Tag Archive | Survival Inspiration

Surviving the End of the World, May 21st, 2011

Survival Tip #5: Since it seems the world is going to end tomorrow, the Bruised Muse thought she’d make a comment about our impending doom.  Folks, the world is full of delusions: big ones, small ones, round ones, square ones, juicy ones, dry ones.  Some delusions shout, some whisper, some spit, some transmit, some conspire. Some irritate, some ingratiate, some scare. Some delusions reach for the sky, others originate inside the head. Some are found in books. Some ripen with age. I once knew a guy who was absolutely convinced that his head was shrinking.  He encouraged me to measure his head and insisted this would prove his head was shrinking.  I got a tape measure, but he was unimpressed.

It is an unfortunate fact that delusions are round and completely impenetrable. Arguing is useless. Offering facts gets you nowhere. Pointing out contradictions is pointless.  There’s simply no way (except perhaps with medication) to eliminate delusions, talk the person out of them, or alter their shape.  Your best bet is simply to refrain from engaging, because if you happen to get in, it can be hard to get out, and you do not want to be stuck inside a delusion. It can be really scary in there.  Your best bet is to (calmly and quietly) look for some humor in the content of any delusion you happen to encounter, have a giggle (to yourself) and then withdraw.

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

Warsaw: Quityerbitchin.

So I’ve heard that in the Warsaw Ghetto, where corpses littered the streets, residents would write on any scrap of paper they could find–poems, stories, diary entries, bits of prose, snippets of information– roll up these messages and shove them into small crevices in the wall around their prison. They surely did this hoping their words would survive even if they didn’t. They did this knowing little about the world outside those walls, and perhaps even knowing that their written cries of anguish could well end up as more fodder for the laughter of madmen. One such message may have told the story of a notorious, purple-winged angel who was always bitching and complaining about one thing or another.  God said, Quityerbitchin and do something. The angel decided that the only appropriate thing to do would be to cut off his purple wings and cut out his sharp tongue.  Now mute and flightless, the angel began to weep copious tears that turned into scraps of paper on which people wrote messages of hope that would survive and be read forever.

Survival Tip #1: Surviving your “life predicament”

Other blogs offer snark about the Oscar broadcast on this day after, such as why in the world did Melissa Leo take away poor old (very old) Kirk Douglas’s cane, the BRUISED MUSE gives you survival tips that might really be useful in your life.  For Survival Tip #1, here’s one of my favorite quotes from the brilliant psychiatrist (and novelist) Irvin Yalom, who literally wrote the book on group psychotherapy. This quote is from one of his shorter works, The Gift of Therapy.  He says:

“Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they, and only they, have the power to change the situation.”

The Bruised Muse has found, in her life and in her psychotherapy office, that life gets a whole lot easier when an individual finally recognizes that she (or he) ONLY has the power to change how she behaves in the world, and how she responds to others’ behavior toward her.  She does NOT have the power to change the others’ behavior.

To begin learning how one actually is in the world (as opposed to how one believes one is), one must first develop some curiosity about it.

More about curiosity in another post.

Guest Survival Story: An Adoptee Searches for her Mother

Hello Bruised Muse Readers,

A friend, Terri Vanech, sent me this piece, which, I think, fits nicely with my blog theme, and the theme of my upcoming memoir about surviving this crazy life.  The truth is, everyone has survived something.  The Bruised Muse invites readers to share their stories, survival tips, survival inspiration. Just make a comment or email me at frandorf@aol.com.  Thanks all.  We learn from each other. And don’t forget, you can get SURVIVAL in your email. It’s free. No snark.  No spam.  Sign up just to the right of this post.  Here’s Terri’s story:

Allow me to introduce myself.

I know; some of you are thinking, “Don’t I already know you?” Funny thing is, until recently, I thought I knew all there was to know about myself.

But in the mail today came a document I’ve coveted more than any college acceptance letter. It is my adoption information from Westchester (N.Y.) Family Services. A social worker there has transcribed the events leading up to my birth in a 4½-page document culled from WFS files. The report contains no identifying information about my birth parents, but offers some new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that is my life.

Make no mistake: I’m not bitter or angry about the circumstances of my birth. My parents — by this I mean the couple who adopted me — are terrific, loving and generous people. I’m fortunate they chose me and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Still, there are plenty of things about me I don’t know, and as I’ve aged and watched my daughter blossom into a beautiful young woman, those simple curiosities have grown, too. Two summers ago, I finally decided to request the information sealed away all these years.

