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“Write to Heal” March 13th, 2-4 PM

Presented by Fran Dorf, writer and therapist

Sunday, March 13, 2 – 4pm, Dew Yoga, 123 High Ridge Road, Stamford, CT 

You do not have to be a “writer” to explore writing as a mindful and powerful way to heal.   To register, call 203-744-9642. Or online at www.dewyoga.net


Writing is a process by which the human soul can reveal, express, and heal itself…using words as tools.

Writing can be a medicine that helps us integrate our most frightening or difficult feelings and experiences, and even transform them. Research shows that writing has a beneficial effect on emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

In the Write-to-Heal Workshop, Fran creates an atmosphere of warmth and support, and all are welcome: practiced writers, novices, and those simply wanting to explore this way of healing. Fran meets each writer where he or she is, distinguishes between “process” (the healing part) and “outcome” (a whole other thing), and uses a combination of exercises and literary techniques she’s developed over many years to help people mine, discover, or even reclaim their deepest feelings and memories, and to give them voice, either directly or indirectly, using metaphor, image, and/or narrative.  You will be surprised at your own power.
Bring a notebook, a pen, and a small meaningful object. Space is limited to 10. Registration is required, $45/person. Sign up by phone or online today!



Dew Yoga: 123 High Ridge Rd. (3rd Floor) Stamford, CT (203)744-YOGA(9642) | http://www.dewyoga.net | info@dewyoga.net

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Wow! We control 40% of our own happiness

 

Harvard's Dan Gilbert

Harvard’s Dan Gilbert

WARNING: THERE ARE TRICK QUESTIONS IN THIS POST!

So in preparing for a talk I was giving on “emotional well being,” also known as “happiness,” I watched some TED talks by important psychologists (the kind of people asked to give TED talks), and I heard Dan Gilbert of Harvard ask the following question of his audience of thousands:

In which of the following scenarios would you predict you’d be happier?

    1) You win the lottery

     or

    2) You become a paraplegic

It’s a trick question, of course.  Most people think the answer is obvious: You’d be much happier if you won the lottery. Who wants to be a paraplegic? No one, of course.  But according to Dr. Gilbert, the answer to the question is that one year out, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are about equally happy.

 Wow!

See, I told you it was a trick question. Its explanation can be partially found in the following formula, offered by Dr. Gilbert, Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside (whom I once interviewed for an article I was doing for BottomLine), Dr. Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, and many other researchers in the newer branch of psychology known as “positive psychology.”

Happiness = 50% “genetic” + 10% circumstantial + 40% “self-created.”

The 50% is also called the “happiness set point” and it’s the point to which people generally return, all things remaining equal. In other words, based on your genetics, and it seems to me this would include both biochemical factors and certain factors (such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty) from your formative years, if you tend toward depression (or emotional volatility, or unhappiness, or whatever), you will basically always return to that same set point.

So this means that even if some event or circumstance in your life, such as the birth of a grandchild, winning the lottery, or making a fortune in your investments, causes happiness, and even if some other event in your life such as becoming a paraplegic or enduring the loss of a loved one causes you unhappiness, in the long run that will account for only 10% of your level of happiness because all things remaining equal you will eventually adjust to the new condition and basically return to your previous happiness set point.

But all things don’t have to remain equal. These researchers and others have shown scientifically that your own “intervention” can control as much as 40% of your own “happiness.”What are these magical interventions that can help you be happy?  They cover three areas: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.  

Here too is another trick question.  Most people think “pleasure,” which comes with things like social interactions and sex, make you happy, but it turns out that pleasure-seeking activity accounts for the smallest part of that self-created 40% of happiness.  This becomes obvious when you think about people who collect superficial friends or keep looking for Mr. Goodbar.

“Engagement” is a bigger happiness factor.  This means finding work or a passion that engages you completely to the point that while doing it you have the sense that time has stopped.  I achieve this most fully when I write, but you can also find it in any creative activity or work.  It’s called:

Flow

And then there’s “meaning,” which has been found to be the biggest contributor. It means knowing your strengths and using them to achieve a purpose higher than yourself. This would include altruism, working for a “cause,” and/or religion or other spiritual pursuits.

