We are very pleased to present novelist, short story writer, and poet, Sara Baker. Sara has generously contributed this column full of insights and inspiration on a topic that is sure to resonate with survivors.
Learning to Hear Your Own Voice
So often, as patients, we lose a coherent sense of who we are. Instead of feeling in control of our lives, we suddenly feel overtaken by forces outside of our control: the disease itself, treatment, and all the disruptions those things imply. Part of what we lose is our sense of ourselves, of our own authority and our own voice.
Writing can be a way to learn to hear your voice again. What does that mean, to hear your own voice? It means learning to recognize your true feelings and reactions, and having the courage to put them on paper, even if part of you is afraid or ashamed of them.
It means using language that is simple and direct and authentic for you. It does not mean writing "poetically," with high-blown thoughts and long, Latinate words. If you can approach the reality of who you are in all your brokenness, and begin to make marks on paper, "the stranger you have loved all your life," (Derek Walcott, "Love after Love") your own true self, will show up. Your journal or notebook can be that safe place where you can vent, investigate your own feelings, gather in quotes and poems to nurture you, imagine what you would like, and pray. If you take a good look at the Psalms, you will see how movingly they cover the gamut of human feelings, from the desire for victory, to the deepest grief, and the highest joys. That is the kind of praying we can do when we write to heal.
There are many ways to begin, such as the many wonderful ways found on this website. For me, I think there are two important ways to approach writing. The first is with a sense of freedom. Begin your writing with low expectations. Scribble on a large sheet of paper, allowing yourself big movements with your arms, letting your whole body in on the act. Do a few of these and then do one with the non-dominant hand. Then sit back and look at them. What words do the shapes suggest to you? Put them in the doodles. These are called "word sculptures" (Gabrielle Rico, in Pain and Possibility). I have found them a great way to begin non-linear, non-narrative free-association, accessing images and feelings in the way drawing does. The purpose of this is to resist the well-worn stories we often tell ourselves, and to allow for playfulness in our writing.
To continue to "open up," it is useful to "free write" anything that comes to mind, whether an overheard conversation that intrigues you, a phrase you read in a book, or just thoughts that cross your mind. After you have written these down, ask yourself, what in what you have written really speaks to you? What compels you, draws you in? Go to that word or phrase and interrogate it-"What about this is compelling? Why did I write this?" Try not to be rationalistic, but instead be open to whatever might come, even if it seems unusual. Write that down and then, keep probing, developing it. This is the way poets work, and while you may not be writing poetry, you are opening yourself to deeper and deeper understandings of your life. (See Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon).
A second method of finding ways into writing is to begin to notice what you like and don't like. Read, read, read, and respond to your reading in a journal. Copy, the way visual artists do, the rhythms and language of writers you enjoy. Begin to think about form: could you express yourself in the mode of a Psalm, or in free verse, in a sonnet or in a fictional short story? Would a fairy tale or a fable express what you feel? All these forms are open to you, and by beginning to notice them, you are adding to your toolbox of expression. Not that you are aiming to be a published writer, but that you are giving your imagination more to work with. You might want to begin memorizing poems, and saying them out loud. You might want to write haiku as a daily discipline. We do not only inherit language, we inherit literary forms. They are ours to use.
Finally, Gregory Orr in his wonderful book Poetry as Survival, reminds us that the word blessing in English comes from the French verb, blesser, meaning "to wound." He writes: The original Anglo-Saxon origin of blessing is blestein, which meant "to spatter with blood." He goes on to say that the history of the word itself enacts an uncanny overlapping of violence, wounding, and spiritual grace ... For those of us who have been wounded, there is always the possibility for blessing. To know ourselves, to speak in our own voices, these are blessings indeed.
Sara Baker's stories have been published in or are forthcoming in The Examined Life, The Chattahoochee Review, The New Quarterly, The Spirit that Moves Us, The Habersham Review, The Lullwater Review, and other publications. Her poetry has appeared in The Healing Muse, Ars Medica, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, The Journal of Poetry Therapy and elsewhere. Her dramatic work has been produced by NPR and BBC, and she has written two novels. Sara holds a Master's degree from Boston College. She has taught English at the University of Georgia, The Georgia Institute of Technology, and Piedmont College. Her own journey with chronic illness has led her to create the Woven Dialog Workshops, writing workshops that aid in facilitating the healing process. She blogs about writing and healing at Word Medicine, www.saratbaker.wordpress.com.