Otherwise

A wise woman reassesses her priorities. She stops occasionally to work out what is important, what her values are. A wise woman knows life is a matter of fine-tuning. She takes stock and either polishes life or discards that which undermines her well being. I find myself in that moment: I am in need of space; I need a break. What was important nearly two years ago, when I started this blog, warrants recalibration. I look out of my window and I see the season is shifting; I drink coffee with a friend as she weighs up her options while burdened with many, too many, anxieties trying to crush her audacious spirit. 

Life is change; mindfulness is accepting change, even daunting, scarifying change. As I attempt to think this through, the word ‘otherwise’ comes to mind. From the Old English ‘on othre wisan, the prefix ‘other’ implies ‘distinct or different from’, while the archaic meaning of ‘wise’ is ‘the manner or extent of something’ as in ‘he did it this wise’. The word is related to ‘wit’, which means ‘to have knowledge … to see.’ I find I have a new knowledge of myself and my writing, different to the knowledge I had of my self and of writing in 2015. My ‘season’ as a writer, has changed. I can do little more than abide the change.

I am going to take a ‘blog break’ for the next seven weeks. I need to mind my health and prepare for a challenging and liberating journey to the other side of the world. I want, in addition, to draw on and clarify the confidence my blog, and my readers, have given me.

I do this with a deep sense of gratitude. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your support. If I decide, at the end of my break, to change direction please know it is because this blog, my readers and the experience of being part of this amazing community has shown me that,

… all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

to rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

‘Ulysses’ Alfred Lord Tennyson

Pain: A Reflection

Two days ago, I drafted a post describing my struggle with a herniated disc and the resulting pain. Yesterday, still dealing with pain and under the influence of supposedly helpful pain relievers, I accidentally deleted the document.

I wrote about feeling trapped on an island of pain, how being left (due to a set of unavoidable circumstances), alone for several hours to fend for myself, it felt as if my friends and family were swimming through the shoals of my pain and batting the seaweed of my frustration and anger aside as they headed for their own islands.

It’s probably just as well I lost the file. I was feeling sorry for myself and needed to rant, although writing the draft helped me come to terms with my predicament. Losing it helped me to understand that nothing is permanent including my pain, which hasn’t quite dissipated but has reduced, thanks to the ministrations of a good physiotherapist, the gentle restorative exercises he suggested, and plenty of rest.  

I found another self on that island of pain, a self that swung too readily between binary opposites of hope and despair, a self who fell into the trap of believing life was either a vale of tears or a pain-free paradise. Why, I moaned, was I forced to endure the former when I craved the latter? This led me to reflect on the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, an inescapable misery rather than an occasion for learning, growing, and feeling compassion for myself and others.

Mindfulness techniques helped me cope; I sent my breath to the afflicted area, imagining it became suffused with a healing light and the relief, though momentary, was sweet. I also did a little research on neurological explanations of pain. In my situation, as I understand it, the nerve endings located in or around my herniated (and thinning) disc, alerted my brain to a potential problem; something was about to, or had, gone wrong. My brain then interpreted and sent the message on and I experienced debilitating pain. According to Norman Doidge , however, my experience was

an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to injury.

This means, I think, that in the process of collecting and sharing the relevant information, pain is little more than a construct of my brain. Could this explain why military personnel and highly trained athletes deal with pain better than most of us? They don’t ignore the brain’s signals, they recognise it as a construct and manage it differently than the rest of us.

As a result of my research I started a conversation with my brain, telling it my physiotherapist said I needed to move, that I would be careful and my brain didn’t need to tell me moving would hurt; it could also please ‘turn down’ the hurt, or reduce the length of time it hurt. Because, as Doidge reveals, that

neurons that fire together wire together,

and due to our brain’s remarkable plasticity,

neurons that fire apart wire apart-or neurons out of sync fail to link,

I attempted to reconfigure the neuronal link between what was occurring in my spine and the way my reactionary brain ‘read’ the information and conveyed it to me.