In looking back over my life, which in a few months heads into its 60th year, I realized that all this completely accounts for the weird fact that despite having experienced an inordinate amount of loss and suffering, including the worst of the worst, the loss of my son, I am now “happier” than I’ve ever been, probably even 40% happier. This is because over the last 20 years, since the loss of my son, I have engaged in activities and a process that has helped me put things in perspective, be grateful for what I have, let go of much of my own ego-driven worry about “success” as a writer, and allowed myself to simply “engage” in the writing process. I’ve also realized that my writing (which also involves study) is what helps me make any sense at all of this complicated life, and so it doesn’t matter, really, what the writing outcome is, whether 50 or 20,000 people come to my blog, or my books have sold 1000 or 100,000 copies. I write–and engage in other creative pursuits, including most recently taking up playwriting– because it gives me “flow.”

As for “meaning,” I find it in part by helping people as a therapist, and in my philanthropic pursuits, such as the program my husband and I started in memory of our son to help toddlers with special needs. Now if you’d told me the happiness formula when I was in the thick of my grief, I would probably have walked away in a rage, but now I really do think the happiness formula above accounts why so many people who’ve suffered serious losses, such as the loss of a child, have eventually managed to survive and even thrive and self-actualize, and dare I say it, find “happiness” by developing or joining some cause that makes “meaning” out of that loss.  Consider the Newtown parents’ drive for gun reform, or Candy Lightner who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and in 1980 founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), or Gloria Horsley, who lost a son and who along with her daughter, Heidi, who lost her brother, started Open to Hope, a foundation to help people who’ve experienced great loss.

So then, happiness is to a great extent (40%, at last count) what you “make” when you don’t get what you want.  Which is very often in this life.

Next post: What can you do to actually raise your level of “happiness?”   

PS:  I took a course in grad school on “positive psychology” but all this never really clicked for me intellectually and I didn’t really understand how my own life happiness trajectory is proof of it, until I started really studying it in order to create a presentation about emotional wellbeing. Which proves something else I heard another psychologist say in a talk a few weeks ago.  Paul Bloom of Yale said: If you want to appreciate fine wine, STUDY wine or take a course in wine and learn all about it, don’t just go out and buy the most expensive bottle of wine you can find and expect an appreciation of fine wine to come upon you magically.  Which translates into: Writing a presentation about happiness made me happy!

 

Healing Art of Writing begins October 2

 UPCOMING WORKSHOP:

BEGINS OCTOBER 2, SIX SESSIONS, WEDNESDAYS, 7-8:30 PM.  JOIN ME.

For more information or to register, click HERE!

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If you’ve experienced any kind of loss, grief, addiction, illness or other trauma, and you’re interested in turning that into compelling memoir or fiction, join me at the beautiful Wainwright House in Rye, New York.  Work with me.  Where ever you are in your writing, I’ll meet you there.

Little Man

Fran-Dorf1-203x300

On October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt.  It was a boy. He was a month early.  We were thrilled.

Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly.  He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled.  I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.

Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room.  She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke.  She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?

Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls.  Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”

We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly.  He was ours.   We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.

By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.

A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love.  Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over.  I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.

I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled?  When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones?  When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?

In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer.  I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.

***

Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water.  Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool.  We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle.  He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him.  He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again.  And again.  And again.

Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him.  We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us.  We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.

In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and “ butter,” neither of which was one of his words.  We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.

***

And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah.  Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror.  I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like.  It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.

Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing.  My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next.  Even in my dreams I was screaming.

Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count.  Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.

The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void.  I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there.  He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.

After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word.  Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.

We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months.  We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen.  She mentioned that she’d had another child.  She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him.  Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives.  I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.

***

Our son would have turned twenty-three this October.  I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.

I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.

My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again.  Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist.  I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael.  We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child.  She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter.  As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.

Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent.  No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.

Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding.  And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.

Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art.  We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight(Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000).  Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE atwww.frandorf.com, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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22 thoughts on “Little Man”

