by the power to make images; the suggestive power of every sight and word is enormously increased.”

• In a survey of 34 poets—including not only poets receiving mental health services, but also poets with no particular physical or mental illness history and poets with several published books—84% responded that writing had had a therapeutic use for them.  These poets reported that they’d used writing to deal with stressful incidents in their lives, including the death of parents and children.  They reported using writing, among other things, to deal with emotions, to sort out thoughts, and to provide a means of catharsis.

• Interestingly, a number of these poets who were surveyed reported that when they did not write as regularly as they wanted they experienced negative mental and physical effects.  More than one poet mentioned that when (s)he was able to begin writing regularly again (s)he felt better.

• Finally, Robinson also reports on some work—a bit complex—but very interesting—in which a professor at Adelphi University, Wilma Bucci, proposes a model for why writing has an effect on physical and emotional health.  She proposes that writing works particularly well at stimulating health when the language of writing is grounded in specific and concrete images.  She describes a process whereby a person begins with a kind of amorphous knowing and then through the process of writing begins to form images, allowing for a “breakthrough in writing.”  A person moves from amorphous—literally no form—to an image.  A form.  A shape.  A something.  And this breakthrough can foster health.

This last point seems to resonate with Virginia Woolf’s reported experience (thus the title of Robinson’s article) and also resonates with my own experience.  When something that has been amorphous emerges as an image—a concrete something with a concrete name—this can offer a kind of breakthrough—and that breakthrough can both make for better writing, and at the same time, it can feel good—it can look and feel like healing—

October 27, 2006

Count Crackula: An Example of a Breakthrough in Writing and Healing

I wrote yesterday about Mark Robinson’s article: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images. I wrote, among other things, of the way images can sometimes offer a kind of breakthrough. And it occurred to me that it might be useful to offer an example of one such image. The one that comes to mind—perhaps because it was the first time I recognized this kind of breakthrough—is an image that emerged over ten years ago when I was teaching creative writing to a group of men and women recovering from addiction.

Count Crackula.

This image emerged in a tale that R., one of the more inventive writers in the group, came up with. He had written a tale—a kind of myth about addiction—and he’d named his characters. The nemesis in his tale was Count Crackula. And when R. read this story aloud to the group—when he named Count Crackula—it was as if this character burst into the room. Something new was happening. You could just feel it. Addiction wasn’t quite so invisible or shadowy. Crack was Count Crackula. A worthy—and vivid—and slightly ludicrous—opponent. (I tend to see the count from Sesame Street when I hear this name, though others may see a different visual image.) In any case, a crackling of energy had come into the room like that feeling in the air just after a flash of lightning---

Names have energy. They can take something that was previously invisible—or amorphous—and give it a form.

October 29, 2006

Poemcrazy: A Recommended Book

This book, by Susan G. Wooldridge, is one I recommend when someone tells me that they’d like for their writing to become more creative, more playful—or when someone tells me that their writing is a bit stuck. Wooldridge is a teacher. She’s worked for many years with CPITS, the California Poets in the Schools. She’s a teacher, but, as she says in her introduction, she doesn’t believe it’s possible to teach someone to write a poem. Instead, she says, “. . . we can set up circumstances in which poems are likely to happen. We can create a field in and around us that’s fertile territory for poems.”

Poemcrazy is that fertile territory. Sixty short chapters. You can read the chapters in order—or not. Many of the chapters contain ideas for writing practice. And each chapter holds out the possibility of replenishing and rejuvenating language. Language for poetry, yes. But also for sentences, paragraphs, journal entries, letters, stories, myths—and perhaps for healing—

Much of the inspiration for Poemcrazy comes from children—both Wooldridge’s own children and the children she’s worked with in the schools. She’s particularly adept at hearing and noticing those moments—those words—and combinations of words—in which language illuminates. She writes of a Cherokee child in Thermalito, California who can’t stop raising his hand during one of her workshops and then breaks out in a Cherokee song which he subsequently translates (p. 119): “I am one with the magnificent sun forever forever forever.” She writes of an image of “smelling sunlight,” that emerges from a Hmong child who knows very little English. And she writes of the images that she hears emerge in her own children’s language—

Her son, Daniel, saw his newborn sister, swaddled, with only her head visible, and thought she looked “yike a hotdog”. Cows on a hillside looked “yike popcorn”. And, my own personal favorite, Daniel’s observation after they’d transplanted a small tree from its pot to a hole in the ground: “The world will be its new pants.”

“Sometimes,” Wooldridge writes (p. 32), “part of writing a poem is as simple as looking carefully and bringing things together through simile and metaphor. This bit of moon looks like a canoe. The moon is a cradle, a wolf’s tooth, a fingernail, snow on a curved leaf or milk in the bottom of a tipped glass.”

Yes. And those connections she makes—right there—the moon looks like a canoe—the moon is a cradle—a wolf’s tooth—this strikes me as the kind of fertile territory a person might want to visit in order to rejuvenate language for writing----

October 31, 2006

Writing and Healing and Sweets

The first time I went to a Bar Mitzvah I loved the part where someone—the rabbi?—scattered candy across the steps at the front of the temple and the children were invited to come forward and retrieve it. The rabbi explained something about making a connection for the children—between Torah and sweetness. Not just telling them the Torah is sweet, but letting them experience the connection: reading the Torah and tasting sweetness. This week I looked this up (Google: Torah child sweet) and found a piece written by a Rabbi Levi Cooper. He explains a tradition in hassidic communities of initiating children into the study of Torah at a very young age—at the age of three—and doing so with a cookie. The teacher offers the child a cookie in the shape of the Hebrew letter, aleph. When the child can correctly identify the letter the cookie is dipped in honey and the child gets to eat the cookie. “Thus,” Rabbi Cooper writes, “we bless our children that their Torah study should always be as sweet as honey.”