As I result, I found movement a little easier. This is not, however, a recommendation for dealing with pain, just a game my brain and I played, a narrative, if you will, I constructed to address the inconvenience of my situation.

As my pain recedes I ask myself once more who am I and do I believe life is suffering or is it a mindful awareness of both suffering and joy; a dance between the two?  I called my original blog, ‘The Loneliness of Pain’ because, over the weekend, I felt utterly alone. My research, the meditations I did and my reflections on the idea of universal suffering helped me acknowledge that everyone experiences pain. As we move closer to understanding, from a scientific and neurological perspective, the nature and significance of that universal suffering maybe we will become more compassionate, loving human beings.

I have no doubt that I, and my lower spine, will recover. Back exercises will become a daily routine, as will being aware of how I move my body now it has fully entered the ageing process.

I understand now that the island I thought I was on is only a peninsula. Feeling isolated by my pain, or by any experience of loss or grief, is an illusion; to suffer is human and because we are human, we never truly suffer alone.

 

Only a Moment to Read

Short fiction? Flash fiction? Micro fiction? Sudden fiction?  Quick fiction? Nano fiction? Hint fiction? It’s like naming a baby. What am I to call these experiments in story, barely more than a few short paragraphs long, that can, when well written, say so much? I rather like the term ‘hint fiction’ because very short stories are more suggestive than prescriptive. They are  distinct because of their length, but are also unstructured. They defy, thankfully, any ‘rules’ about how to write them. Maybe they are ‘unaffected fictions’ although the form demands the careful attention of both writer and the reader.

Perhaps their mystery is what attracts me?

Before I offer three of my ‘hint fictions’ I’d like to quote from Robert Shapard’s brief introduction to a special section of World Literature Today, ‘The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction’:

If you are new to reading flashes and micros, be warned, they are so short they are easy to dismiss.  Grace Paley said they “should be read like a poem, that is, slowly”- and if you find one particularly troubling, or to your liking, one of the pleasures of very short fiction is that it takes only a moment to read and reflect.

Insect

A friend recently advised me to, ‘let each work choose its own form, usually you won’t know (poem, prose, prose poem) until you’re at the editing stage.’ I agree with him, but I like to play with and explore different forms. It’s like trying on different garments. Poets experiment with new forms all the time, it seems a pity to me that some fiction writers get stuck in a genre. I was stuck in a career for over thirty years so I’m enjoying playing with different short story forms. What do you think? Short or long form stories? Hint fiction, flash fiction or prose poetry? Does it matter?


IN VACUA

She could see the space around an object, the brief halt that preceded the next step, the lull before wing lift. She heard the beat between the notes and the silence that encircled every utterance.

She tried and failed to teach him. ‘Trust’, she said, ‘the pattern and the void, you’ll see that the world is cast from nothing.’ He looked and saw people walking along the street, gulls thieving pieces of bread, and heard only the sound of her voice saying, over and over, ‘how can you miss them, the spaces, the pauses, the silence?’ but he did not know how to listen to silence.

A LONG REIN

Sometimes she felt braided, like a rope, twisting and turning on herself, knotted but never secure.

She decided to learn to weave, set up a studio, bought a loom but in the end felt she was only imitating the mystery of warp and weft, that their constraint mocked her.

Finally, she unravelled the paradox of rope; when confident, rope curbs a parcel, submits the largest vessel to a wharf, fastens delicate veins with a simple hitch. Diffidence was discarded cords that tangled and snarled at people’s ankles.

She started running. After months of training she became thin, lithe, muscular, like a length of corded nylon.

POSTCARD FROM ARRAS

For Reginald Leslie Thomas, 1894-1966

In 1916 he wrote, ‘Dear Mother, I am still in the best of health,’ on the back of a postcard from Arras. On the front, grey and black buildings were consumed by salmon pink flames. He ended the note with, ‘Your Loving Son’.

When I was three, I’d sit on his lap and take small, cool sips from his glass of beer. He taught me how to wash a car, how to stand, listen, wait and never join an argument unless necessary. I usually fail that last lesson.