  1. Carole GeithnerAugust 12, 2013 at 10:25 am
    What a beautiful essay, so evocative of the intensity of emotions, the love and the pain, the depth of maternal bonds, and life-long experience of loss. Thank you for sharing your story with the world, Fran.
    Reply ↓
  2. Sally RothkopfAugust 12, 2013 at 10:27 am
    Beautifully written piece, remembrance, tribute to love and loss. Thank you for sharing it with me. Sally
    Reply ↓
  3. MytwicebakedpotatoAugust 14, 2013 at 11:43 am
    My heart ached as I read your words. I understand some of the risks and unknowns when you “take on someone else’s problems” since we did this too.I can’t imagine your grief and many blessings to you and yours ;)
    Reply ↓
  4. J.JacksonAugust 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm
    The reminder that no matter how much time has past to allow healing scars over grief the pain can still remain so fresh as if it was yesterday. The hell no parent would wish on their worst enemy. Keep writing Fran.
    Reply ↓
  5. GraceAugust 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm
    Mother to my five year old son, I call the idea of losing him “unthinkable”… Rather, it’s “unknowable”– I’m deeply touched by your very moving and vivid sharing of your love for your son and your deep, and lifelong, grief. Parent is for life.
    Reply ↓
  6. Powell BergerAugust 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm
    Simply beautiful. I smiled. I cried. And I walked outside and felt the sunlight and loved my three children just a little bit more. I’m so glad you eventually removed the padlock to the written word. As your readers, we are forever better because of it.
    Reply ↓
  7. Fran DorfAugust 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm
    Thanks for your comment, J. Jackson. Yes, I’m afraid we are members of the club no one would want to belong to. I wish I had my son back, of course, but life only goes one way and we must learn the lessons our lives present. Among other things, I have learned that writing is my way of making sense of the world. And I have learned compassion for those who are in pain. And I have learned gratitude. Thanks again.
    Reply ↓
  8. SaraJaneAugust 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    I cried when I read this as well. I lost a child too, although a different way. I fostered (originally as a likely adoption) a newborn until a bit after her first birthday. Her birth parents made such unexpectedly wonderful progress that reunification was decided to be best. It’s been over a year since I handed her back to her mother and I know she is happy and loved but I am utterly heartbroken. She will forever be my smiling, giggly one year old baby girl. The hole is always there but I am better. Now I struggle with whether to foster/adopt again, if the desire for another child is worth that risk. Thank you for that beautiful piece.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
      Hi SaraJane,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, it’s a struggle to determine whether you want to make yourself vulnerable to loss again. I think with a child who’s died, it’s also a struggle to know whether you’re trying to create a “replacement” child, at least it was for me. Anyway, what you’ve described is very, very difficult. I think social service departments try to keep together the birth family if at all possible.
      Reply ↓
  9. Noelle CallahanAugust 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm
    Fran- You are a special woman. You are a special person. You are a special mom. Thank you for sharing such an intimate time in your life. I am glad to hear that you did make it and that you have helped others cope with the unimaginable. Thank you.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:19 am
      Thanks for that, Noelle. The “sharing” thing is an interesting one. I think all writers–memoirists, even fiction writers–struggle mightily with whether, and how much, and in what form to share. Research shows, and I teach that writing is a healing art. This goes for “expressive” writing about trauma, loss, illness, etc, as well as writing that you work and rework into literary form, like the wonderful BrainChild essays. Every time you rewrite something to put it into literary form, you distance yourself from it, and that has a healing effect too. I wrote a piece on this subject on my blog at https://frandorf.com/2013/01/22/the-healing-art-of-writing-memoir-or-fiction/
      Reply ↓
  10. SharonAugust 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    Thank you. My little boy would have been 16 in November. Even after all this time, I need to hear other parents’ experiences and how they got through it. After all this time, it can still feel fresh and sharp. I appreciate you sharing your heart with us.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:23 am
      Hi Sharon,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. Yes I think those of us who are members of the club that no one ever wants to belong to do need to hear and share. We find solidarity with each other. Honestly, it feels healing for me to sit with the bereaved and hear their stories and witness their struggle.
      My best to you,
      Fran
      Reply ↓
  11. Megan SternerAugust 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    I am crushed by this story, and yet it brings me joy that you pulled through, that there is hope for those who suffer the inconceivable loss of a child.
    Reply ↓

The Healing Art of Writing Memoir or Fiction

 

Isak Dinesen, writer

Isak Dinesen, writer

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story,” said Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa,” and “Babette’s Feast.” This quote beautifully puts into words why I went to the Westport Writer’s Workshop last Saturday to teach a class called “The Healing Art of Writing.”  My goal? To help people who’ve experienced grief, loss, illness, abuse, violence, addiction, or other trauma try to turn those difficult emotional experiences into compelling fiction or memoir.  I decided to teach the class partly because I know that to do this is healing, since I drew upon my own traumatic experiences to create both a novel and now a memoir. I also journaled obsessively before conceiving my novel, “Saving Elijah,” and used pieces of that journal in writing the book, so I know from experience that expressive writing is healing.  But I’m also convinced that the discipline of creating a narrative or “story” out of the chaos of emotional experience is healing from the first draft to the last. I think most writers would to some extent agree.  I know Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) would.

