“What is your body telling you?” my trauma therapist asks as she guides me through a body therapy exercise. “Notice your ankle, now your knee, the back of your knee, your thigh, your hip, your chest, on up the body to your neck, your chin, your ears, the nape of your neck. What do you notice?”
Without this therapy, I’ve been “missing the turtle in the road.” I’ve not been fully present in my body and surroundings. But today, I am not hijacked.
Today, I’m making progress.
Today, I noticed a turtle at Ada Hayden Lake lying on its back. It had a red Indian-like mosaic painted on its underside. I emailed my sister, “I saw Grover today.” Grover was the turtle we found at the intersection of Water and Grove Street when we were kids. The turtle Mom was going to give to her friend Becky Banks, the elementary education teacher, until one of the neighbor kids stole him and replaced him with a baseball bat. As if that was an even trade.
I thought of the poem “Lake Lavern” by one of my National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) students. I’ve used this piece many times as an example of “moment work” as well as another student’s poem, “Restrain the Dragon Mask.” I admire these students for their efforts. One writes with a brain injury, the other with bipolar disorder. The NAMI students know each other’s ailments and afflictions, and they notice that when they write, all becomes quiet. One anorexic girl says she blogs because she believes in “writeness and rightness.”
In a Writing the Hard Stuff class I noticed that the participants included a lawyer raised in a home for unwed mothers, a pianist with a recent mastectomy who strategically places scarves to cover her wound, an administrator thrown out of her home as a teen only to become one of the highest-ranking assistants in the Iowa attorney general’s office, and a son who makes up different stories for his senile father every night like Scheherazade. These are people with a need to explore and express “writeness and rightness.”
I’ve tried all kinds of therapy for my own chronic back injury and related trauma, from Christian counseling to trauma therapy to hypnotherapy to emotionally focused therapy, or EFT. But I’ve noticed writing does something no other therapy does. The social interaction and group process are an integral aspect of writing as healing.
When I write, I am “here-now.” I love the feel of typing, the clacking of keys. I come to the page to breathe. I come to the page to think. I come to the page to protest. I come to the page to seek peace. Here, I am not minimized or patronized or demonized. I have a right to be here, writing and righting. But plucking and wood pecking and clacking on keys—where is the peace in that?
Here are a few tips on practicing the art of noticing:
- As an entry point, I recommend Louise DeSalvo’s, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (HarperCollins, 1995), a survivor’s guide to the transformative power of writing. This text offers tips for writing a healing narrative: connect emotions to events, balance negative and positive emotions, provide specific images and details, reveal insights regarding the significance of what happened, and tell a complete and coherent story.
- Consider a piece that someone else wrote about a painful experience. Notice how it is crafted. Notice how it offers connection and resonance.
- Notice what time of day you like to write. I like to write at the crepusculo, that magic hour Neruda knew, when the poets are with me.
- Go deep. You can’t write a hard stuff story if you are afraid to go there. It’s okay to go to the dark and scary places. Make sure you have a safe way back. Notice where you find safe space.
- When you hit a rough patch, remember, it’s just part of the process. Write through it, even if it’s a tough episode. Notice where a piece or section is vague or full of clichés. That is a sign of avoidance. Let yourself go deeper toward what lies beneath. What is the truth you are afraid to confront or reveal?
- It’s okay to use humor as a device. Humor is underrated. Humor is therapeutic.
- Push against the aaarrrggghhh. That is where the good stuff happens.
- Be compassionate. Writing to wellness is hard work, but it is also cathartic. In breaking the silence and isolation surrounding your hard stuff experience not only do you feel freer, but perhaps someone else will find solace in your story as well.
- Meditate on here-now. “You are here,” I write, which reminds me of my grandmother’s favorite Bible verse, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” You are here. And it is good and all is well. One brief fleeting moment of writeness and rightness.
- Ask students to go outside or into the hallway and search for something seemingly insignificant that they haven’t noticed previously—perhaps an anomaly or disfiguration, something they have passed by and would likely continue to pass by even if here a dozen more times.
- Ask students to give that object/artifact/plant/animal its given name, then describe it as if they were its voice, in a short meditation, poetry, or prose.
- Ask students to strive to connect the object to the larger world.
- Tell them to finish with the line, “And I have a right to be here.”
- Ask them to aim for fewer than twenty-five lines.
- Allow students to follow instructions closely or stray from them if their piece is going in a different direction.
- Invite students to make this exercise collaborative by reading their individual pieces aloud, then having all participants echo the end line of each piece in chorus.
Example of the Exercise
The following example was generated in a Writing to Wholeness workshop.
Elegy for Montebello
She was a blood moon across the field,
a stucco structure in mango,
Montebello, Hacienda on the Prairie.
From a winding gravel road she emerged,
a lighthouse in prairie grass,
like The Virgin of Guadalupe.
She guarded a family of geese,
a blue heron on the pond’s fringe,
two skunks amidst the croaks and moans.
She was a wildflower
in a crumbling brick bed,
a Century Farm razed from progress.
She was Festival de Maize,
Tres Leches cake, Mexican café,
an opera served with fine wine.
She was an empty cupboard,
a cracked ceramic tile,
a pair of worn rubber boots.
She was Wild,
An oasis in the wasteland of Iowa.
She was a castle oppressed
by eminent domain.
And she had a right to be here.
On August 30, 2014, the owners of MonteBello Bed and Breakfast, Ames, Iowa, closed their Inn. They retired and are traveling the world.
Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her recent and forthcoming poems appear in Hawaii Pacific Review, Split Rock Review, Mobius, Tipton Poetry Journal, Hedge Apple, Pilgrimage, Edify Fiction, Potomac Review, Appalachia, and the anthologies Nuclear Impact and Beer, Wine, & Spirits. Her essays appear in The Good Men Project, Fiction Southeast, and the anthology Farmscape: The changing rural environment. She is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.