Interview on 'Healing Writing' with Patricia Wellingham-Jones by RD Armstrong
RD: What got you into writing poetry in the first place?
PWJ: I don't know why I started writing poetry, RD, but I can tell you exactly when. In early 1992 I was having physical therapy to deal with neck/arm/hand pain. I'd been writing for decades in professional journals and newsletters (articles about health and handwriting research mostly) as well as articles and photos for horticultural magazines. All strictly left-brain stuff, you see. Suddenly, in the course of having my body pushed and shoved and massaged, poems (and, later, short stories) started bubbling up from the creative side of my being. The poems that came weren't very good, and they were not at all about my body and its travails (I went on to need surgery then more PT and learned how to be left handed for several years) but, oh my, were they satisfying to write.
I continued writing poems, then started getting them out and learned more about the craft. My goal then, as now, was to simply capture what was happening around me. Not to write about myself or great angst, but just to record the fascinating small events of life as I noticed them. BTW: A major fringe benefit of writing poetry is that my eye really developed and I started noticing more and more, things I'd slid right past earlier. The details that make writing juicy.
RD: It's true that I referred to you as a healing poet, but were you writing poetry before that or did it become part of your healing process when you first wrote Don't Turn Away?
PWJ: As you see from the answer above, I started writing poems in 1992, for no reason I can discern. Then in 2000 the breast cancer was discovered. By now poetry was so ingrained in my life that I recorded the process, again for my own pleasure. This time, though, the poetry was deliberate and truly healing, helping me to deal with the horrors of cancer and fears of mortality as I moved through the cycle. A friend said I should make a book of the poems. Thus, Don't Turn Away: Poems about breast cancer came into being. You kindly reviewed the book, and that's when you first called me a 'healing poet' – which quite blew me away. The little book, incidentally, is in its third printing, almost ready for a fourth, and travels all over the world. I do know, first hand, the value of 'healing writing'.
RD: How did you develop the healing writing program at a cancer center you mentioned?
PWJ: This was another of those serendipitous things that happen throughout my life. Several years ago I lunched with writer friends after a talk on memoir by Mary Jane DeRoss. She's a dynamo, spent years traveling around California giving free workshops on writing your family stories for others to read. When she learned I was a poet, a cancer survivor, had an RN (not to mention that PhD) and lived near Chico, she asked if I'd be interested in helping her set up a writing group for the Enloe Cancer Center there. I said a tentative yes, then nothing happened. A year later, I got a call from the leader of the volunteers at the hospital, saying Mary Jane and she were forming this group and would I please join them. I did, sat on the committee to develop and plan the 'Telling Our Stories' writing group, and announced firmly that I was happy to be an advisor but not to count on me for heavy involvement. (I was entering the caregiver stage with my dear husband at that time.) They agreed, and even gave me my unofficial title, which still makes me smile. I am their 'Senior Dignitary'.
We started in June with a panel on journaling to whet the appetite and a reception in August to get the program fired up for September. Despite my claims, I was a speaker on both occasions and really supportive of the effort. That first year Mary Jane DeRoss and Theresa Marcis led the monthly writing group; I attended as many sessions as I could. Then last year, my caregiving ended but Mary Jane's began, so I agreed to take over her evenings as leader.
Gotta tell you, I am thoroughly hooked! I love the evenings we sit together, write to a prompt (or pressing story that demands to be told), then read our work to applause and cheers. Our group continues to be solid, we get a few new people now and then. The level of warmth and support and, yes, love that fills the room astounds and awes me. I see people flourish. Part of that may be the natural healing effect of time, but I'm convinced that part of it is in the sharing of stories as well. I've watched people say they cannot write, then read amazing tales in unique and powerful voices. I've taken friends who just go as support, then get hooked themselves and want to keep writing.
In the past few weeks I've learned that Enloe Cancer Center is in the forefront of the healing arts in medicine movement, nationally. Now I really feel honored to be a part of it all.
RD: How does the writing group work?