Here a bit about why I think so, along with steps to help you see if this might be for you:

Expressive Writing Practice: Journaling

Begin by developing an expressive writing practice such as journaling, three or four times a week, for ten or more minutes a day.  Tons of research shows that just writing about trauma, loss, grief, or illness without any regard for the writing “product” has a healing effect and improves mental, emotional and physical well-being.  This is because traumatic or emotionally charged experience is stored in the right brain as all chaotic sensation with no logic or language. When you bring language or narrative to any emotional experience as you do when you write, you bring this experience, or perhaps the memory and associated emotions of the experience into the logical, analytical left brain.  This helps integrate the two and lessen emotional reactivity, a big part of healing. In doing therapy and facilitating workshops, I’ve even seen writing help to heal people who aren’t even particularly literate.

When you do expressive writing, knock the censor monkey off your shoulder, and express your feelings without thinking about the writing “product.”  Bring it up from your guts. Don’t think about grammar, form, or appropriateness.  Don’t worry that anyone will read what you’ve written. Banish all thoughts of I wouldn’t want anyone to see this, or This isn’t any good, or  My eighth grade teacher—or my mom—told me I stank as a writer. Also banish all thoughts like, Nothing I could ever write could communicate how I feel. Write as if you were going to burn it.  Don’t burn it though, since you’ll later find gems you can use to great effect when you write your memoir or fiction.

Even after you begin writing fiction or a memoir, begin each writing session with a few minutes of journaling or other form of expressive or free writing.

Expressive Writing Practice: Exercises

Take a “Write to Heal” workshop like the one I offer.  Many individuals, hospitals, and healing centers around the country are offering these now. In my workshop, I provide exercises to help people express themselves without regard for the writing “product,” or how a reader might react, who might read it, or who might or might not be interested in reading it.  Although sometimes write-to-heal writers produce beautiful writing, I facilitate these exercises primarily for their therapeutic value.  I take the therapist’s “stance” in this setting. I empathetically accept and embrace whatever is produced., there is no literary criticism, and I make no attempt to teach the “craft” of writing, let alone the art. Sharing is optional of course, but there is also some therapeutic value to being “witnessed” and to “witnessing.”

Also, do the exercises on this website, or the exercises in books like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Bonnie Goldberg’s “Room to Write,” or Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Again, make this a practice, several times a week.

Blogging: Is this expressive writing?

Nowadays many people blog episodically about their feelings and experiences around personal trauma, loss, or illness.  Blogging can of course be healing too, in the sense that all writing can be healing. However, I suspect most bloggers do at least some selecting and revising before they publish, and so blogging isn’t true expressive writing in which no attention is given to the product.  I hope so, because some blogs of this sort gain huge readerships.  Readers actually read ONLY because they feel moved, entertained, instructed, or compelled to READ ON; readers, even readers of emotional blogs, don’t take the therapist’s stance of empathy and compassion and acceptance of feelings whatever they are. (You can certainly see this in some comments.) Which means the blogger who has made no attempt to process or intellectualize experience, distance herself from it, and prepare it and herself for the reactions of others can find herself retraumatized as readers who don’t empathize with her feelings react to or criticize the writing.  I think publishing unprocessed emotional writing even in this confessional age can be VERY be psychologically risky. Oh my goodness, it was psychologically healing to give voice to my anger in my own journal after my son’s death, but publish that journal?  No way.

On the other hand, it is also true that no matter how many revisions and how much processing you do before you publish any piece of writing, readers are going to bring their biases, craziness, projections, interpretations, and misinterpretations to it.  David Sedaris put this brilliantly when he said:  “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize that it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.  But even the “illusion” of control can be a good defense. Where would we all be without our illusions?

Write a memoir or fiction

Obviously not everyone can write a novel or a memoir, or would even want to, but the twenty women who came last Saturday to my class, each of whom has experienced trauma, illness, abuse, or loss, presented themselves as wanting to learn how to turn their experiences into stories in the literary form of fiction or memoir.  I treated them like writers.

