For the Week of March 12, 2018: Writing the Experience of the Body

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved.–Anais Nin

As happens with every “Writing Through Cancer” program I lead at various cancer centers and support organizations, the weeks fly by and before I know it, I’m preparing for the final writing session, as I have again these past few days.  It’s a time of reflection and gratitude for me to remember where people began and where their writing has taken them in the past eight weeks.  So much happens during our meetings. My notebook is filled with snatches of the phrases and descriptions from participants’ writing shared aloud, writing that has touched, surprised or left me breathless, so honest and beautiful are their words.

Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.  –Sigmund Freud

“The call to write,” “is a call that’s received in the body first. John Lee wrote in his book, Writing From the Body(1994).  I recall what one cancer survivor wrote in a creative writing course I was teaching several years ago:   Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’,” she wrote,” 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.

What she describes is not unlike how many poets and writers have described the creative process.  It’s a physical urgency and it’s insistent.  It calls us to feel with every part of our bodies.   In her memoir, A Match to the Heart (1994), Gretel Erhlich describes the moment she realizes she has been struck by lightning.

“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 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.

One of the most healing aspects of writing is that it helps us make sense of the chaos of emotions we feel when our lives are turned upside down by illness, tragedy or loss.  We stumble into insights and meaning as we release feelings on the page.  Time and time again in my writing groups, I’ll hear people react with surprise, saying “I had no idea I wrote that!”  as they read their writing aloud.  Tears may come without warning, laughter too, as they “hear” what they have actually written in the timed writing exercises.

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)

John 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 we begin to release the memories and images we have stored in our bodies, powerful writing often results.  Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write (1938), 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.”

To write, we need to learn allow ourselves to open up. The experiences held within our bodies can take us into new ideas and fresh ways of writing.  It doesn’t happen easily at first, because in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, the sudden loss of a loved one, or other expected tragedy, the nerve endings of pain and suffering are numbed.  Sooner or later the emotional pain we feel becomes insistent, needing release.   Releasing our emotions through writing not only clarifies our thinking, it releases energy.  Writing requires we free up that energy and give it voice.  To do so, to write well, we must let ourselves be vulnerable, to feel deep within our bodies.

“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals (1980), “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  “Writing is a courageous act,” prize winning author of The Alchemist, Paul Coelho wrote.   We put ourselves, our lives, on paper.  Others interpret what we’ve written from their own experience.  Yet to write honestly and authentically requires we have the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of our experience.  Writing helps us reclaim and express the difficult feelings that are part of our humanness.  We begin to heal, but much more happens:  We embark on a process of unmistakable growth as writers.

These past eight weeks with the men and women who’ve attended my expressive writing program has, once again, reinforced my belief not only of writing’s healing power, but of the emergent power and beauty to be found by individuals who remarked, at our first meeting, “I’m not a writer, but…”  “In every patient,” Anatole Broyard wrote in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “is a poet trying to get out.”  How can you give your poet, the writer inside you, permission to be released?

Writing Suggestion:

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 much 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.  You have many memories that can result in a longer narrative or perhaps even a poem.  But focus on one and tell the story of that 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.

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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