Wikipedia adds this:

This is not just to show the child that learning is “sweet”, nor that Torah study is “sweet”, but also, to learn the sweetness of the Hebrew language.

I love that—to learn the sweetness of the language.

In my last year of college I managed to schedule my classes so that on Thursdays I had only one class—an eight o’clock. I loved Thursdays. As soon as class was over, at 9:15, I walked out of the classroom, across campus, and down Rockhill Road to the Alameda Plaza. This was in Kansas City, Missouri. The Plaza was, and still is now, this lovely outdoor shopping square with restaurants and shops. Back then there was a restaurant there which was called, simply, The Place. I’d go to The Place on Thursday mornings and I’d order the same breakfast each time. A poached egg. An English muffin. Strawberries with cream. A mug of coffee. The strawberries came in a blue bowl. The coffee was strong and hot. The cream was real. I ate and I wrote. For me, it was the beginning of falling in love with writing. And this falling in love with writing was all of one piece with the egg and the strawberries and the blue bowl that the strawberries came in and the strong coffee, the real cream.

A strawberry can be a sweet.
A chocolate can be a sweet.
A good cup of coffee.
A hot cup of tea.
A new mug.
A blue bowl.
A good pen.

Pat Schneider, a woman who has taught writing workshops for some twenty-five years, has written a very good and useful book about writing called Writing Alone and with Others. In a chapter on discipline, she suggests that the discipline of writing does not arise best out of obligation but will always arise best out of love. p. 51. “Rather,” she says, “than thinking of going to your writing desk as the ‘ought’ and ‘should’ work of your life, think of it as a longed-for pleasure, as a hot fudge sundae, as that which pleases you, delights you, that which you love”

Yes, I agree. Though, for me at least, I sometimes find it's easier for me to think of writing as a hot-fudge sundae if, at least now and then, I actually have an experience of writing while I'm eating a hot fudge sundae. Or some kind of sweet, whatever that may be. Creating and recreating that physical connection—between sweetness and writing—between sweetness and words—sweetness and language--

November 01, 2006

November: Writing When Something Has Fallen—or Is Falling—Apart


November Index

(in chronological order)

A Look at the Word Breaking

Writing and Healing Idea #12: An Invitation to Write About Falling Apart

A Word of Caution About Writing and Healing

Writing and Healing Idea #13: Making a List of Lifelines

On Holding that Which is Breaking in the Light

What About the Research on Writing and Falling Apart?

Writing and Healing Idea #14: Considering a Package

When Things Fall Apart: A Recommended Book

About Grief: What Chekhov's Cab-Driver Needs to Say

Broken Vessels: A Recommended Book

Writing and Healing Idea #15: Listing What Remains

On Gratitude and Embracing What Remains

Pensieve: An Image for Writing and Healing

Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski: A Featured Piece

On Reading "Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski"

November 02, 2006

A Look at the Word Breaking

This graphic of synonyms for BREAKING is from Visual Thesaurus:


Writing and Healing Idea #12

What: To let something fall apart
Where: In a healing place

You can start small. You can wait until you are ready. You can wait until it is the right time. You can choose one small thing in your life that has already fallen apart. You can choose one concrete thing—a favorite sweater, a cracked coffee mug. You can choose something larger. Your car. Your roof. Your marriage. Your heart. You can choose anything at all. You can write the words FALLING APART at the top of the page. Or write BREAKING. Or write BROKEN. Then begin. Write physical and concrete detail. Exaggerate. Exaggeration can be a way to make the falling apart more vivid. It can also be a way to get at a kind of truth. Write verbs. Break. Fracture. Collapse. Disintegrate. Crumble. Write sensory details. Write how the breaking feels. Write how it feels in your body. Write where you feel it in your body. If at any point this becomes too uncomfortable, take a respite. Step outside if you can. Look at the sky. Remember that at any moment you can, if you like, return to a healing place—in the actual world or in your imagination.

A Word of Caution about Writing and Healing

Some of the writing ideas I've put up on this site have to do with writing about difficult or painful experiences. Though research has shown that this kind of writing can, over the long haul, be healing, research has also shown that, in the immediate aftermath, writing of this sort can sometimes feel painful.

On his website, James Pennebaker, one of the chief researchers in the field of writing and health, offers this advice, which applies in particular to writing that deals with upsetting experiences:

Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

I think this is sound advice. Some people may wonder: how upset is too upset? For me, an analogy to yoga is sometimes helpful here. I once had a yoga teacher tell us that when working on a new pose it’s prudent to stretch just a bit beyond where one has been before—stretching into that “good” and bearable kind of soreness—and holding that stretch for ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds—but not stretching into frank pain. Stretching that is too painful can cause a kind of rebound effect: it hurts so much the next day that you may never want to go back to the class or ever think about yoga again. Writing can be like that. Writing that becomes too painful can make us want to shy away from the process.

So, just a bit of a stretch—a bearable stretch.