I once worried that searching would hurt my parents’ feelings, but I needn’t have feared. They have been amazingly supportive, offering me yet another in a long line of gifts I can never repay.

My request in July 2008 for non-identifying information from my birth certificate turned up precious little information, so I followed up with WFS. And waited.

The WFS report confirms what my family always suspected — I am the daughter of unwed teenagers — and offers some new information: My birth mother was blonde, blue-eyed and considered pretty. She had an upturned nose and engaging smile. She intended to go to college and work in the data processing field.

My ancestry is English and German.

My birth father left high school to become a machinist apprentice.

I was born breech — both feet first — and have been baptized twice.

Workers at the maternity home reported that my birth mother took excellent care of me during the six days I stayed there with her; the WFS reports are clear that she never wavered in her commitment to put me up for adoption.

It is a lot of information to digest, and I have found myself repeatedly rereading the report in an effort to understand and find more clues to who I am.

My remaining questions vary from the seemingly frivolous to much headier stuff: Which one of them is responsible for my dry sense of humor? Are the snow-white strands of hair taking over my head similar to hers? Do I have siblings? What would my birth parents think of their biological granddaughter? Does my birth father think about me? Would they be proud of the person I’ve become?

Did she love me?

After first reading the report, I had a bit of an identity crisis, but I made peace with that quickly. Regardless of the answers to my many queries, the report doesn’t change who I am; it simply helps put some things in perspective. Most of all, it’s amazing to know even this much about myself after all these years.

Now, with the blessings of my parents and my husband, I’m starting the next leg of this journey of self-discovery. I don’t know where it will lead, but I welcome the trip.

Terri S. Vanech, an Old Greenwich resident, is the former features editor of The Advocate.  This piece originally appeared in the Advocate.

Surviving Sarah Palin’s “Mourning” in America

As a bereaved mother who mourned and still mourns the loss of her three year old son, Michael, in 1994, I cringed when I heard former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, in reference to the families of the victims of the terrible shooting in Tucson, say offhandly, “May God turn their mourning into joy.”

In my view, such ostensibly nice little sentiments, which seem so commonly held in this religious country, show a complete misunderstanding and even a kind of contempt for both mourning AND joy, and maybe even for God too.

Let’s leave politics aside for the moment, along with my personal feelings about Sarah Palin. I’m sure (I hope) Ms. Palin meant those words to be comforting to the suffering families, the poor parents of little Christina Green, the parents of Gabe Zimmerman, the three sons and wife of Judge John Roll, and families of Dorothy Murray, Phyllis Schenk, Dorwan Stoddard, not to mention the children and husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the other injured people.

Yet such apparently harmless sentiments, much like that deeply offensive and overused word “closure,” are a misguided attempt to shrink-wrap and even deny the enormity of losses like this. They imply that grief is an event rather than a lifelong psychological process in which you gradually figure out a way to incorporate your losses into your life and move on from there. There actually is something to be gained from loss, but knowledge of what it is only comes from long suffering and deep searching.

Yes, Ms. Palin is no doubt relating her own and many others’ understanding of God’s goodness, or perhaps talking about joy that one’s loved one is now in Heaven. But consider the implication of the statement. When you’re in pain over the loss of a child, you might hope or even pray that God will take away your pain. But turn it into joy? What God would want to deny the enormity of your loss and the meaning of the life you lost by taking away your authentic emotions and feelings that your loss is real and important, and replacing them with an inauthentic happiness?

Just like those old standby cliches, “Time will heal,” “It’s time to get on with your life,” and “God must have wanted another angel,” such comments as Palin’s have a kind of delegitimizing effect on the griever.  They imply that there is something he or she can do that will end or take away grief. They suggest that the pain you are feeling isn’t what you should be feeling and if you would just take this advice you wouldn’t be feeling it.  This is the opposite of what the person who attempts to comfort the bereaved should do.  My favorite definition of compassion is a Buddhist one: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. This doesn’t means denying, deflecting or babbling your way through it, but sitting with it, no matter how uncomfortable intense emotion makes you feel.  And this means:

Be present. Be humble. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen.

After seventeen years, my grief is no longer a hissing monster, it’s quiet now. I have found the way to move on and learned the lessons my life has offered.  But the idea that I would ever, even now, experience joy in connection with my loss is offensive. While that sort of “feel good immediately” sentiment is consistent with the increasingly short attention American span, and might even be popular in this country (at least among those who haven’t suffered major losses), Palin’s words aren’t; in my view they’re an insult to me, my son, my family, and to all those suffering families in Tucson.

Turn mourning into joy? Do we really want God to transform us into smiling Disney characters?