Healing Through Writing

After hearing some of my story, a woman said to me, “Do you think writing saved you?”

I was looking out the window at the blue sky, avoiding her overstuffed office. Books, photos, and nic-nacs lined the dark wood shelves behind her and a lamp sat, too bright and hot, to one side. She was tall and thin, model like in her own way, and she looked at me earnestly, waiting for a response.

When I turned to her, she answered the question for me. “I think writing saved you.”

Ah, there it was.

Writing did help me toggle to the clearer side of sanity. Believing in something larger than my tiny distressed corner of the world helped me get through some very dark times. The ever present feeling that I had something to add to the world secured me from suicidal tendencies.

Some time ago, I thought to write an autobiography. My writing partner has lived a long life. Her stories rich in detail, tempered with the spiritual, and filled with agonies of another time and another kind. She said she’d write her own but for fear that’d she’d hurt people.

Hurting others is not my intention. Those who pinned my pain are are long gone in both their minds and mine. They don’t read me and they exist only as fodder for stories. Writing is how I survived my world. Now, the others are just players in my story, antagonist, foil, etc.

Bits and pieces of my memoir have been published here and there. Some as fiction. Some not. Sometimes, it’s all shaken up to create something new and wonderful – like how ashes are used in bricks to build a city.

Writing it all out – getting it all out – says it’s real – this happened. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be published. It has to be outside of our bodies, not locked into our psyches.

Too many pains in our bodies, tangles in our thinking, are caused from the unspoken past.

Closure comes in many forms. Sometimes just getting it out from inside of us is enough to begin the healing.

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One of my favorite stories – an early piece that I was thinking about as I walked my dogs in the chilled morning air.

It begins:

BEFORE MY MOTHER drank herself to death, I knew her as a gentle creature who fed wild squirrels from her hand.  On the back patio at mid-day, she’d stand very still, calm, peanuts laced in the fingertips of her outstretched hand. The squirrel, a female, her babies came later, approached with caution, across the railing, onto the windowsill, grab the nut, run to the other side of the patio where the squirrel peeled back the shell, ate the meat, then returned for another and another. For a while, the squirrels became my mother’s greatest pleasure.

Success Stories

I didn’t grow up with a lot of positive role models. There were not many (if any) people in our neighborhood who were looked up to as success stories.

I can see my neighbors, even now, from the concrete steps of our four unit blond brick building on S*** Avenue in Collinwood. Across the street, Francis. She had Lucille Ball red hair and sat on her porch from 9am to 9pm, beer in hand. Next door, a single mother who worked at a bar and brought work home with her – in all sorts of ways. Next to her, a retired old man who sat across from Francis with his own beer in hand. His wife, Goldie, was a sweet woman whose toes twisted around one another, feet mangled, she said from twenty years of high heeled waitressing. On the other side, a retired railroad worker, no patio, so he sat in his kitchen hand wrapped around a cold beer.

There were bars on every corner. T & M’s could be seen from the porch. Strangers and neighbors stumbling out with the music pouring onto the street.

The teenagers went to high school, married the boyfriends who beat them, and set up house on the next block. A few got away, I’m sure. But I can list many more who died young or ended up in prison. My teenage crushes are dead now. One was shot in the head, the other crushed under the wheels of a truck. I never got into drugs, thought those who smoked and drank acted silly, stupidly, dangerously. Girlfriends recall tales of waking up half naked, uncertain if anything happened. That wasn’t the memory – or lack of memory – I wanted.

Mostly, I felt limited. I felt outcast. I didn’t seem to belong with any particular crowd or group or gang. I wanted something more, something different, and I didn’t know where to turn. Getting out and getting away seemed the only answer for me. I didn’t know what might meet me beyond the borders of the familiar, but there was no safety and no options in the familiar.

Someone once said – it was very brave of you to travel across country on your own and start over alone. I hadn’t considered it was “brave.” I’d believed it was my only choice, my only chance. She offered, the world is a dangerous place for a young woman to do such a thing. Sometimes home is a dangerous place. Limiting yourself is dangerous. Not fulfilling your potential is dangerous. Living a life in which you’re completely unhappy is dangerous. Sometimes, saving yourself, however scary the unknown is, is your only choice.