Yes, it’s hard to speak candidly to someone who’s experienced something awful that lies at the pit of her soul and who lives and breathes this thing every day.  It’s hard to tell someone who’s gotten used to simply writing her feelings that there might be a more effective way to present them to help readers want to hear them. First of all, she’s been writing and knows how healing it feels to write, which is probably one of the reasons she’s decided she wants to bring her writing into literary form. Another is that she feels she has something important to share with others, some lesson learned, some hurdle crossed.  (Therein, of course, may lie the arc or even the plot of her story.  How DID she overcome that awful thing?)

I think some, although certainly not all writing teachers would find it hard to tell someone who, for example, is writing about the profound and devastating experience of losing a child that some of her words don’t compel the reader to turn the page, don’t communicate effectively, confuse, or even turn the reader off.  I am of course sensitive to this, but I am tough-minded too because I know that learning craft and bringing it to your writing helps you intellectualize and separate from traumatic experience in a very unique way.

I know that even if feedback at first feels hurtful or invalidating, it’s actually the opposite.   A reader or teacher who offers honest feedback actually validates your experience by showing she cares enough about it to help you express it more effectively, say by helping you learn the components of a scene, or by pointing out that you’ve “told” something rather than “shown” it.

And I know that every time you hear and tolerate criticism about what you have written about your trauma, and every time you decide (using your analytical left brain) to accept or reject that criticism, you distance yourself from the emotion of that trauma.

“Kill your babies,” Faulkner said about writers and their words, and the would-be memoir or fiction writer must learn to tolerate hearing that she must kill some of her babies. (You should pardon the pun.)

Yes, it’s a long grueling process, but…

  • We heal as we learn and apply writing “craft,” which after all is a discipline that comes out of left brain thinking.
  • We heal each time we rewrite or revise, because when we rewrite we rethink, re-remember, and re-imagine our experience, memories, even our whole life. Psychology and neuroscience have proposed many different models of memory, but one truth is: We do not remember our experiences, we only remember our last retrieval of our memory of our experiences.  As we gather our short and long term memories to write a memoir or fiction, we revise those memories to fit them into the emotional arc (or plot) we are creating.  Often this is a new vision of ourself as hero rather than victim in our own life story.
  • We heal each time we turn chaotic emotional experiences into work that fits within an accepted literary form, uses language in an evocative way, has narrative drive, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doing all this involves intellectual, logical left brain thinking and tamps down emotional right brain thinking.  No one wants to read about a victim, or at least not a victim all the way through.
  • We heal as we learn to self-observe, as we discipline ourselves to make the hard choices about which elements of lived experience to include or exclude, and how best to organize and express material in order to compel readers to READ ON.

Storytelling and Reading with the MouseMuse troupe: Join us

I had a beautiful experience doing writing to heal last night with a group of courageous and wonderful people. Now it’s on to storytelling on December 6… Six of us on the same theme, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” for 10 minutes: Fran Dorf, Tom Finn, Josh Kaplan, Chad Kinsman, Hugh Samuels, Rebecca Toon plus 3 brave volunteers.  While my story is on its face about a car crash a few years, what it’s really about surviving all my “tsuris.”  All my stories are about that.  Join me.

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                                                                    * * * * * *

And for this one on December 11th, I’m getting back on stage to read a few bits from my memoir: “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories.”  Also, of course, about surviving “tsuris.”  Can’t help it.  I’m the “tsuris” queen.  Thinking about reading a relatively serious bit about breast cancer called “Plastic Man,” and a lighter bit about my Grandma Rose, she of the vast bosom and orthopedic shoes.  I don’t know….is a bar the best place to read this? Well, whatever.  It seems Ina has adopted me.   14381_494841040550674_311216169_n

Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

I was honored last night to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting. I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend.  Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling.” (as in a “how to”)

Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief.  As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.”  I inscribed a copy for Carole. She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal.  (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)

Carole Geithner

Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real.  It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie.  In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love. As a writer I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother.  I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book.  This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.

What is helpful/What isn’t

Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions:  Be present.  Be humble.  Be patient.  Observe. Reflect.  Give witness. Allow silence.  Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it.  Accept.  Listen.

As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction.  It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.

Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (Let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (It’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (Everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.

I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say.  The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.

The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope.  I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.

The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too.  I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing):  “I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”  Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first.  If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.  It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle.  There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day.  Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life.  It’s a case by case decision.  It gets easier with time.

I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for.  I admit that while I wasn’t surprised I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.

Here’s the link to Carole Geithner’s website, which has some great resources about grief in addition to info about the book.