Years after his death he appeared in a dream, waiting sleepless and reassuring in a darkened lounge for a prowler who wanted to steal ornaments from the mantel above our fireplace.

I cannot write of his war; I cannot comprehend the sound of a gun fired at another human. I cannot fathom his sacrifice because sacrifice excludes anger and I am angry that his blameless self was unknown to me. War was the prowler who bequeathed to me a gentle, tired, beloved grandfather who could not speak the unspeakable, whose unspeakable war haunts us still.

 

Blogging Challenges, Therapeutic Writing and Feminism

Blogging Challenges, Therapeutic Writing and Feminism? That’s quite a title isn’t it? I hope it didn’t put you off, but if you’ve read this far you’re willing to read more, though you are probably wondering if I can tie it all together.

First, here is a list of the things I’ve learned when I completed the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge.

  • Blogging is simply another form of communication. It’s easy to assume, as we sit tickling our keyboards hoping something useful can come of it and scanning our computer monitors (or mobile phones) for typos, that blogging is about technology; the internet, phone lines, satellites and such. Far from it. I’m communicating with you right now and if you’re so inclined you’ll respond to this post either by reading it carefully, thinking about it and maybe incorporating some of the content into your life, or simply by writing a comment (or, as my father used to say, ‘Adding your two bob’s worth’). Only humans can do that. The medium might be the message but the message is there are sentient beings at both ends of the process. Like any other interaction in my life, the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge has taught me that humans are invariably kind, generous, intelligent, supportive beings.
  • Blogging is giving; it’s about sharing ideas, opinions, domestic tips, recipes, images, poetry, music, goals, losses, hopes, dreams … and we’re back to the human element again. Bloggers share their lives with their readers and will do so for years to come. It’s a heady thought, but it’s also a responsibility. This leads to the next point …
  • Blogging is about honesty. I’ve learned that bloggers can spot a sham in less time than it takes to type supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. By honesty, I mean genuine self disclosure (which is not the same as sharing deep intimacies too soon). Genuine communication is sharing what we think is appropriate for the person and the situation. In other words honesty is, in this sense, meaningful and contextual. Maybe I’ve been lucky; the bloggers I’ve met since I started blogging last July, and in the last week, seem to have found the balance between healthy boundaries and honest communication.

I’ve learned more, of course, but I want to move on to therapeutic writing. The main reason for starting a blog was to share my research about therapeutic writing, but as my wonderful daughter-in-law said over lunch on Friday, the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge revealed a less serious, less formal and, dare I say it, more human blogger. Blogging is a way to get my message about writing as healing across but I need to speak ‘to’ people, not ‘at them’, to make my message meaningful and to have fun in the process. This drive to inform people about therapeutic writing leads to the last part of today’s title: feminism.

Last night I realised the seeds of my interest in therapeutic writing were sown back in 1983 when I returned to university (for the first time, I have a habit of periodically drifting back into study, but that’s for another blog!) and enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Women’s Education. My suspicions about patriarchy were very quickly confirmed as were my concerns about the status of women. The issue of women’s silence, of women being denied a voice in how they run their lives, became, and still is, important to me. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde wrote, ‘there are so many silences to be broken.’ My commitment to breaking those silences  has endured for over thirty years and culminated in research about the silence around women’s (and men’s) mental health problems.

Audre Lorde also wrote,

And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.

32951  There are still too many women who are forced to be silent. There are too many words spilled about women and not by women. If, by writing therapeutically I mean writing as woman about our needs, our desires, our losses, our heartbreak, our oppression, our fight for justice for every single person on the planet, our fight for the planet itself, then I will write therapeutically, and blog about therapeutic writing, for as long and as loud as I can.

This, along with the opportunity to connect with people from around the world, is for me the true power and joy of blogging.

Your Turn: What is the real reason you blog? Is there something from your past that you think has culminated in your blog? What have you learned about the world since you started blogging?

