For the Week of September 13, 2015: After the Storm, then What?

We had a heat wave this past week in Southern California.  Each day the temperature climbed, and the nights remained warm.  As someone who has never tolerated heat well, I grew crankier by the day, stuck indoors close to the air conditioner and as the week progressed, increasingly sleep deprived.  I was—and am—more than ready for summer to move aside and make way for cooler weather.

This morning, I awakened much too early, but with seasons and writing on my mind.  I remembered a different season from the past, when storms lashed the Nova Scotian coast and my emotional life.  It was—or seemed–never ending.  For several years, my life was as unsettled as the Atlantic winters.  I was in the midst of a personal crisis:  an unhappy marriage, the death of my husband, and fearful of the impact on my two young daughters.  For the next decade, my life was in turmoil, dominated by themes of loss, betrayal and illness—my parents’ and my own.  It seemed I lived in the midst of a never-ending storm.

What helped me navigate those rough waters was writing.  I became a crisis writer, filling dozens and dozens of journals, pouring out my angst onto the page.  Despite all that happened in that period of my life, I felt the root of all my suffering lay in those early years of marriage, betrayal and sudden loss.  I decided to write a memoir of that time.  What I didn’t notice that in making that decision, my writing took a significant turn toward writing that could help me heal.  Instead of venting, rumination, and emotional outpourings on the page, I began to shape my experience into a story.  I signed up for memoir classes, worked under the guidance of three different teachers, before deciding to fictionalize my personal story into a novel.  Now I sought out other writers I admired and began my novel.  Three years and 400 pages later, I was stalled.  Stuck in a story that had turned into something I no longer recognized as mine; one I was weary of; one that seemed less and less compelling.  I announced to my writing buddies that I was putting the novel aside and letting the story lie fallow for a time hoping I might return to the draft invigorated.  I didn’t.  Instead, I realized it was high time to move on from the old painful narrative I’d carried with me for years.

Writing out of crisis, pain or suffering is often the inspiration for many great works of literature.  As Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, many of our greatest cultural creations have been created out of pain, crisis and loss.   Novelists and poets have often described writing as a form of therapy, helping them  to express and gain insight from traumatic life events, just as I was trying to do.  Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron wrote with powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald described his battle with alcohol in The Crack-Up, Greene wrote of his manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible. Creativity, as so many writers have shown us, is often fueled by our life crises, trauma or suffering.

But turning life into art is no easy matter.  And not every personal experience of suffering and illness warrants publication, yet those events do need to be expressed, whether in art, writing or traditional “talk” therapy.  Why?  Because writing can help us heal from those traumatic and painful life events.  But healing also implies we move on from those old, painful stories and find new inspiration in the present.

A cancer diagnosis is a life crisis that often triggers intense and abundant writing.  It’s important to have the freedom and safety to express those raw emotions, and creating that safety is an important element of the workshops I offer to cancer patients.  In a supportive environment, people come together to write and make sense of the upheaval which accompanies cancer.  I intentionally titled  the series Writing Through Cancer, because I knew that healing implies movement, not staying stuck in the cancer narrative.  I recalled reading Barbara Abercrombie’s memoir of breast cancer, Writing Out the Storm , a few years ago, and thinking how powerful a metaphor her book title was, capturing the emotional intensity that defines cancer.  Writing becomes the calm, the eye of a hurricane, a kind of refuge while the storm howls around you.  You may write desperately and furiously, revealing your anguish on the pages of your journals, but it offers you release, a chance to begin to see your way through the shock, rage and grief, to recovery and a new normal.

In my expressive writing workshops, people move at their own pace.  It’s not uncommon that those with chronic cancer conditions or a terminal diagnosis will return to write for several series, but their writing usually shifts to poetry or story instead of the raw, emotional writing that is typical of those in the midst of treatment and surgeries for the first time.  But it’s when people return to the workshop well beyond the point of “no evidence of disease” to continue to write about their cancer experience that concerns me as a group leader.  I remember the years I re-hashed my own sorrowful story, and doing so kept me with one foot in the past, kept me from being fully present to the life I was living.  It kept me from healing.

In less than a week, I’ll begin leading another series of “Writing Through Cancer” workshops at two different cancer centers.  The participants will be a mix of those newly diagnosed to those further along in their treatment and recovery.  A few of my most beloved writers will not be part of the group.  They are the ones beyond recovery and with “no evidence of disease,”  but there are others, though living with terminal diagnoses, are determined to focus their time on the present and living fully.  They all have, in one way or another, moved beyond the storm into healing.  They still write, but cancer rarely makes its way onto the page.
I used to be a crisis writer, but my writing changed as I found healing.  I know the real work of writing is to write under any sky,  stormy or clear.  In that way, we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our whole lives encompass. Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but as the sky clears, where will you look for the inspiration and motivation to continue writing?

That’s the work for every writer—and, perhaps, the work of healing–to move beyond the crisis, the storm, and see the world with new eyes.  I recall when Billy Collins, answering questions posed by the audience at a local Writers’ Symposium, said he finds inspiration by simply looking out the window.  Even the ordinary can contain the seed of a poem or a story.  His words inspired me to return to my writing after that lengthy post-novel drought.   The following morning I opened my notebook and began with a line “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  The words flowed freely along with some laughter.  I had my eyes on the present.  I didn’t have to write about the old sorrows and suffering.  I was more than ready to move on and find new inspiration for my writing.

In “Dawn Revisited,”  Rita Dove offers us an invitation to awaken ourselves to the world around us and write.

The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page.

It’s a great image, isn’t it?  Sunshine or storm clouds, all we need to do is a look out the window and notice how  the world offers us new possibilities every day.  Write about the sky above you, whether it’s stormy or sunny, gray or blue.  Write out of a storm, or write of calm.  Write out of pain or write about what’s in front of you.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, whatever it holds.  What matters is that you write—and when you’ve ready to let go of the old, painful stories, there’s so much more just waiting for you to notice.  The whole sky is yours to write on…  Why not write something today?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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