I also think it’s helpful to remember lifelines—those things that reconnect us to a sense of safety and comfort and belonging. And then we can call on those lifelines when we need them—when we, for instance, stretch ourselves a little farther than we intended to stretch. A healing place can be a lifeline. A healing resource can be a lifeline. Healing language. A friend. A counselor. A doctor. A teacher. A nurse. . . .

Perhaps one of the most important things to know about healing grief--whether one is writing or not--is to recognize when one has become overwhelmed by grief--when the feelings have become too much--and then to ask for help. And not to hesitate to ask for this help from a health professional.

November 05, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #13: Making a List of Lifelines

I wrote a few days back about having a few lifelines in place if and when you decide to do any writing about breaking. You can now, if you want, and if you haven’t already done so, formalize that. You can make a list of your own personal lifelines. Here are some questions that might help you in putting together your own list:

Are there places you can go when you feel like something is falling apart?
Are there places where you’ve been in the past that are safe and comforting?
Can you imagine these places when you need to?
Are there resources that make you feel safe and nurtured?
Certain foods?
Certain objects?
Particular songs?
Particular music?
Is there someone you can call when you feel like something is falling apart?
A friend?
A counselor?
Is there someone you can call to mind?
(This can be a person, living or dead, who you know well—or perhaps someone you have never met.)
Is there something or someone or even some words that you can remember—and call to mind—when you feel like something is falling apart?

Make your list as short or as long as you like.
Save your list.

November 07, 2006

On November and Breaking and Holding that which is Breaking in the Light

I was raised a Catholic but for the past ten years or so, since joining a Friends meeting, I have considered myself a Quaker. One of the things I like about the Quakers is their potential for inclusiveness. Another thing I like is their use of language—the turn of certain phrases. And one of my favorite Quaker phrases is this one: holding something or someone in the light.

This phrase took on a personal significance for me one November, six years ago now. During that November I’d been seeing a patient, A., a man in his fifties, a member of our Quaker meeting, who had previously been entirely well and then had discovered that he had metastatic colon cancer. I’d worked with A. a little over a year, and during that year, while receiving treatment for his cancer, he’d done a great deal of work with healing imagery, including imagery with light. Perhaps, because his imagery was illuminating in and of itself, and because I have received his permission to do so, I will write some about his imagery here later.

But for now, what I want to say is that six years ago now, in November, his wife, S., had decided to gather a small group in their home for a Quaker meeting—a meeting whose purpose was, in the language of Quakers, to hold A. in the light. I’d been invited to come to the meeting, but had been unable to attend because I was flying back to Missouri that week to visit my mother who was suffering (and who, unfortunately, continues to suffer) with a rather severe mental illness.

That trip to Missouri was, for me, a difficult one. But this is what I remember—and why I am writing about this now: Before leaving southwest Missouri in my rental car to drive back up to Kansas City to catch a plane home, I checked my messages at work and found a message from S.—A’s wife. She reminded me that the meeting in her home would be that day, and she told me what time it would be—at eleven I think. And she told me, at the end of the message, that they would hold me in the light.

I am not a person who talks frequently or easily about religion, or of spiritual matters for that matter. I was raised Catholic, but, the way I remember it, most of the language for things of the spirit stayed inside the church; it resided in the liturgy and in formal prayers. I’m the kind of person who tends often to think that spiritual matters are so large—or so something—it is difficult to find language for them. But that morning—driving back to Kansas city—one of those lit-up November days and the landscape is very flat there and the sky is very large—on that morning I felt the beauty of the Quaker language—of S’s language—and the comfort of it—to be driving away from a difficult time—a difficult place—and while I was driving to carry the sense—that knowing—that for this one drive—this hour—I was being held in the light.

When I think about what’s possible with writing—and, in particular, writing that has to do with breaking—or with grief—this is one of the images I hold for writing: that writing is a way to take something or someone—including something or someone who is breaking—and hold it in the light.

November 09, 2006

What About the Research on Writing and Falling Apart?

In 1983, James Pennebaker, a psychologist, then at Southern Methodist University, conducted, along with one of his graduate students, Sandra Beall, a study of forty-six college students. Students in one group—the experimental group—were instructed to write continuously for fifteen minutes about the most upsetting or traumatic experience of their lives.

Their instructions included the following:

In your writing, I want you to discuss your deepest thoughts and feelings about the experience. You can write about anything you want. But whatever you choose, it should be something that has affected you very deeply. Ideally, it should be something you have not talked [about] with others in detail. It is critical, however, that you let yourself go and touch those deepest emotions and thoughts that you have. In other words, write about what happened and how you felt about it, and how you feel about it now.

In essence, these students were being invited to write about a time when something had fallen apart.

Students wrote sitting alone in a small cubicle in the psychology building. They wrote on four consecutive days and did not sign their names to their pieces. These were not students who had been recruited because they were experiencing emotional or physical problems. These were ordinary college students recruited from introductory psychology classes. They wrote about the divorce of parents, about loss and abuse, about alcoholism and suicide attempts. They wrote about secrets. And in interviews conducted after finishing the four writing sessions, students actually reported feeling worse than they had before the writing.

But four months later, these same students, compared to students who had written about trivial topics, reported improvements in mood and in outlook on life, and, perhaps most surprisingly, improvements in their physical health. When data came in from the student health center, it revealed that this same group of students had in fact visited the student health center for illness, on average, only half as often as their peers.