PWJ: We meet the second Wednesday of the month in the conference center of Enloe Cancer Center in Chico (http://www.enloe.org/guide_to_services/cancer_center.asp). We'd love to meet more often, but for various reasons, it just doesn't work out. In the first year, Mary Jane laid down good writing guidelines in her sessions, then included a free write. Theresa, who teaches writing at local colleges, interwove theory and craft with her writing prompts. Well into it now, we've learned that what the people want (and I do too) is just to write write write. So Theresa and I spend most of our time providing prompts, encouraging writers, and slipping in tidbits of craft as we go. When I knew I'd be leading some of these sessions, I wanted to know more and turned to the literature (see references at the end of this piece). The most rewarding process, to me, comes from Pat Schneider's principles. She is founder of Amherst Writing and Artists Workshops and has developed this approach over twenty-five years of leading workshops in a variety of settings. She has five basic affirmations: Everyone has a strong, unique voice; everyone is born with creative genius; writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level; the teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer's original voice or artistic self-esteem; and a writer is someone who writes. In addition, and along with her methods, we treat all writing as fiction unless told otherwise. This elevates the writing to literature and creates safety for the writer, making her/him less vulnerable. The approach makes it possible to write honestly and creatively. Only positive response is allowed, no critique or suggestions for first-draft material. Our goal is to catch the stories of our lives, including the cancer journey and anything else the writer wishes to address.
RD: I've heard of Poetry Therapy. Is this the same?
PWJ: No. Healing writing is not the same as writing/poetry therapy. Writing therapy uses the writing of others, as well as self, to illuminate, probe then deal with traumas. There is a formal and intensive course of study leading to a certificate for leaders. Healing writing is a writing group (although you can also write alone and receive similar good effects), people writing their deepest truths and fears, then reading the work, as literature not therapy, to the others in the group. Healing of the spirit (not curing of the body) often accompanies this process, although there are also measurable results. James Pennebaker's research findings include actual health gains from expressive writing: enhanced immune function, decreased heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduced symptoms in arthritis and asthma sufferers, lessened sleep disturbance with metastatic cancers. Long term, people generally report feeling happier and less negative after expressive writing.
RD: What happens to the people in the group?
PWJ: When you meet with intent, when the group has a focus, when you write honestly, for yourself, in a safe environment, healing can happen. I find a certain magic fizzes the air when people write together, then read that work to the group. Minds seem to link, themes repeat within the circle, you can feel yourself open and expand. Words flow, memories from deep inside begin to surface. Further, the effect can linger long past the meeting. At one of our sessions, I threw out the prompt 'scar'. We all wrote something that night, then a few days later I wrote a poem about another scar, and several days after that yet another scar wanted to tell its story. Others report that they often work and expand a bit of writing they started in the group after they get home.
RD: What do members of the group say?
PWJ: At our last session I asked them: What has this writing group come to mean to you? Here are excerpts from some of their answers.
. Writing about the experience of life-threatening illness might seem like a walk in the park compared to the experience itself, and the ongoing experiences, but it is the presence of others writing the rawness, the risk, the splash of truth, that inspires and expands my own necessary search.
. I felt eager to return next time to feel those feelings [encouragement, connection socially and emotionally] and maybe something new. I guess the healing comes on various levels.
. The Enloe writing group has helped me change the way I view myself in relationship to writing, especially creative writing. That has inspired me …
. The group grounds me … brings me to the place in the center of things … inspires me … the honesty, concern and hope of all the writers. And, maybe most importantly, the sense of playfulness and humor that can arise in the middle of so many degrees of challenge. The celebration of life.
. I never want to miss the writing group … a smile comes to my face … it is the companionship while writing … the tears and openheartedness that comes when we share our writing. Yep, I'm addicted to this form of respite. It's a necessity. A practice.
. Honesty. Courage. Optimism. A sharing and caring and trust. Appreciation of others' thoughts and feelings. These people are amazing!
Examples from the Writing Group
Darling, I've had an empty hole in my heart since you left. I hurt but my life is not empty. Our wonderful neighbors wave with a smile and let me know they're available to help when needed.
Evenings are not empty with frequent calls and letters from Wendy, letters from Chanel, notes and calls from Mona, calls from Scott, "just checking in". I try to live what he wrote, "Mom, cherish memories but embrace the future." When did our kids get so smart?
Couple friends ask me out to dinner. I go to movies with girl friends, often choosing an offbeat show at the Pageant.
Returning to work at the hospital has given me socialization, a schedule to keep, and a feeling of helping others.
Your cat, Sammy, greets me when I come home with his loud purr, quiet meow and soft fur. I found that one small cat changes coming home to an empty house to coming home.
Lately I've been able to filling the empty places in my mind with memories of our time together. I love living in the house we remodeled and the granite kitchen countertop we splurged on. I enjoy the trees we planted, and eating the sun-ripened fruit right under the trees with the sweet juice dripping off my chin. I've been filling the empty canning jars with preserves, peach and plum jam.
Our trips fill my mind. Working in Saudi Arabia, riding a camel in Egypt before touring the pyramid. Biking to the great wall in China with Mom, Willy & Pete, and biking again in Quebec where we saw the white beluga whales and laughed trying to order a meal in French. Thinking of the annual surprise birthday trips we planned for each other and the times in our spa, chatting and watching the birds bring joy to my heart.
Driving to Modesto is easy because of our 4 wonderful grandchildren who greet my empty arms with rambunctious hugs. Flying to southern California to see "Sis" and the new babies fills what could be empty weekends.
No, my life is not empty but, … your chair is.
… written by Jane Etz, Telling Our Stories writing group, Spring 2006, in response to the prompt, 'Empty.'
The jetboat ride in the morning to get to the best areas for fly fishing will definitely test your senses. It's only a few miles as the crow flies to the Pacific Ocean and the fog skips over the tops of the mountains as you speed down the river. The brisk air wakes you up and the smells are unique to the Klamath River. There's usually a bear or two to greet you as the sun is coming up. Steelhead breaking water in an effort to feed, leaving wakes here and there. Osprey circling, about to seize their prey. Range cattle cruise the beaches looking for a clump of green grass. There are so many different trees, most of which are conifers pointing straight up. The Scotch Broom is still hanging on to its purple flower and the Black Berries look tempting. A small flock of Teal acrobatically wing their way up river and just before we stop the boat a Sea Lion pokes his head above the fast running water.
… by Si Wrigley, 2008, to the prompt 'write about something that's fun for you'
My Brother's Hand
(My older brother had a life-changing accident less than five months ago. In a semi-comatose state, Chris attempts physical movement. Sometimes his hand moves slowly up.)
I've never seen my brother's hand
in a moonlight pose
a slender banana
mainstaged by the excess of lunar dust
a flamboyant shoelace
snaking the warm ripples
of night's tall lake, until now
my heart a flashlight
one hand cupped
then floating arm
the fingers of air
… by Theresa Marcis, 2008, using the words banana, shoelace, lunar, flamboyant, flashlight, fingers, hem as a prompt
For a Moment
Wearing his jacket, his shirt, and the garnet ring he had worn for 50 years, the slightness of my somewhat shrinking self breaks through the metal gate to the walkway to your house.
I hand the birthday card to you, the one he would have given if his mind…
And for a moment, I am him. The sweetness of his life is in my voice. I let the anger go. I let you go—into the history of tomorrow.
… by Bob Garner, 2008, writing about a strong emotion without naming it
What Is the Story I Must Tell?
The story I must tell looks like a skeleton, the bones that are still there when everything else rots away. The grinning skull that understands the dark humor of the human condition. Knowing that lifetime after lifetime the story is the same.
We are born wanting. A wet infant mouth in a perfect "o" looking to fill it with a tit, with milk, with life, with love. The flesh grows…desire grows…into longing for so many things.
And no matter how much we get we're wired to want more. I'm wired to want more. Until the flesh starts giving up. And the mind.
The heart lets go last. If ever. Those loving attachments could very well carry on after the grave. