Tag Archives: Healing Art of Writing

vozsutra: who have you become, to be thinking about this

street art -- silhouettes of swallows, painted black on white brick, flying around, maybe out of a cage

(all the images on the blog are clickable, linked to their source -- this one comes from a graffiti blog based in the UK)

Ok — so I found out yesterday that writing ourselves whole didn’t get a grant from Horizons that we applied for. Today I’m disappointed but not knocked down — could it have something to do with not feeling so isolated, not so alone in the work? I’m grateful, today, for all the folks I get to work with in building writing ourselves whole to something sustainable and stronger.

Here’s exciting news — last night we ate the first of our own tomatoes with our dinner.  Deep orange like a peach but with tomato flesh, and still warm from the vine.  The first my-home-grown tomato I’ve had since I lived in Maine: I mixed it in with the guacamole, and it was so good.

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Today’s a VozSutra day: a practice of voice day.  I’ve got a little bit for writing time, then I need to head into town and be at the office for a bit before the MedEd writers workshop at UCSF. After the afternoon’s work, the Mr. and I might even get to spend some time at the ocean. Maybe I should wear my bathing suit under the work clothes; it’s supposed to be hot again today.

Did you do some thinking yesterday about what you’d write if you didn’t have to be good?  What did you come up with? I love the writing that comes up in response to Mary Oliver’s poem — I imagine any writing you did in response to this prompt was risky and challenging.  Thank you for that!

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Last night I spent quite awhile editing the piece I’d workshopped earlier this summer at the Writing as a Healing Art conference.  The conference organizers have joined with the folks at University of California Press, and UCP is putting out a volume of the writing produced or workshopped during the conference. The piece I submitted is fiction, drawn heavily from my own life, and focuses on two sisters who experience awful sexual trauma and psychological manipulation and control at the hands of their mother’s second husband — right now it’s a short piece, 30 pages or so, and I’ve excerpted 6 to submit.  I have an idea of the longer work, how it could come together into a book. It’s also a terribly hard story for me to write, and so I’ll get a little bit out (3 or 7 or 12 pages) and then I’m done with it for 6 months or a year, til I’m ready to write the next part.

I want to show how folks experience trauma change from the people they were Before to the people they were After, Later. I want to capture that moment of transition, transformation — the moments of decision: how is it that, just yesterday, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to do or say this thing, but today it’s become a part of my normal?

It’s easy to pathologize victims of trauma (and it’s easy because it’s safer for the pathologizers, for the rest of society — if we make this an individual’s problem, then we don’t have to deal with the wider ramifications of power and control or hierarchy or oppression). It’s easy to paste PTSD over someone’s face and then go to work trying to resituate that person to “normalcy” — which means getting that person to a place where they can be a ‘contributing member’ of our capitalist society (and/or back to the front, if we’re talking about the military*).

What I’ve wanted for some time is to be able to write the story of a long-term trauma, which involves both decisions and actions on the part of the perpetrator, and decisions and actions on the part of those being traumatized — not decisions to be abused, but decisions around survival, strategizings and navigations from moment to moment, day to day.  Over time, those strategizings change, because the ground is always moving: the perpetrator is never satisfied with what he’s already been able to do, he wants to do something more. Suddenly you’re deciding, deciding, not what you want to do with your friends after school but whether today is a good day to ‘let’ the person abusing you do this or that, or whether you think can put it off for one more day. Who have you become, to be thinking about this?  How did you get to this place?

Maybe more selfishly, I want you to know what that experience is like, that going from who you thought you were going to become to someone your earlier self would never, never recognize as you. I don’t like to be alone here.

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Stay hydrated today — it’s supposed to be hot hot again.  Be easy with you today, and I’ll work to do the same.  Thanks so much for all the incredible work you do… whatever you’re doing to be you: thank you.
*This is a side note, but I want to try to write it: I read earlier this week about research going on at th UCSF VA with military folks to try and figure out how to prevent PTSD. The more I think about this, the more terrifying it is: PTSD is a healthy-brain’s response to horror and trauma. A military that has been trained out of the capacity to respond with horror to war is more frightening than I have words for. PTSD is an awful, awful thing to have to deal with, and the best way to prevent it in the military is not to send people to war. In my estimation, the best way to prevent PTSD is not to torture, brutalize, traumatize, harm others: not children, not intimate partners, not friends, not people you think have less power than you, not ‘enemies.’

honoring our own rhythms: daily writing practice

Here is my second morning of getting up first thing and blogging — a new daily writing practice for me. Usually my daily writing practice looks like this: wake up, make some peppermint or ginger tea or some decaf coffee, grab my notebook (now edged with coffee stains after I put my coffee mug into my bag before it was entirely empty), light a candle (if it’s still dark; that’s mostly in the winter) and settle into one of three spaces in this new house: a corner of the couch, the straight-backed chair in the living room, or one of the decimated ironwork chairs out on the little patio that were left for us when we moved in. That last has been especially exciting since we moved from Oakland — given where we lived, right on Lakeshore, across from Lake Merritt, there wasn’t really space for me to sit outside my home and be in some quiet.

Here, though, I can sit out in the back, and maybe the baby next door is awake and I can hear hear shouts, how she’s testing her voice, how she’s learning the indelible strength of her lungs, and I can hold hope for her that she never has cause in her life to unlearn that knowledge, and maybe there are car doors now and again slamming shut as folks get in to go to work, or stop at the cafe across the street for their breakfast and coffee, and maybe I am up late enough that the guys across the street at the concrete place have opened their screechy roll-up door, have started shouting across to each other what is getting loaded up to go where, maybe one of the workers has rumbled up on his Harley, but otherwise, what I hear are birds. And there are moments of quiet in amid those. I hear the mourning doves and the jays, but more it’s the other birds, the quieter, songier ones, whose names I don’t know yet. Part of this writing, maybe, is an impetus to learn their names.

Mostly, over the last year or more, my daily writing practice has been just to write three pages, Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” three pages, freehand and freewritten, filled with whatever free association comes to mind. A kind of post-dream-time core dump, just getting whatever wants to get out on the page, out onto the page. (often it’s relationship processing, a place to spin out whatever I’m struggling with just to take a closer look, or feel I’m getting a full hearing somewhere.) Sometimes I would feel like I was getting into some “useful” writing, like, writing I felt I’d be able to use elsewhere, in a blog post or review or workshop, but more often than not, those three morning pages were only useful for my crazy head, a place to get the rattling thoughts out. I like the ritual of it, and by that I mean regular practice, and a sense that inherent in that regular practice was some devotion to self and space. In those three pages, I could get spacious. (I could forget that, really, all I had time for was three pages, written fast fast, before I snapped the notebook closed, tossed it back at my shoulder bag, rinsed out my coffee cup (or, more often, took the still-undrunk coffee or tea with me into the bathroom), and started getting ready for my workday.)

For me, this regular practice of morning writing is a way to reaffirm my dedication to writing — a saying to writing, “my first and best breaths are still yours.” Early morning is my favorite time to be awake and writing; I’m happiest when I can be at the notebook well before the sun is up. Of course, that means I have to be in bed, and actually sleeping, fairly early, which my usual work day doesn’t accommodate. Still.

Someone asked, at the Healing Art of Writing conference, one of the participants, she asked how one develops a writing practice, how one gets in the habit of writing. She’s new to writing, and she wants to do it right. She’s heard, maybe, that the way you become a writer is you write every day, no matter what. I understood what she was asking: how do you get to this place where you’re a real writer, where you can actually do this thing?

Jane Hirshfield responded to this question, and talked about her own writing practice: she doesn’t especially have one — well, not one that looks regular and regimented, anyway. She said that she writes when she’s drawn to write, and when she is not drawn to write, she doesn’t force herself: when she tries to force writing that’s not ready to come, the writing’s not good, doesn’t work for her at all. Amid all the voices telling new writers that they must make space for writing every day, I’m grateful for Hirshfield’s example, her reminder that, as creative folks living creative lives, we get to learn and honor our own rhythms, trust how the words want to flow in/through us, and make our lives work in that direction.

It was about 1993 when I started writing, journaling, again regularly (and honestly I don’t differentiate between writing and journaling — it’s the same instigatory practice for me.) I wrote, then, because I missed writing, because I’d tucked it away, that drive and urge, in deference to my stepfather’s ridicule, and had focused on computer science and other more “realistic” skills/studies. In 1993, I was beginning, slowly, to break away from my family and from my stepfather’s control, and I went back to my notebooks, in part because that was the very and only safest place to tell my whole story (even though he was over a thousand miles away, I didn’t trust, for quite awhile, that he didn’t have tentacles of control into my entire friendship network, into my therapist’s office). The notebook was the only safe place for me to be. And I wanted there to be a record of what I’d experienced, what I’d done and what had been done to me. The notebook was a place for me to rage, to ask the questions no one had answers to, to say, exactly, all the secrets that his abuse had force fed me.

I started read books about writing; I read William Stafford, read Natalie Goldberg, and understood that I needed to do this thing, this sitting down with the notebook thing, on a regular basis, a daily basis if I could manage it. I liked the idea that, when the muse came knocking on my heart door, there would be a time and a place when I could let hir flow through me onto the page, because I had practiced, I had honed my skill. Also, I needed my writing self to know that I was back, that I recognized and honored her, that I was ready for her to reemerge.

So being at the notebook in the morning, each time, is a returning to that place of presence and safety, a returning to that place of nonjudgement and discipline, that place of structure and freedom.

It’s not necessary to write every day in order to call yourself a writer — your writing rhythms might call for something different. You might work better in the slow energy of the afternoon, or the quickening of first dark. You might prefer just to write on weekend mornings, if you don’t do other work on the weekends, in order to have hours free and stretched out and open for your words. You might prefer not to have any set schedule at all, instead just following the pull of your urge, waiting for some writing to push hard against the insides of your fingers, needing you to set it free into the world.

Whatever it is, your rhythm, keep listening and feeling it, honoring. That’s another part of this practice, for me: listening to self. Especially for those of us who’ve been trained away from attending to our deep selves, our own rhythms and intuitions, that’s one of the best parts of practice — re-hearing our true selves, and attending to what we hear.

Breaking open, over and over: The Healing Art of Writing Conference

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the Healing Art of Writing Conference/Workshop, offered at Dominican University here in San Rafael and organized/led by Dr. David Watts, a poet and UCSF GI doc. What can I tell you about this event? When I first saw the information about the conference (shared by Dr. Aronson at USCF, who runs the Medical Humanities listserv there), it felt like the absolute right place to be — a writing conference, about writing and healing and writing as healing? And Jane Hirshfield, Dr. Rachel Remen, John Fox, Terese Svoboda, Robert Hass and other amazing poets/writers/thinkers will be presenting? And it’s at Dominican, just two miles from my new home? Yes, please! However, the conference fee (which, at $700, is completely reasonable for an event of this length and caliber) was out of my budget, and so I thought maybe I’d be able to catch the evening talks or save up for next year’s offering.

And then Cindy Perlis, who leads the Art for Recovery program at Mt Zion (where I lead Healing Through Writing workshops with folks living with life-threatening/life-altering illness), asked if I wanted to go. She’d been offered a spot, but couldn’t take it herself. And so it was that on Sunday evening, after a weekend of queer-lib-madness (given that it was the end of Pride week in San Francisco), I found myself on the second floor of Guzman Hall on the Dominican campus, listening to a roomful of healers, poets, novelists, new writers, long-term writers, those living with illness or life-altering physical experiences, nurses, therapists, and doctors introduce themselves to one another. I felt wholly out of my element and terrified (and not a little bit awe-struck). I learned that night that the folks who had signed up for the Prose workshop (as I had) would be expected to share a 10-15 page chunk of their writing with their workshop groups. This was new information for me, and I had to scurry that night to get together the material I wanted to share with my group.

What else can I tell you? The Dominican campus is tree-and-deer filled, a peacefully-riotous green. Often during the week I was reminded of being at Goddard, from the reminders to be in one’s own process to the old wood frame buildings, there was something familiar about this place and these healing-focused folks gathered to attend to their own stories, their own writing.

(doing this early morning writing on the computer is a new thing for me — it’s so difficult to just stay with the words, not to stop and edit, not to question or correct. bear with me as I learn this new practice!)

What I want to say is that I entered this space the same way I enter the Goddard space every time (be it one of my residencies during my MA years, or whenever I go back for the Power of Words conference): I am, every time, entirely determined to stay closed. I’m not going to open, I’m not going to stretch, I’m not going to cry. Every time I make this determination — I don’t know if it’s a survivor/survival thing or my ego (god bless her) just struggling to assert her dominion, but each time I go to an event that I know must change me, I decide to resist that change.

This time around, I felt the pull, that energy, the swelling of promise and possibility on the very first night. I heard each of the other attendees describe themselves as we went around the room and did introductions, I listened to the faculty share their hopes for the week, their expertise and interests, and I thought to myself: I can resist this. I will get what I need without breaking.