This particular kind of writing—writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about trouble—is sometimes called expressive writing. And it’s the kind of writing about which much of the research on writing and health has been conducted. Since that early study in 1983, expressive writing has been tested in a wide range of settings. It’s been shown to improve self-reported health, psychological well-being, grade point average, and re-employment after lay-off. It’s been shown to benefit women with breast cancer, to decrease blood pressure in people with hypertension, to mitigate pain and fatigue in those with fibromyalgia, and to improve markers of immune function for those with AIDS.

In an afterward to The Writing Cure, a compilation of research and theory published nearly twenty years after Pennebaker’s first study on expressive writing and health, he reflects on some of the implications of the body of research in the field.

He writes:

All of the evidence would suggest that writing brings about a general reduction in biological stress. That is, when an individual has come to terms with an upsetting experience, he or she is less vigilant about the world and potential threats. This results in an overall lowering of defenses. . . . Given the broad range of improvements in health outcomes, it would be prudent to conclude that writing provokes a rather broad and nonspecific pattern of biological changes that are generally salutary.

I find this research on writing and health a reason for hope. It suggests that though bringing painful fragments of experience to the surface through the process of writing may feel painful in the short term, there’s a potential for a tangible benefit in the wake of this pain. That is, writing about such fragments can lead to health benefits on the other side. At the same time, I feel like each person (of course) gets to make that choice: if and when to touch on painful fragments. I, for one, never push people to do this before they’re ready. I’ve come to learn that most people have a kind of inner sense or knowing that lets them know when they’re ready to write about trouble. And if they’re unsure? Well, one way to deal with being unsure is to write the question at the top of a blank sheet of paper. The question itself can become a kind of title: Is Now a Good Time to Write About Falling Apart? Is Now a Good Time to Touch Grief? And then a person can write and write and see what comes----

[Note: For sources on this brief review of writing about trouble, I used Opening Up, by James Pennebaker, The Writing Cure, edited by Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth, and some of the articles on the right sidebar of this page that I've listed under Selected Research and that I’ve linked, whenever possible, to their abstracts.]

November 12, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #14: Considering a Package

Imagine for a moment that a package comes in the mail. And imagine that inside this package are tokens of something—or of many things—that you have lost. Fragments perhaps of something that has broken. And imagine now that you can do anything with this package that you like. You can open the package—or not. You can carry it somewhere and place it there. You can use it as a door stop—or a paper weight—or an extra table. You can mail the package to someone and ask them to hold it for a while.

Imagine the package in as much detail as possible.

And then, when you’re ready, write about it. Write about the package itself. Write about how it looks. Write about its color—its texture—its weight. Write about how you feel when you look at the package—or when you hold it. Then take a moment and consider what you’d like to do with it. Not what you think you should do. But what you really want to do. Whether you want to open the package. Or whether you’d like to keep it closed for a while. Write about that. Write the details of it. Write about what you want to do. And then write about what happens next.

November 13, 2006

When Things Fall Apart: A Recommended Book

Pema Chodron is the first American woman to receive full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist priest. She is now director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for westerners. And, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, she tells, among other things, how she first got started on the Buddhist path. It began, she says, on a day in early spring; she was standing out in front of her house in New Mexico when her then-husband drove up, got out of the car, shut the door, and proceeded to tell her that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce.

She describes the next moment this way (p. 10):

I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.

I love it that she tells us about the stone. She writes about the profound, limitless stillness. But she also writes about the stone. This makes her more human. And it’s from this very human place that she writes about how to take moments of disappointment and sorrow and loss and anger and discomfort and use them as opportunities for becoming fully awake. Not by turning away from these moments but, rather, to do something that goes a bit against the grain: turn towards them.

She writes (p. 10):

The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation. . . To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—

The most natural and ordinary thing in the world is to want to turn away from pain—or anger—or chaos—or a rumbling stomach—certainly I myself find it natural and ordinary—but when I’m reading Pema Chodron or listening to one of her tapes I feel, sometimes just for a few minutes at a time, or even a few seconds, that she’s onto something—this turning toward rather than turning away.

She’s so kind. She seems to understand how difficult it can be to turn towards discomfort. And she suggests that the way to do this—what can make it possible—is to practice something she calls maitri—this a Sanskrit word for loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. She suggests that we practice this unconditional friendliness, first, toward ourselves. And she offers practical suggestions for how to do this in a variety of ways, including through the practice of meditation.

She writes (p. 21):

Sometimes we feel guilty, sometimes arrogant. Sometimes our thoughts and memories terrify us and make us feel totally miserable. Thoughts go through our minds all the time, and when we sit, we are providing a lot of space for all of them to arise. Like clouds in a big sky or waves in a vast sea, all our thoughts are given the space to appear.

Sometimes, when I’m reading Pema Chodron, I get a sense of that big sky, that vast sea. I get a sense that no matter what is falling apart—no matter what has fallen apart in the past—no matter what will surely fall apart in the future——I get a sense that it is all held by that big sky—that vast sea—

November 17, 2006

About Grief: What Chekhov’s Cab-Driver Needs to Say

There’s a story by Anton Chekhov entitled, simply, “Grief”. I first learned about the story from Mary Swander’s essay, “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle. The story itself can be found in The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. It speaks particularly well, I think, to what it is that grief may require.

When the story begins a cab-driver waits at twilight in the snow for a fare. His son has died the previous week. He waits a long time in the snow, and then finally—a passenger. As the evening wears on, the cab-driver attempts conversation with three different passengers. Three different times he attempts to tell his story—what has happened with his son. Each of the three interrupts him. One closes his eyes to stop the story. One informs him that we all must die. One simply gets out of the sleigh. Still later, the cab-driver attempts to stop and speak with a house-porter, but the house-porter tells him to drive on.