 

I want to say here that I don’t hate men. My father was a man, my two sons and my partner are all men. I like most men. Then again, why do I feel the need to say this? As I saw on Facebook the other day, why is it when women (not all women, but most) say they are feminists, they hasten to add they like men? Why is it necessary to bring men into a discussion about feminism? End of rant.

I don’t mean therapeutic writing and feminism are the same thing with the same goals. I do think, however, they can inform and enhance each other.

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Seven

On Blogging, Easter, Family and Gratitude.

Didn’t the days fly by? I’ve had great fun posting seven days in a row. I think my writing has benefitted, the blog seems to have taken on a new life, I’ve connected with some wonderful bloggers (some in far flung places, others closer to home) and read some inspiring and fascinating posts.

I’m writing today’s post from the dining table instead of my writing room. After all, it’s Good Friday and my partner Cadence, who does the cooking, is going to be busy in the kitchen and I don’t want to lock myself away today. We’ve connected his tablet to our sound bar and cranked up the music. Cadence programmed the tablet to ‘shuffle’ so anyone  from one of Stones, Pink Floyd, Freddie and the Dreamers, or perhaps Leonard Cohen, Mozart, Neil Young or Wagner is likely to join us as we go about preparing for the day. I’m sure that at some point we’ll hear a track that will make us stop what we’re doing and join together in a dance around the living area. It’s lucky there are no cameras about, just a couple of old hippies reliving their spent youth, or what they can remember of it.

Later this morning we’ll be joined by my oldest son and his family. It’s a typical Adelaide autumn day today; sparkling and fresh. Just right in fact, so we’ll eat lunch outside under the pergola. I’m a Spring and Autumn girl: I tolerate the heat of summer and the winter’s cold, but I embrace the balance and change that typifies the equinoxes – the word says it all, doesn’t it? Say it out loud, slowly. E-qui-nox: equal day and night; harmonious; symetrical; proportionate.

From old iPhone 778

The rest of Easter will be quiet. We’ll see a movie and on Sunday we’re going to the local Irish club, as Cadence’s ancestors came from that grand isle. Hmmm, Maybe Monday won’t be so quiet after all?

And now, gratitude: I am grateful for my life; for the relative peace we are lucky to have here in Australia; for my friends, those who’ve been a part of my life for well over thirty years, and the new ones I’ve met through the grace of the internet. I’m grateful for my family, those close by,  those on the other side of the country, and the new family I discovered when Cadence and I joined our lives. I’m also grateful for the gift of writing some capricious god with a wry sense of humour decided to bedevil me with. My writing has helped me understand that, as Auguste Rodin said,

The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.

My wish for this Easter, my wish for everyone, is that wherever you are and whatever your faith or creed, you will be with friends, family and someone you love and who loves you. I hope there will be music, or art, or a good book, or a beautiful tree or distant mountains in the background, but most I hope there is peace in your heart.

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Six

Path and Practice

In August 1993 I bought a copy of Deena Metzger’s Writing for your Life. I was about to turn 41 and remember thinking, ‘This is it, I’m going to do it this time.’ Leafing through the pages I see I’ve underlined passages, written in the margins and even in the blank spaces at the end of a chapter. (Yes, I’m one of those people who shamelessly put themselves into the books I own.) I’ve taken the title of this post, Path and Practice, from the first section of Part IV of the book. In this section Metzger addresses the idea of the muse and its connection to spirituality:

The muse is like the angel one sometimes meets on a path while seeking wisdom, peace, and compassion.

She adds that,

creativity is such a path, writing is one of its practices and the muse with her sweet breath or fiery torch stands in the dark place and lights our way.ULN25XYFAP

Now, Metzger is in no way saying that writing is the same as religion, or that creativity and spirituality are the same thing. She claims that  being creative is also a path, one that

has to be carved out by each individual practitioner.

A muse , says Metzger is a boon to anyone on that path and she encourages her readers to imagine and invoke their muse.