 

Superman

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Mr. Rogers didn’t say anything, he acted.

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Just because someone isn’t doing what you think they should be doing, doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything.

Love.

 

Citizens

Imagine going to a therapist who works out of her home. She tells you to use the side entrance, through the gate. But the gate is locked, so you go to the front door and knock.

The therapist, who specializes in trauma, whips open the door and screams in your face “GET AWAY FROM MY HOUSE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY YARD?”

If you’re seeking a therapist with a specialty in trauma counseling, it’s because you’ve experienced trauma.

How do you react?

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Maybe part of that trauma is that you’ve been ignored your whole life, described as a criminal, pulled over and searched for no particular reason. When you walk by, people pull their purses a little closer. People say things to you that seem aggressive, yet they smile while they do it.

If you haven’t experienced these traumas, then perhaps you react. Ask the woman what her problem is? Ask her if she speaks to all her patients like this? Maybe you curse her out. And I’m definitely guessing, you don’t go in and pay her exorbitant fees.

But if you have experienced microaggressions and this is maybe just the third one that day, and it’s still early, you go in.

It’s not one black man who was brutalized by cops that hurts and angers large sections of our population. It’s the thousand little microaggressions that happen on a daily basis and it’s repeated brutality by those who should be setting an example in our society which makes it seem okay to other parts of our population. Further, it is those in charge who seem to shrug and say, oops, as if a cop didn’t just kill someone by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes, but rather ran a stop sign or some other insignificant infraction.

Claudia Rankine describes hundreds of microaggressions perpetrated by colleagues, “friends,” strangers, and society. Citizen: An American Lyric is a book of poetry. I saw it enacted as a play at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles some time ago – and it made and left an impression.

I’ve used it in nearly every literature class since. It is a work of art.

Articles, excerpts, and videos:

New Yorker

An Excerpt from the book Poets.Org

The New York Times

You are In the Dark

From Granta 

Stop and Frisk – video

More from Youtube

 

Silent, Not Silent

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I was going to say I’ve been largely silent in the last weeks, a post here and there, but I don’t want my lack of posting to be confused with silence about what is happening in the world these days.

I am left speechless at the horror of this year, of this last month, of these last days. But not silent. Not neutral.

To compound the coronavirus horrors, my only refuge – as with all of you – my house was invaded, my dog got skunked and brought the smell into the house.

Stay with me here….  this grows.

If you are unfamiliar with the smell save for passing a kill on a country road, the smell leaches into everything in a matter of moments. It’s not a matter of opening the windows to release the odor. The smell is thick, it has claws. It sticks around. Even with fans going, windows open, it lingers in corners.

The spray is an oil type substance that is embedded into my dog’s fur. The skunking is meant to do harm; therefore, it causes burning of the eyes, rash on the skin, nausea. And it is not easily scrubbed out.

I don’t only mean the dog. I was sick for days.

Now, let’s add to that a passing of a friend.

Layer that with the death of George Floyd. This hurts me because it hurts my friends, my students, my family. The brutality Floyd experienced is the brutality people of color experience EVERY DAY!

Top it with the protests, which would have been peaceful except for the agitators who want to use the protests as a front, to cause problems, and commit crimes.

So add looting and violence, the armed national guards, police, and curfews.

Do not take my silence as a neutral position. I am horrified.

Racism is that skunking. It is meant to do harm. It is an odor not released by opening a window. Racism is a stink that has claws, it has bite. It is a sickening, stinging, lingering presence. And it needs to be scrubbed out of the system entirely.

And the scrubbing needs to begin at the top.

 

I am an educator. I teach. One of the classes I have taught is The History of African American Literature. For the next few weeks, my posts will center around what I have learned and what I teach my students about communication, history, and growth.

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Sending loving and healing thoughts to all.

 

What Your Character Reads

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You’ll remember reading some great stories in which the character is reading or recommended a book to read to another.

Authors do not peel off the list carelessly, especially if it’s a single book, author, or scene. These are chosen carefully to reveal something specific about the character, to complicate the story, or to foreshadow what is to come.