There’s so much that the cab-driver needs to tell. Chekhov writes:

One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. One must describe every detail of the funeral, and the journey to the hospital to fetch the defunct’s clothes. His daughter Anissia remained in the village—one must talk about her too. Was it nothing he had to tell? Surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?

The details must be told. And then—that gasp—that sigh—from the listener.

At the end of the day the cab-driver returns to the stables. He begins to speak to his horse:

Now let’s say you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?

The horse munches his hay and breathes his warm breath—and does not interrupt him. And that is how the story ends—with the cab-driver telling his story, finally, to his horse.

Perhaps what grief requires, as much as anything, is that the process not be interrupted. That it find a time and a place in which to unfold--with a companion (when possible) and without (too much) interruption. And, perhaps, at least for some of us, writing can play a role in this process.

Writing as a companion that does not interrupt?
Writing as a prelude to telling the story to a companion?

November 19, 2006

Broken Vessels: A Recommended Book

I have, for a long time now, loved the way that Andre Dubus writes. I love the clarity of his writing, the specificity, the rhythm of his prose, and something else too—this sense in everything he writes as if he knows something about loss—knows that all of this—everything—is impermanent—but he’s writing lovingly about it anyway. I could recommend any one of his books. His early story collections. His selected stories. His second book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. His last book of stories, Dancing After Dark, which was published in 1997, two years before his death from a heart attack. But it’s this book—Broken Vessels—his first book of essays—that speaks, in a very personal way, to falling apart.

In July of 1986, Dubus stopped one night at the side of the highway to help a motorist in distress. While standing on the side of the road he was hit by a car. The impact cost him one of his legs and much of the use of his second leg, landing him in a wheel chair. Broken Vessels is a book of essays he published in the wake of that impact. The title essay, “Broken Vessels,” which is also the final essay in the book, begins this way:

On the twenty-third of June, a Thursday afternoon in 1988, I lay on my bed and looked out the sliding glass doors at blue sky and green poplars and I wanted to die. . .

“Broken Vessels” is an essay saturated with loss. The loss of running. The loss of walking. The loss of his wife and children. (He underwent a separation after the accident.) The loss of writing—which happened after he’d lost his family.

But the essay is not only about loss. The essay points to what is possible when one can find the right place to express this loss in some way. p. 171:

The best person for a crippled man to cry with is a good female physical therapist, and the best place to do that crying is in the area where she works. One morning in August of 1987, shuffling with my right leg and the walker, with Mrs. T in front of me and her kind younger assistants, Kathy and Betty, beside me, I began to cry. Moving across the long therapy room with beds, machines, parallel bars, and exercise bicycles, I said through my weeping: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either. Kathy and Betty gently told me I was fine. Mrs. T said nothing, backing ahead of me, watching my leg, my face, my body. We kept working. I cried and talked all the way into the small room with two beds that are actually leather-cushioned tables with a sheet and pillow on each, and the women helped me onto my table, and Mrs. T went to the end of it, to my foot, and began working on my ankle and toes and calf with her gentle strong hands. Then she looked up at me. Her voice has much peace whose resonance is her own pain she has moved through and beyond. It’s in Jeremiah, she said. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of broken one. It’s time to find the real you.

The cab-driver in Chekhov’s story needed to tell what clothes his son was wearing when he died. Dubus had his own story that he needed to tell: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either.

And, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about his essay, this story is heard. Mrs. T. does not interrupt. She does not offer false reassurance. She does not even try to argue with him, though she could, certainly, have made a number of legitimate arguments. (By whose definition is a crippled man not a man? By what rules? Who is it that gets to define what a man is?) Mrs. T’s genius is in her initial silence. And it’s only after Dubus has finished speaking that she offers not an argument, but, simply, an image: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus is entirely free to reject the image or accept it. The image is simply put out there. Image as invitation rather than argument: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus begins in June looking out at those poplars, unable to write—and wanting to die. We know, because he has written this essay, that he became a man who could write again. It would seem that Mrs. T. had something to do with that. A woman who was able to hear—and help him hold—his grief. And that image she offers: that smashed pot. That new vessel.

November 21, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #15: Listing What Remains

This writing idea springs directly from the passage by Andre Dubus that I posted above. Because it occurs to me that before embracing what remains it might sometimes be helpful, simply, to list it.

You can make a list of what remains. And then you can, if you like, take this list and carry it with you. You could carry it with you through the holidays. You could carry it in a wallet—or in a purse—or in your pocket. You could, I suppose, write it in tiny print and fold it and place it in a locket. And then you would always have it there with you—like a reminder—what remains.

On Gratitude and Embracing What Remains

I was looking for something to put up about loss and gratitude before taking a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday and then I remembered this from the end of Andre Dubus’ essay, “Broken Vessels,” (which I wrote about earlier this week).

The passage can be found on p. 194 of Broken Vessels, this the next to the last page of the essay, and the book.

A week ago I read again The Old Man and the Sea, and learned from it that, above all, our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choices, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses. No one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without people or God or both to love, but without love itself. In The Old Man and Sea, Santiago is a widower and a man who prays; but the love that fills and sustains him is of life itself: living creatures, and the sky, and the sea. Without that love, he would be an old man alone in a boat.