For various reasons I was unable to do that in 1993 but I have a muse now, and while I have challenged myself to write seven posts in seven days she has stayed by my side and lit my way with her torch, though a LED flashlight is more her style.

My muse is ebullient, cheeky, assertive and bossy; there’s nothing gentle or meek about her. Like most muses she’s liable to get bored and wander off, she has a critical streak (telling me, of course, it’s for my own good), and is disagreeable when it suits her.

I am talking about Goldilocks, or my version of her. She’s been with me since I was two, when, so the story goes, I insisted my parents read her story to me every night.

Why did I choose her? (Or did she choose me?)

Goldilocks has, to me, always seemed enigmatic, transgressive and marginalised; although I am sure my three-year-old self would not have used those words. She doesn’t prevaricate or postpone, she is curious, sensual and appears to feel no regret or guilt concerning her actions. I was a timid child, but Goldilocks is bold and adventurous. She explored her world,  I stayed close to home. She not only knocked at the door of the three bears’ cottage, she opened it and crossed the threshold without waiting to be invited. I have always hung back. Goldilocks is always alone; she makes her own choices, avoids company and has a positive self-regard born of her strong belief  in ‘just right’.

Is she the ‘just right’ muse for me?  You bet. When I recreated her story in my memoir I had her admit responsibility for what she did because I believe we have to have the courage to accept the consequences of our actions. By choosing Goldilocks as my muse I am validating an otherwise disruptive, anti-establishment, resourceful and maligned girl/woman who  challenges domestic order, social mores and conventions. She is capricious, confident, assertive and fearless, qualities that earn her—as well as other girls with similar characteristics—criticism and censure.

The differences between Goldilocks and the traditionally wild creatures of the forest, the bears, intrigues me. These three  bears are civilised and domesticated; they live in a cottage, eat from a table, sleep in a bed and appear to have a clear sense of right and wrong, albeit with a degree of moral turpitude when it comes to assisting those worse off than them. That Goldilocks might be a wayfarer searching for safety, comfort and shelter is ignored. She is called a greedy, wilful and selfish girl when, she is, upon arrival at the Bears’ cottage, a hungry, tired, lost child seeking asylum. The bears are outraged by her behaviour. They don’t stop and consider that she is simply following her instincts and finding shelter and food. Given this, is there any need for her to feel remorse for her actions? Yes, in one sense there is something monstrous about her behaviour, but there is also something monstrous about bears in human clothing who refuse to provide a child with asylum.

For me, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears demonstrates that being a ‘good girl’ is the only option available to little girls who wish to be accepted into society, even if that means starving. By trying to discover her ‘just right’ Goldilocks is assumed to have committed an act of transgression. She is banished and the bears are seen as victims.

Above the door of my writing room is the word ‘Imagine’ in large red letters. The Goldilocks I imagine is exactly the right muse for me because she gives me strength.  The Goldilocks I call muse, like any other muse, is a figment of my imagination, but imagination is what all writers, all artists, need and exercise. As Deena Metzger writes,

The imagination is … a real place. And the image is as real as a table or the galaxies. The image matters. Matters as much as anything matters. The image is the prima materia. To respect it, work with it, live with it, act upon it, finally to live with it is the very core of the creative life.

I write for many reasons. One of them is because a capricious, maligned, brave little girl walked into my life over 60 years ago and refused to leave. I am fortunate to have such a tenacious muse because she is the one who insists I ‘just write!’

Do you have a muse? How did she or he come into your life? How does she or he nurture you?  How do you nurture your muse?

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Five

Living the Writer’s Life

It’s early days yet, but my life as a writer is starting to develop a pattern. I read, as a writer should, every day; short stories, a novel, my favourite blogs and occasionally an academic article that interests or inspires me. I take lots of notes, in different notebooks and on the computer. My note taking system is rather chaotic and I worry that when I need a particular note I won’t remember where I recorded that fact, idea, scrap of dialogue or description. Each notebook has, however, a different purpose or covers a different topic so a quick search usually locates what I need. When it doesn’t I invariably find another note I can use.

