I’ve been thinking about how, in the weeks of our Toronto winter, my mood, dampened by a bad case of bronchitis and nearly three weeks of coughing, doctor’s visits and antibiotics, my writing has mirrored my mood, floundering along with my physical discomfort, state, repetitive themes and forced prose that seems leaden and glum, just as surely as the coughing and overcast skies I’ve suffered through for days on end. Not only was I bored, whatever I managed to put on the page was uninspired and dull. Did I need some new life crisis in my life ignite my daily writing practice? Somehow, that didn’t seem like anything I needed or wanted, lackluster writing or not.
Nevertheless, writing out of crisis, pain or suffering, has provided the inspiration for many works of great literature. Novelists and poets alike have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them heal from traumatic events in their lives in face, and Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, those traumatic events have inspired many of our greatest cultural creations. Writer Paul Theroux once described writing like digging a deep hole and not knowing what you will find. He admitted to feeling a sense of initial shock when reading authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron, discovering 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, not infrequently is fueled by life crises, trauma or suffering. Search for on Amazon’s book listings, and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books written out of personal suffering, illness, loss or other trauma.
Cancer is one of those personal crises that triggers intense and abundant writing and has, for many authors, resulted in books of poetry or memoir. Writing Out the Storm, the title of Barbara Abercrombie’s memoir of her breast cancer experience, is a great metaphor for writing out of a personal crisis. A cancer diagnosis–or many other traumatic life experiences, can make you feel as if you’re in the midst of a storm. You rage; you weep; you pour your emotions onto the page. Writing becomes the calm, the eye of a hurricane, a kind of refuge while the storm continues to howl around you. You may write desperately and furiously, revealing all your anguish on the pages of your notebooks. The refuge I found in writing during an extended period of personal crisis and loss, and the solace I discovered in it ultimately led me to leading my first workshop for cancer survivors nearly 18 years ago.
Yet the cancer journey changes, just as the weather and seasons across the country. As you move from the shock and pain of diagnosis, surgeries and chemotherapy toward recovery, winter–although it may not feel like it now–makes its retreat, and Spring arrives. Your spirits are buoyed by the promise of calmer and sunnier days emerging from the wreckage left by wild weather. The first crocus poking through the last of the snow and the buds appearing on the trees, ignite a new sense of hope. But what happens to your writing as the storm passes and life becomes more bearable? Does your writing change, or do you stop writing? Are you predominantly a “crisis writer,” preferring the intensity of a life crisis to fuel your writing or do you discover new inspiration as the sky clears and nature begins to blossom?
For a long time in the aftermath of my loss and grief, I was a crisis writer. But gradually, I realized I’d begun to ruminate, replaying old questions and sorrow over and over on the pages of my notebook. Instead of feeling better, I felt worse. I was mired in the blues. The monotony of my constant replays on the page weren’t helping me get on with life or writing. While it’s true that to write, you must be willing to step into your shadows and confront your own darkness, but to remain there defeats the healing benefits writing can have. It’s why, in my cancer writing workshops, the prompts and exercises I offer to the groups gradually move from the predominant theme of cancer to a person’s whole life. Cancer isn’t anyone’s complete life story–only a part of it.
A few years ago, I was stuck in a winter’s funk–erroneously called “writer’s block,” something I have since banned from my vocabulary. Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the U.S. and a favorite of mine, was speaking at a local university; I was determined to hear him speak. I was glad I did. Collins’ poetry and wry humor were good medicine for my sagging spirits. After the reading, he took a few questions from the audience, and one person asked where he found his inspiration. His answer was brief and to the point. Collins replied that he finds his inspiration in noticing, by looking out the window. Read his poetry, and you’ll quickly discover that even the most ordinary thing can contain the seed of a poem or a story.
The following morning, still inspired by Collins’ reading, I opened my notebook, gazed out the windows in our front room and began with a first sentence, “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…” It was enough. The words began flowing freely, something to do with being present and paying attention I realized. I thought of Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” inspired by a request from a young man to write him a poem and send it to him. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco,” Nye began, ” Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two…” She continued:
…I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
(In: Red Suitcase, 1994).
What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them. In Rita Dove’s wonderful poem, “Dawn Revisited,” she offers an invitation to awaken ourselves to the world around us to inspire the way we live and express our lives.
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight…
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page…
(In: On the Bus With Rosa Parks, 1999)
The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page… It’s a great image, and it reminds us that the real work of writing is to write under any sky, whether stormy or clear. It’s is how we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our lives encompass. It’s the work for every writer—and, perhaps, for healing: to move beyond the crisis, storms, and see the world with new eyes, to awaken, notice and explore. Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but ask yourself this: as the sky clears, where will you find the inspiration and the motivation to keep writing?
- Why not take a look out the window or go outside? Open your eyes and notice how alive the world is with new possibility.
- Begin with a blank page and write about the sky above you, whether it’s stormy or sunny, gray or blue.
- Start with the first thing that grabs your attention as you look out the window. Start with a single line, pay attention to what you notice and describe it. Then keep writing for 20 minutes and see where it takes you.
- Write out of storm, or write about calm. It doesn’t matter. The whole sky is yours, the blank page is yours, a space for whatever you want to write. What matters most, is that you write.