I like the language Dubus uses here—the way, sometimes, we have to work to “achieve” gratitude—the way this might not always come naturally—but still it can come—at least at moments--and sometimes those moments can be enough: moments in which we are able to embrace what remains.

November 26, 2006

Pensieve: An Image for Writing and Healing

The end of a holiday weekend. Shirt-sleeve weather here. Garden weather. November light. I’ve been thinking some about containers. Pots. Bowls. Baskets. . . . If falling apart creates pieces—fragments—shards—then it stands to reason that we might sometimes need containers in which to place all of these pieces.

Week before last a young woman, a patient, was telling me that she wanted to find a place or a something in which she could put her stress and anxious thoughts. I asked her what this place or something might look like and her answer was immediate, spontaneous, the way images sometimes are: A PENSIEVE.

This is an image that I’ve seen emerge before, and one, that when I first came upon it, seemed to me a nearly perfect image for writing and healing.

For those not already familiar with the image, I’ll describe it briefly here. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in J.K. Rowling’s series, there’s a moment when Harry finds himself alone in headmaster Dumbledore’s office. Beckoned by a silvery light, he opens a cabinet, and discovers a stone basin filled with a silver and vapory substance. Harry peers deeply into the basin and then—in that moment—finds himself transported into another world—a scene from the past in which Dumbledore figures as one of the characters. When he returns, called back by Dumbledore’s voice, the headmaster proceeds to tell him that the basin is called a pensieve, a device useful when one’s thoughts become overcrowded or overwhelming. Dumbledore explains:

One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them in the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.

I love this notion of siphoning. I also love the notion of having a place to put thoughts and feelings—and perhaps other kinds of fragments. A basin—and perhaps a beautiful basin—a basin with a touch of enchantment—when it feels, for instance, that the mind and/or body cannot hold another speck. Or when it feels that what remains (after breaking or loss) are all these pieces—fragments of things. The possibility, then, of placing some of these pieces into a basin. And the possibility of seeing links and patterns in such a basin—

A notebook as a basin?
A poem?

November 27, 2006

Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski: A Featured Piece

[I am very pleased to introduce this poem submitted by Danielle Crawford, a young woman at Fairhaven College in western Washington state. She began writing this poem while in her first "official" poetry class, four months ago, and she is now, she tells me, passionately pursuing a double major in creative writing and fine art.] Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski In memoriam [October 1, 1999] I. It stinks like cotton swabs turned cold beside Mother’s under-ripe belly. Six months have passed. She sits, waits: hunched, hurt on that inhospitable bed. I can’t tell her this, but she’s aged a decade in a day. Never looked so frail: a daisy, withered by the worst of winters. The October sky— Mom’s crying again, laying above peppered linoleum, under so many lights there’s nowhere left to hide. She’s naked, barren beneath the gown. I try to resist, but join her, weep. * The doctor’s eyes are dull with mock concern. I, twelve, confused, want to escape. In their crisply clean uniforms— uniform sterility— they stare, then speak: The human heart has four chambers… How were we to know God gave you only two? * Years of wait and worry plagued my parents. Mom’s stiff as the starchy parchment paper she’s now lying on. Emotions repressed, her words are strangled: It’s done. II. Did we make the right choice? After the initial miracle of you, I guess we believed in invincibility. An age-old wish, the desire to rewind. Would it have been selfish—? We thought of the steps you never took. We kissed the ground you never set foot upon. Since you’ve been gone, we’ve lost our footing, our solid ground. I try to picture what you’d be like now. I’ve dressed your name up in costumes, cloaked your memory with denial, anguish, rage… anything I could muster, paralyzed. I don’t wish to remember you this way. I’m back where I began: without a clue. The cotton, the clothing, that cold room, my memory, too— it’s all too white. I can’t help but wonder if, taken, you took color from our lives. ‘99. Now seven more. You would be eight, Tyler, had you survived half a heart and Down Syndrome. I’m greedy; I want you next to me. You still are my brother. I think of you, whose footprint—only an inch!— left a lasting imprint. The human heart has four chambers… Your heart was stronger than mine for letting you go. We need your malformed heart to mend our own.

November 29, 2006

On Reading “Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski”

Thank you again to Danielle Crawford for her poem, “Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski,” which I posted earlier this week, on Monday. I was moved by the poem when I first read it—and continue to be. And I thought I would offer a few reflections here—not analysis so much, but, simply, one reader reading—a snippet of my own reading and reflection. The poem got my attention with the first line: It stinks like cotton swabs. Oh, I thought, I’m in some kind of clinical setting—cotton swabs—a strong smell—and someone is going to say something honest about it—a visceral sensory impression. And then the next image that got through to me: that inhospitable bed. A play on hospital bed? But it’s inhospitable-----yes----(I’ve seen this bed. I’ve been in rooms like this.) And then the images accumulating: the October sky. . . the peppered linoleum. . . naked. . . Pain given concrete detail. (The kind of concrete detail that’s essential both to poetry and to the process of mourning. Thinking of what Chekhov’s cab-driver needs to say: the details of his son’s death, the trip to the hospital to fetch his clothes.) The details then, in this particular poem: the starchy parchment paper And those words----It’s done. (I can see that. I can hear those words.) And then—Part II— A sense of the child that would have been— A sense of strong feeling trying to find language And then the name—there near the end—Tyler-----the importance of remembering the name—making memorial. Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, says, that when it comes to writing, our biggest fear is not rejection—but its absence—the absence of acceptance and rejection. Our biggest fear is that no one has heard at all. He writes:

I’ve often had a kind of surreal, underwater vision of social reality. . . Everyone walks around mostly out of communication with everyone else. Someone has turned off the sound, cut the wires. It’s all fog and silence.