There are numerous books which mention other books or authors; however, I’ll example Charity, a short story by Charles Baxter.

In one scene a drug dealer has Othello open to Act 3. It’s unclear if the dealer is actually reading – he’s sitting in a dimly lit bar, running his finger down the page; however, the main character offers, “the handkerchief. And Iago” to identify the scene and illuminate the foreshadowing.

The story of Othello, and more specifically the scene, involves Iago as the master of a manipulation using the handkerchief as evidence of a betrayal.

This is not by some accident that Baxter chose the story and the scene. He didn’t grab at something out of the blue because he needed the dealer to be reading at a bar. He chose to use a scene from another classic text to complicate and foreshadow what is to come. However, the question becomes how does it layer the story of Charity?

I won’t tell you, but I highly recommend reading the story.

In one story, I had a character reading a book by Betty White. The book is fictional, but I wanted the character to be seeking an idea of normalcy as far from herself as I could get.

Presently, I’m working on a novel. One of the characters is rather shallow and cares about the appearance of things more than anything else. Another character is describing the home and I needed a coffee table book to reflect the first. I felt he would choose a book which matched the decor, but also shows him as worldly. I chose National Geographic’s Stunning Photography. He’s never even cracked the spine, he just wanted something beautiful to match the blue of his curtains and make him look good to his guests. I may change it, but right now I think it works.

Give thought to the choices in your work, even if it’s a book sitting on a table, passing from one character or another, or in a window. It’ll layer your work, giving more depth to your characters and the story.

 

Does pain inspire creativity?

When I was young, I knew many people attempting to inspire creativity by causing themselves pain. They used drugs, alcohol, fought, caused drama, got in to trouble and they’d say – this is what it takes to create good writing, music, art.

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The tortured artist effect – it takes agony to create good work.

I recall one writer who drank and cheated and lied and ended up homeless, rejected, lost. He said – it makes for good stories.

I decided, quite young, that life was painful enough than to dive in head first to any more misery.

But then as I lay in bed a few nights ago with the pain of the last few months growing, the losses, the fears, the absence of loved ones, and others looking for a scapegoat for their own pain, I succumbed to a wave of agony.

The way I have handled anything challenging in my life is to write it out. So – I wrote.

Does that mean, then, that torment is good for writing?

I do write almost every day, pain or no  pain.

Maybe it’s not about torture inspiring art; however, my pain came out in poetry, which I rarely write on a regular basis.

Creatives, writers, artists, musicians write as a way to work out the agony and perhaps it just seems that pain inspires art.

Others come to the mistaken belief that they need to place themselves in harms’ way in order to create.

The guy I mentioned earlier – who caused himself and others a lot of pain – never did become the writer he wanted/thought he wanted to be. I think he fell into far too much misery to pull himself out. It stunted his talent and desire.

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The Crier – by the way – is about people who go to extremes to avoid pain.

Maximum Flow

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I had a professor who hated the word “flow.” We were not allowed to say it in class and when someone new to this prof or class would say it, we would all turn to the instructor as she launched into a near spasm of “O”ing her lips, rolling her eyes, and throwing her head back in dramatic fashion.

Sometimes she wouldn’t verbalize to the newbie, so they would glance around wondering if she needed a medic, then someone would lean over and explain to the student, “we don’t use that word.”

BUT WHY NOT?

Well, I don’t know what her issues were; she had A LOT of them.

As I launched into my own new flow of the week, I thought there is no better word for it.

A river flows, it twists and bends and moves around boulders, tree trunks, rolls over rocks or sticks and, when it hits a new blockage, it flows around or under or over. That’s what writing feels like when it’s going well. You’re in a rhythm and you’re moving and it feels like nothing can stop you!

I feel like when you’re in the flow – other ideas come; you’re all juiced up, moving at maximum speed, and it paves way for and welcomes fresh and new streams of thought.

It’s important not to lose that feeling. Write until you can write no more and then you can’t wait to come back to it. And the sooner you jump right in again, the sooner the flow resumes.

When you stop, the longer you stop for, you risk becoming stagnant. Just like a river. It takes more effort to get restarted, to push away the junk that has gathered and blocked the movement.