Thursday, July 28, 2005

Writing as a Way of Healing

Earlier this week I commented on a simple book about controlling stress in a review by Floris Vermeir at Book of Calm.

I was a little harsh in my comment that books like these and Chicken Soup for the Soul did not really help anything. They were merely a salve for tragedy, unhappiness and horror. I had, after all, gotten a copy after a heart attack from a sweet and well-meaning acquaintance.

My wife was recently injured badly and a woman sent her this book: Writing as a Way of Healing. I have been reading it since my wife, a painter, feels she can work out her demons in her pictures. I, on the other hand, have slacked off my photography and am writing. When I was first sick It was strongly suggested that I write out my pain and worries and even begin some stories again or a non-fiction account and overview of a heart attack. That was eleven years ago and I wish I had begun the first day I could lift a pencil. It was good advice. I didn't take it.

On release from the hospital I did what all good blogcritics would do and took everything out of the library on heart disease and read them. A physician's first-person narrative of his attack and subsequent heart failure (sorry, title forgotten) helped save my life 2 months later when flash edema (named because it hits so quickly) began to kill me. Instead of waiting I remembered his description and called the paramedics immediately. Living 20 minutes from their station in the woods meant I kept breathing just long enough for them to get there. Not knowing the symptoms might have meant a different outcome.

The subject of this book subtitled, " How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives"is writing stories, histories, journals (maybe even blogs) in order to deal with the things in life that are almost impossible to deal with. The author, Louise DeSalvo, acts as mother hen and teacher to people who need catharsis for all manner of molestation, injury, abuse, disease and injury; Louise DeSalvo does it well enough to change my mind on this book. It has the value of therapy rather than the self-help pap of many such attempts.--the stuff of gifts when you visit the newly injured or hurt.

On the other hand, there is the art of literature and the fact that merely because some artists are also exorcising demons; does not mean that exorcising demons makes you an artist. DeSalvo writes, for example... "I've learned how, for example, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes,, and Henry Miller wrote their way out of suicidal or homicidal episodes. How they transformed their traumatic past into woorks of art..." Well, maybe. Or maybe they had traumatic pasts that became art written by people who always had been forced to write by their muse.

I do not negate the therapeutic aspect of writing. DeSalvo presents a strong and supportively worded plan for people in emotional and physical need to face their pasts, their painful presents and their often uncertain futures. I spent many years working in a mental hospital (now" Psychiatric Center") and ran successful group sessions based on multi-media ways for long-term psychotic and institutionalized people to face some real demons and delusions and to work toward more self-reliance.

Sure. This kind of plan works. The author merely forgets sometimes that F. Scot Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were artists with demons and tragedies. The tragedies did not make them artistis.

Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic and a great painter but the painter came first. Henry Miller had an upsetting love affair for his times. But the Tropic series of novels were still works of art and merely given impetus by the unhappiness of his love life.

My first story was of my first unhappy love affair and a Kerouac-like trip out of the South to the big city of New York. It was cathartic for a college freshman. It was not great art. Virginia Woolf did, indeed, use books like To The Lighthouse to exorcise childhood insecurity and molestation but hers were books of substance -- those that we call "art".

I do, actually, suggest this book as a possibility for someone who needs the push to open their heart and mind and deal with seemingly insurmountable problems. But I also warn them that Ms. DeSalvo dwells on the therapy and the tragedies a bit too much. There is a limit to the repetitive mention of Holocaust stories, childhood rape (a 5 year old!), writing by the bedside of dying children and mothers. When it is Isabel Allende it is art and catharsis. When it is another example of the horrors that life throws in our faces it can become too much for the reader.

Sadly, DeSalvo seems totally non-visual. For my wife and I the image is as or more powerful than the word but words are still the stuff of therapy; pictures come in dreams. For DeSalvo there is an anecdote that "...In 1997 I attended an exhibit called 'Art that Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia'. (There is) "... an Ethiopian healing scroll, an iconic drawing of geometric shapes and five sets of eyes and written prayers..." She ignores the images and speaks again only of words. It is obvious that the healing power of pictures, icons, photos, and drawings has been lost on her.

For a time Carl Jung's Memories, Reflections and Dreams was a favorite but each reading dredged up so many dreams or such power that I finally stopped re-reading it. That is the power of both the word and of pictures and icons.

Is writing good for the soul? Absolutely. Better than chicken soup. Today after beginning this post I read by Dr Pat ; I realized that there is a real life reason for a program to help people write out their losses and horrors. He lost a friend without being able to say "good bye". But since he is an avid reader and a writer, he wrote out his hurt in a Blogcritics post. He confronted his feelings with words and that is what DeSalvo -- depressing as she can be -- outlines. His post made me feel that this book of suggestions and support for writing about traumas is far more valid than I first thought.

My final thought, which is not mentioned in the book, is the recent growth of blogs. I speak not of the corporate news blogs or blogcritics which is more like a magazine; but of the personal blogs by the millions where people write out their hearts for small audiences and no pay. It belies the need of people to communicate feelings and document their lives.