I think one of the things poetry can do—and other kinds of writing can do—and reflection on writing can do—is cut through the fog a bit. I’ve tried to offer, here, a few snippets of how this occurred for me—a cutting through my own ordinary layer of fog as I read Danielle’s poem. A sense that I could hear and see something of those images she offered. To put this another way, I had a writing teacher who used to say that we all walk around half-asleep and writing has the potential to wake us up. Yes, it’s rather like that. Sometimes it’s like that. We come across an image—fresh language—and we stop in our tracks. We see something—something perhaps familiar—but in a new way. 

December 01, 2006

December: Considering (New ) Forms for Writing and Healing


Writing and Healing Idea #16: A Walk on a Strange Street

In a visionary and rather brilliant book, Becoming a Writer, this first published in 1934, Dorothea Brande, offers this advice for writing:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.

I think this fresh seeing can be of particular benefit when thinking about forms—whenever we begin (again?) to think, about what kind of form(s) we might like our writing to take. A journal? A list? A conversation? A series of poems? A tale of quest? And I would suggest, in light of Ms. Brande’s advice, that one way to foster this process of discovering form is to take a walk on a strange street—or to visit a place where you do not ordinarily go. A place if possible that has visual interest. A museum? A garden? A wood? A downtown landscape? And while you are taking this walk—or drive—you can draw your attention toward forms.

You can, if you like, bring a camera with you. This can, sometimes, be a way to frame particular forms—a way, perhaps, to pay heightened attention.

After your walk—you can write about what you saw. You can write this as a list or in paragraph form. You can write, in particular, about forms and patterns that you like. What forms and patterns do you find pleasing? What forms in nature? What forms in architecture? Or gardens? Do you like soft rounded forms or sharp clean edges? Do you like formal gardens? Wild gardens? The appeal of particular forms can change over time, so as you write, you may want to focus, in particular, on that which appeals right now.

With what forms right now do you feel a particular resonance?

December 03, 2006

Mosaic: An Image for Writing and Healing

J., a patient, was telling me one morning about these dishes that she’d bought and she loved them. This was a couple of years ago now. Each of the plates was a different color—primary colors mostly—yellow, blue, red, green. Each plate was also painted with different shapes—stars and spirals—so that a red plate might be covered in yellow stars, a green plate painted with blue spirals. She really liked the plates, she told me, but already one of them had broken. She didn’t intend for the plate to break. She didn’t want it to break. It wasn’t even her fault that it broke. It just, well—broke. She was disappointed at first, but after a while, she told me, she’d begun to give in to it—the inevitability. Plates break. She’d begun saving the pieces, she told me, and when she collected enough of them she was going to make a mosaic table.

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 06, 2006

Collage Machine: A Playful Resource for Writing and Healing

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has (I just discovered) a rich and informative website, which includes, among other things, an interactive zone—for children actually—but maybe not just for children. One of the activities available is something called a Collage Machine. It offers 105 small graphics that you can combine in different ways—overlapping or not—repeating or not—rotating or not—making some of the graphics more transparent or not—in order to create a collage. It’s kind of fun to play with. (And it even includes a link with instructions of how to take a screen shot of what you’ve created in order to save it.) The site looks like this:


Playing at the site got me thinking more about collages and mosaics and written collages. And it occurs to me that one of the nice things about this little Collage Machine is that there’s a limit to what graphics you can use—105. Not infinite. Just 105. And within this limit of 105 the play happens when you combine and recombine the graphics in different ways. Different juxtapositions. Different patterns. (And because it’s just this fun little site, you don’t have to have any expectations of what you’ll make from it. It really can be play—no expectations—just fooling around.)

When it comes to considering resources for a written collage the potential resources are infinite. The entire web for instance is a potential resource. Libraries. Bookstores. Newspapers. Overheard conversation. And perhaps it would be helpful and meaningful in writing a collage or mosaic if, at the outset, one were to limit oneself to one particular resource. Say a resource with 105 or so parts. Maybe a bit more—or a bit less. Maybe doing this as an experiment.

You could choose one resource. One book of poetry. One small novel. One anthology of stories. Or you could choose one of your own journals. Perhaps an old one—or a newer one. And you could look through any one of these resources for particular passages. You could look for passages that surprise you. Passages that resonate with you. That please you. And you could circle these passages—or highlight them. You could copy them. And somehow separate them into individual pieces. And then you could place the pieces together into new juxtapositions and patterns. You could play with them a little. Maybe with no expectations. Maybe just fooling around a bit.

And it would be like having your very own collage maker. Wouldn’t it?

December 08, 2006

A New Path to the Waterfall: A Recommended Book

This book is the most beautiful example I know of a written mosaic or collage. It began, as near as I can tell, in September of 1987 when Raymond Carver, a gifted writer of both short stories and poems, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The following March the cancer metastasized to his brain, and, then in June, lung tumors recurred. These are the facts that initiated his illness and which Tess_Gallagher, his wife, and a gifted poet herself, describes in the introduction to this, Carver’s last book: A New Path to the Waterfall. Tess Gallagher also describes in her introduction the literal making of narrative in the grip of these facts.