Since I started writing full-time, I’ve submitted two stories to competitions and I’m working on another story for a competition due at the end of the month. I’ve also met my regular long time writing buddy and joined a newly formed writing group with lots of promise. Am I a writer now? Some might say no, because I haven’t been published (apart from a poem and one short story). Others might say I am a writer because, on most days, I sit down and write, even if what I write is rubbish. (As writers know, the first draft is always rubbish but if you don’t write rubbish you have nothing to edit).

So can I call myself a writer?

You know, I prefer verbs to nouns. Verbs, I used to tell my students, are the engine room of a sentence, they tell us what is happening. A good verb can rescue a dreary sentence and beginning writers are encouraged to ditch adverbs in favour of a better verb. Is this because verbs are more interesting that nouns?

When we’re asked what we do for a living, why do we tend to answer with a noun? We say, ‘I am a teacher,’ when what we do is teach. Doctors heal, journalists report, bus drivers … well,  drive. I wonder why we talk about our roles and not our actions? Maybe nouns are easier to throw around than verbs. Nouns designate, label and specify. Nouns pin us down and sometimes they can hurt when, for example, we use them as labels to describe the nature or character of a person we think is different, or ‘other’, because of their race, gender, sexuality or physical ability.

Is this why is it easier to say we are something than to say we do something? Verbs tells us about what has occurred, what is happening or what will happen; they are about performance and action. Do they also indicate responsibility? Let’s take the example of Australia’s current horrendous (adjectives are sometimes useful!) detention system where hundreds of refugees are locked up with little hope of ever being welcomed into Australia. ‘You can’t blame me,’ one of the people who works at a detention centre might say, ‘I’m just a guard’. We all know this is a hollow defence; this person is ‘guarding’, but guarding who and from what? Are  they guarding refugees to make sure they come to no harm or are they guarding Australians from refugees? See how a good verb can complicate things and make us think?

Perhaps guards, terrorists and politicians should identify themselves by what they do: ‘I imprison; I terrorise.’ And the politicians? I’ll leave you to provide a verb for them, but is it possible identifying what we do will encourage us to take responsibility for our actions instead of hiding behind a role?

I used to teach. I used to enjoy teaching but after a long while I stopped enjoying it and now I don’t do it any more. I write instead. Writing is not easy but I enjoy doing it very much and I am responsible for what I put on the page, how I craft, shape and arrange my words. I believe writing has the power to change things, to create a better world. I think it’s time, then, for me to start writing blogs, stories and non-fiction pieces that can help change the world.

Perhaps that’s when I’ll call myself a writer.

What do you think?

What do you do?

 

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Four

The Wisdom of Goldilocks

I have always been fascinated by Goldilocks, from The Three Bears, so fascinated I spent over a year researching the origins of the story, the different versions, including one written by Tolstoy and several different interpretations of the tale. As a result I decided to make Goldilocks, an older, maybe wiser and very assertive version, the third person narrator of my unpubished memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. Part of what appears below is from the memoir. I had a lot of fun creating my Goldilocks; here is just a taste of what I did:

“‘Once upon a time there was a little girl called Goldilocks.’ This is a truth and a lie. My story should begin with ‘Once upon a time there was an old woman called Silverhair. She was walking alone in the forest, picking her way along the rough path and enjoying the sun’s warmth on her tired bones.’ But narrative is capricious. My beginning was edited by those fabulists, deceivers, false witnesses and name changers, otherwise known as story tellers. They transformed me into a more lissom creature; Goldenhair with her full red lips, blonde curls and firm flesh. But some things the story tellers cannot change. In my beginning I was bent, spirited, and cantankerous. After my metamorphosis I remained a wilful and committed sensualist.

