I teach a six week online course entitled “Transformational Writing: Writing to Heal & Make Life into Art” for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program, which I’ve been doing since 2007. Those who enroll do so to write and tell their stories of trauma, hardship, suffering or serious illness. It’s something that novelists, memoirists and poets, famous and lesser known, have done for a very long time. “Whenever I get somewhere,” Sigmund Freud complained, “a poet has been there first.” And long before Dr. James Pennebaker’s groundbreaking studies on the health benefits of writing, Anais Nin already knew what his research would confirm decades later: “When we see our suffering as story, we are saved,” she wrote.
As I read through this week’s discussion comments from the students in my UCLA class, one, in particular, stood out. Writing about a serious illness, one woman wrote, “Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’, I took notes. Some are frightening and some are funny – and I’m still writing. I think this …has shoved me into being a writer and admitting it, whether anyone ever reads it or not.”
“The call to write,” Author John Lee tells us in Writing From the Body, in “is a call that’s received in the body first. Poets and writers have described the creative process as a physical urgency; it’s insistent. It calls us to feel, to feel with every part of our lives. (Writing from the Body, Sondra Perl, in Felt Sense, Writing with the Body, states it another way: “There is a space inside of us that “holds within it all that is not yet said, what waits implicitly before words come.”
To write from the body, we need to learn allow it to open up, for the experiences held within the body offers new ideas and fresh ways of writing. The irony, of course, is that in the aftermath of a debilitating illness, loss or hardship, we’re numb. We’ve learned to live in our heads—cutting off the nerve endings of pain and suffering. Writing’s power to heal, in part, comes when you begin translating emotions into language. Releasing your emotions through writing not only clarifies your thinking, it releases energy. To write well requires you free up that energy and give it voice, and it necessitates allowing yourself to feel deep within your body.
Long before there were words…
long before this haze of lies this
swirl of stupid things said and done
the body knew… (Seibles, in Lee, p. 5-6)
Lee writes of ancient wisdom that lies dormant in our bodies, of knowing, deep inside, “how to get through the high grass without being devoured by lions.” When you honor that wisdom by releasing the memories and images stored in your body, powerful writing is often the result.
“Something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.” Suzanne Berger writer in the prologue of Horizontal Woman: The Story of A Body in Exile. Berger, recounting her experience of becoming paralyzed, describes the sensation of suddenly unable to move:
“I am standing outside a shopping mall on a shimmering fall day in Chagrin Falls, Ohio…I bend down to pick up my child, but the bending never finishes, breaks instead into spitting lights of pain that spread over a pool of half-consciousness. A tearing is felt—heard almost—within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine. The body instantly announces: This is an important event; this is an event you will never forget. I can’t get up. The asphalt is icy. Somehow I am wedged into a car. The emergency room regrets not knowing what to do.”
In another memoir titled A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, we read her account of being struck by lightning. Erlich begins:
“Deep in an ocean, I am suspended motionless. The water is gray. That’s all there is, and before that? My arms are held out straight, cruciate, my head and legs hang limp. Nothing moves. Brown kelp lies flat in mud and fish are buried in liquid clouds of dust. There are no shadows or sounds. Should there be? I don’t know if I am alive, but if not, how do I know I am dead? My body is leaden, heavier than gravity. … A single heartbeat stirs gray water. Blue trickles in, just a tiny stream. Then a long silence. Another heartbeat. This one is louder, as if amplified…. I can’t tell if I am moving…Another heartbeat drives through dead water, and another, until I am surrounded by blue…. I have been struck by lightning and I am alive.”
Erhlich is not only writing from the memory, or remnants of it, of a near death experience, she is writing from the experience of her body, a vivid, visceral account of the physical sensations felt in the aftermath of being struck by lightning. She portrays the lived experience of the human body, drawing us into her story through our senses. As readers, we feel an almost physical awareness of what she experienced in those terrifying moments.
Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write, counsels the would-be writer:
“You must feel when you write…. You must disentangle all thought. You must disconnect all shackles…. You can write as badly as you want to. You can write anything you want to…just so you write it with honesty and gusto and try not to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.”
Time and time again, I witness the surprise from individuals who attend my writing groups for cancer survivors. “I’m not a writer,” many of them often say at the beginning of the workshops, and yet, as they write from their cancer experience, something remarkable happens. Their writing takes on power. It’s strong, vivid and visceral. The group listens in rapt attention, moved by what a participant reads aloud. “I didn’t know I was going there,” the individual often says. “I didn’t know I could write like this.”
“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Writing honestly and authentically takes real courage, the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of your experience. Writing out of pain, trauma, and illness helps you to reclaim and express those difficult feelings as part of yourself. What happens as you do is not healing, but a process of unmistakable growth as a writer.
“In every patient,” Anatole Broyard wrote in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “is a poet trying to get out.” How can you let the poet, the writer inside you get out?
Begin slowly. Start with a simple phrase, “I remember _____and describe that memory in detail. Then, borrowing from Natalie Goldberg, continue for three minutes, writing as many single sentences as you can all beginning with “I remember…..”, for example, “I remember the day my grandmother died.” Or “I remember seeing the pavement rushing up to meet me.” Or “I remember the moment the doctor said_____”
Once you’ve filled a page with “I remember,” turn it over. Begin again, only this time, start with “I don’t remember…” and again, write as many as you can in three minutes. These memories may be more difficult to recall, but they yield more to explore in writing, for example, “I don’t remember why my mother and father stopped speaking; I don’t remember passing out on the sidewalk… I don’t remember what it was about that morning that first upset me…
When you’ve written as many of “I don’t remember” as you can in three minutes, choose one sentence from either side of your paper and explore it. Tell the story of the single memory, describing not only the event or setting, but what you were feeling in as much detail as possible. Write from the “lived” experience of the body.