First, there are the poems—the elemental pieces of the narrative. Some of these poems Carver had written before the onset of his illness. Many, like “What the Doctor Said,” and “Gravy” and “Late Fragment,” were written and revised during the illness itself. Also during his illness, Tess Gallagher began reading stories by Anton Chekhov and then she began sharing the stories with Carver. During this same time, Carver was reading a book, Unattainable Earth, by Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet and Nobel laureate. Milosz’s book is a kind of patchwork quilt which incorporates passages from other poets, and this book, according to Gallagher, was key in inspiring Carver to want to find for his own book “a more spacious form”. Then, at some point, something clicked. A new path? First Gallagher, and then Carver, began to see how certain passages in the Chekhov stories could be reconfigured as poems and how these pieces, as well as pieces from other writers, could serve as elements in the narrative that he was trying to make.

Finally, the last step: taking all of these pieces and putting them together to make a narrative. In the introduction to Carver’s book, Gallagher describes spreading poems out on the floor of their living room and literally crawling among them on hands and knees and beginning to arrange them into a pattern: “reading and sensing what should come next, moving by intuition and story and emotion.” It’s a vivid and tactile description of finding a pattern—finding a form. And the result—this book—illustrates (among other things) that a narrative does not have to be linear in order to be beautiful. The gaps become part of its beauty. The breaks. The fault lines. The juxtapositions. The pieces reflecting and refracting, one off of another. And all of that white space around and between.

December 13, 2006

Collecting: An Image for Writing and Healing

Over twenty years ago now, when I was in medical school at the University of Missouri, I wandered over to the main campus looking for a writing class, and, in a stroke of good fortune, found an excellent writing teacher, Janet Desaulniers. She was all the good things you want a writing teacher to be—smart, funny, attentive, encouraging, dexterous with language and form. She teaches now in the MFA program in writing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Last year she did an interview with Alex Shapiro which appears in the on-line magazine, Identity Theory. The entire interview is worth taking a look at, but the bit I want to draw attention to here is the bit, about halfway through, when she begins to talk about writing the story, “After Rosa Parks,” which appears now in her fine collection, What You’ve Been Missing.

She talks about how when she was first trying to write “After Rosa Parks” she would start with a piece of something—a strong something—a moment or a snatch of dialogue—and then she’d find herself forcing it, trying to make it into a scene, trying to make it become a story. She says this:

It was so utilitarian. Not to mention agonizing. I kept killing each spark of promise because I kept pushing each one past what I knew for sure. And that’s how you end up telling the kind of lies fictions cannot tell. Anyway, enduring the pain of failing and failing that story, which I very much wanted to tell, opened me up to seeing early composition in new ways. Now I start with collecting things. I don’t try to know anything and lead anything.

Seeing early composition in new ways. Collecting. And she goes on to tell how she started this process of collecting with one of her students. He was a talented writer, had been in the writing program at Chicago for three years, and he was feeling this kind of suicidal desperation because he hadn’t yet written anything he felt was good enough. And she made this deal with him—1666 words a day. For a month. That was the deal. Not trying to make these words be anything yet. Not trying to write a story—or a poem—or even an essay. Just collecting things. She describes it like this:

. . . once you start collecting things you come to respect discrete units of significance for what they are. You don’t say, Oh, I own this really good interlude, now how can I hook it up with something else? Because you’re not making. You’re collecting. So it’s all about listening to the sound of matter. Of significance. It might be an observation; it might be a piece of dialogue. If you have to write 1,666 words a day, everything’s game. At breakfast my husband would say, “You know, I think this sweater’s going to change my life.” And after I finished laughing, I thought, Right, I’m taking that.

Discrete units of significance. I like that. Later in the interview she talks about the next steps—taking these units and using craft to create and discover form in these units. But I’m interested now, and first, in the units themselves. The early stage of composition. And I’m writing about this here because I’m trying to write this month about finding forms for writing in the wake of loss and illness. (It may not be entirely obvious that this is what I’m trying to do, but it is where I’m aiming with all of this.) The way it sometimes happens that loss and illness can disrupt old forms—interrupt them—or sometimes make it seem like the old forms are not quite so relevant as they once were. Or maybe not as feasible as they once were. I’ve seen recovery from addiction disrupt old forms. I’ve seen serious illness do this. I’ve seen postpartum depression do this. Even childbearing can do this. That ironing board [from my last post] in the middle of the room. The ordinary—and sometimes not so ordinary—interruptions of young children. Any one of these things can interrupt old forms—can interrupt a formerly coherent story—or what seemed to be a coherent story.

There’s actually a piece research on writing and health that shows that finding and creating coherence in a narrative can promote health—and I’ll have to get to that this month—but first I think it’s important to celebrate the pieces—to not aim for coherence too soon. There’s that bit above from Janet’s interview: when we push something we can end up telling lies. The kind of lies fiction cannot tell. Yes. Yes. To refrain from forcing narrative is a way to keep from telling lies. It’s a way to tell the truth. One piece of truth and then another piece. And not even trying to figure out in the early stages how these pieces might fit together. Not forcing them into a form that doesn’t fit them------

Thus. . . collecting. Perhaps collecting as a way to begin (again) when something has been disrupted or interrupted. Just collecting. Nothing more than that and nothing less. Maybe 1666 words a day. Or maybe 606 words a day. 106? For any given person it might be different—how many words are enough. But, in any case, collecting. Gathering the raw material. And with a hunch, perhaps, that the gathering itself might matter.