I prefer to be known as Silverhair, but you, reader, may think of me as you want. I’ll accept Goldilocks if you wish. I was conceived, penned and drawn an age ago. I’m almost an icon now, one who haunts the boundaries of proper society. I seek unlocked doors, comfortable chairs and cooling—but never cold—bowls of porridge. Let me make this clear though: I meant no harm. At my worst I was merely a heretic in the old sense of the word. I insisted on choosing what is just right for me.

Most people cross a threshold and think little of it but I embrace the liminal, I’m obsessed with the promises offered by cusps. Maybe they will help me make an end. All I find, however, as I step across yet another doorsill is one more beginning. Like most imaginaries, most fictions, I will never die.

I’m comforted by knowing others of my kind exist: Psyche eternally sorting through seeds so she can win back her beloved; Pandora incessantly opening the chest to reveal the hope hidden beneath horror; poor Eve who insists on asking the right question even though she knows she’ll get the wrong answer, and the blame. And me: tasting, testing, sleeping, brazen and vulnerable in my quest to make the right choice based on experience. Knowledge is dangerous and those who seek it are a menace, particularly when they seek ‘just right.’

Living, as I do, on the verge of civilisation, I savour the space between ambiguity and certainty where I’m free to test the philosophy of just right and the endless opportunity to dialogue with dogma.

Coquette

Picture Credit: The Three Bears, illus by? (London: George Routledge and Sons,1867)

Few know this, but I do have an after story and I have chosen it wisely. I dwell in twilight when children are put to bed and told stories to ease the night’s journey. I fend for myself, hunt for a safe place to rest, forage for food and appreciate the animals whose home I share. I celebrate the varieties of green that embrace me, I’m soothed by night forest sounds and I honour the shifting slant of light as each season is born, evolves and dies. I’m nourished by the forest’s wildness. My banishment is a blessing. I am where I belong.

I remain, however, a curious beast, one that cannot be quelled. I occasionally venture from my forest and peek through closed curtains. I spy on those women who have forgotten that wildness such as mine was once theirs. All this, over time, has changed me. I, who was once storied, have become a story teller in my own right.”

 

References

http://www.surlalunefairytales.com./goldilocks/themes.html

 

 

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Three

Trauma, Healing and Literary Writing

For today’s post I want to return to the original focus of this blog: Therapeutic Writing. I also want to try something new: asking questions at the beginning of the post instead of at the end. I guess it’s the teacher in me; perhaps my questions will enhance your reading, maybe you will find them irritating. Either way, please feel free to comment on the post, my questions or anything you want; just remember to keep it polite!

Here are the questions:

  • What feelings, if any, does this post provoke?
  • What problems or objections do you have with the opinions expressed here and why?
  • Is there another way of looking at this issue?

And here is the post:

I recently read an excellent article by Kelly Sundberg on Brevity, where she shared a remark an examiner made when Sundberg defended her PhD thesis, which was a series of linked essays about personal trauma. The examiner wondered whether the work was ‘melodramatic’. Sundberg was justifiably stunned by this comment. My initial response to her blog was that academia still has a long way to go before it accepts PhD projects involving research filtered through the candidate’s personal experience.

I experienced a slightly different response when, back in 2008, I started working on my thesis; someone suggested I should focus more on my trauma. I was uncomfortable with this. My experience was, and still is, powerfully personal and I didn’t want it to become the subject, throughout my candidature, of campus gossip, however well meaning. I also wanted to protect my three children and my parents, who appeared, albeit briefly, in the memoir that was a crucial part of my Creative Arts thesis.P1000499

Like Sundberg, I agree with Jessa Crispin’s misgivings about trauma as an entry into a ‘club’ of women who write about their pain. I didn’t want to join the club; I wanted my thesis to focus on well-being and  survival, which is why I researched writing as healing or, as Sundberg puts it, that ‘dastardly term’ therapeutic.