Now, that’s fear speaking, without question. But you can’t blame an ego for trying! This time around we (my ego and me) lasted all of 12 hours — by 8 the next morning, during John Fox’s Poem as Healer workshop, I was already crying as I listened to the poems he shared, and then as I did my own writing. I had decided to share with my workshop some especially difficult writing, and I was terrified about their response: would they think it too graphically depicted sexual abuse? Would they feel like my writing voice was entirely underwhelming? Would they let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t up to the challenge of telling this (my own) story?

And so I wrote those fears out onto the page, as I sat out on the cement stoop outside the morning meeting room, and let myself cry. A young security guard came by, his face folded with worry, and asked if everything was all right. Now, no, obviously, things aren’t all right — here’s a woman with a face full of tears! But then, yes, absolutely, on the other hand — I was very much ok. I said, “Yes, I’m ok, I’m just at a writing workshop” — as if that should explain everything. Doesn’t everyone weep at a writing workshop?

And so I was broken open, though still quite scared. Our workshop group was made up of strong and brilliant and risk-taking writers from the San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, South Bay, Houston, the East Coast, even Australia. Some of these folks are experienced writers and workshoppers, and some are new to both writing and talking about writing. I worried that we’d be doing some old-school, Iowa-style workshop method (which, in my fears, is all about desecrating a work with the idea of building up the writer’s skin, and building up one’s own work in the eyes of the workshop facilitator at the same time. This might not be the true intention of the Iowa method, I’ll grant that.) What I want to tell you about this group is that we created a (yes, ok) sacred space there in the course of that week, where we could be enthusiastic and encouraging about each other’s writing and stories, where we could talk about what we wished for the piece, what folks might want to do to make sections stronger or clearer. We got to be deeply kind and honest with one another, and our various group facilitators (Louis B Jones, Dr. Rachel Remen, Terese Svoboda) each encouraged this in their own way, and I’m so grateful.

I got to spend the week immersed in writing as art, as practice, as possibility, as offering. We did two hours of workshopping each morning, and then there were three hours of craft talks most afternoons. Our faculty talked about learning to empathize with one’s characters (Louis B Jones), the importance of compassion in writing (Rachel Remen), seismographic attention (Jane Hirshfield — honestly, I mean just look at that title. so fantastic), and more. Robert Hass talked about (if I can possibly pull the breadth of his talk down into a synposis) the three skepticisms of our time and how they could be considered pathologies (though he wasn’t using “pathology” as a negative phrase, I think, more as a judgment-free assessment), engaging with postmodernism and how it’s changed the way that new writers enter into their work. (An aside: I just figured out last night that I can use the Voice Memo “app” on my iphone like a tape recorder; I wish I’d figured that out *before* the craft talks. I’d like nothing more than to be able to listen to each one several more times.) We attendees got to share our writing with the wider community during participant readings, and had the pleasure of hearing our faculty share their writing during evening faculty readings.

A week immersed in kindred community, words and love of words. What an extraordinary gift.

And yes: my Prose group met my writing excerpt with fierce presence and honesty, and they met it as writing, as art, which was another gift. (Sometimes, when I share work that’s centered around trauma, folks can meet it as a therapeutic offering, and tell me that they’re grateful for my bravery, etc. While I think this is a generous hearing, I’m often trying to do something beyond just share the difficult words — I want to bring you, reader/listener, into the experience, as art ought to be able to do. And so it’s a powerful thing when folks are willing to enter into the work on its own terms, are willing to be in the story along with the narrator, are willing to relinquish their distance and take up the fact that this is now our story, not just “mine.”)

In the end, I connected with a number of other healing-writers in the UCSF community, strengthened my relationship with AWA-ers in Sacramentocom (hello Jan & Terri! :) and am hoping that our Prose workshop will continue to be a place to share work and encouragement, even if it’s via email/virtual space rather than in person. And, too, I learned I am up to telling my own story. I had forgotten, maybe (could I have?), how important that deep-embodied understanding can be, forgotten what it feels like to walk in to a roomful of strangers and offer my words to their new-to-me ears, forgotten what it can be like for folks new to my own writing workshops. I remember now, and I’m so grateful to each of the attendees at last week’s Healing Art of Writing conference, and to each person who’s ever come through the door to one of my workshops, for the risks we take together, and for the transforming power of that risk.