As I neared the end of my PhD the issue of trauma again raised its head. I was advised to demonstrate my awareness of ‘trauma studies’ and how I incorporated it into my research. Trauma studies, for me, examines distressing, depowering and damaging events or situations that result in the ongoing misery or suffering of individuals or groups, and which leaves them unable to enjoy or participate fully in life. Studying the causes, effects and consequences of trauma is certainly important. The danger lies in trauma defining our individual and cultural identity, and we ‘become’ the trauma we have experienced or witnessed. This risks characterising the individual and, I believe, entire cultures as victims, not survivors. It also risks ignoring the very necessary and difficult work of healing a trauma.

Emily Ashman believes in

the transformative potential of trauma itself and the possibilities of psychic regrowth that may emanate from traumatic individual and collective processes.

Steven K. Levine suggests we acknowledge trauma while fostering a creative response to it. For Levine, healing is an act of survival, something made possible through art:

expressive therapy teaches the art of survival, survival through the making of art. Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Believe me, I appreciate the benefit of studying and writing about trauma. The problem is, focusing on trauma may mean, as Sundberg acknowledges, trauma becomes the main factor in how women (and men) are perceived. I think this ‘fetishizes trauma’ instead of addressing its causes and treatment. When trauma, but not the means to prevent or assuage trauma, is validated, we live in a culture that upholds and prolongs suffering and alienation. I want to make it clear Sundberg does not do this, quite the contrary, and I agree with her that the comment made when she defended her thesis was inappropriate. Sundberg is right to worry

about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.


This is how I feel about therapeutic writing, which means I disagree with Sundberg’s comment that:

‘Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic.’

Why? Is it impossible to be a ‘literary writer’ and write about healing or write as a form of therapy? Good writing, which is what I presume Sundberg means by ‘literary writing’, does more than ‘tell a story’. A therapeutic writer (of fiction and non-fiction) is capable of constructing an interesting plot and creating a memorable, intelligent narrative voice that clearly portrays engaging, multidimensional characters. Therapeutic writing can also employ evocative, stimulating language that conveys a coherent, meaningful and universal theme. Therapeutic writing can likewise describe humankind’s best and worst qualities.

Instead of focusing on trauma, a better approach is to endorse and validate healing and promote healing as a cultural, and not just individual, activity. Therapeutic writing, like any other form of writing can achieve this. It only takes the kind of hard work, attention to craft and the ability to draw on one’s lived experience that Sundberg says she devotes to her writing.

What do you think?

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), p. 120.

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Two

Seven Decades: A Memoir in Words and Pictures

I’ve been thinking about the process of ageing, prompted by my partner’s recent performance in ‘Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid’. It was a piece of interactive theatre where the ‘audience’ of two, assumed the ‘identity’ of one of two of the play’s characters. The premise of the play involved looking back at the significant moments of one’s life. The photographs below are my way of looking back at the person I was and will become. They are arranged according to the number of decades I’ve spent on the planet: the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. The last photograph was taken at my 60th birthday party, almost four years ago. I was smiling because it was a wonderful night but also because I knew my grand daughter was due any day. She was born three days later and is the joy of my life.

 

I still love to dress up, though I do it less often these days. I notice I tilt my head when I’m posing for a photo, and I occasionally look pensive. My mother used to say I was a ‘solemn’ child. Maybe that’s because I was an only child and my mother was  … difficult … She had a difficult experience when she was young and I doubt she ever recovered.

If I had to choose a photo and give advice to the girl captured there, I’d choose the high school picture. I’d tell the girl in the photo that being published three times in four years in the High School Year Book, and being a member of the editing team, means she IS a writer and she must never let anyone tell her otherwise. I’d tell her appearances are not important, friends save your life and your sanity, lovers break your heart as often as you break theirs, children survive and even thrive despite the mistakes you make with them, feminism will save humanity but not enough people believe it, and to eat properly and keep active.

I’d also tell her what her father told her; she’s a fighter, she never gives up and rarely gives in and it’s what I like about her. I think it’s what he liked about her too.

I wonder if she’d listen to me?

Oh, and I will tell her that the other day, while we took a break from being dinosaurs and chasing each other up and down the hallway, her grand daughter hugged  her and said, ‘I love you Nanny’.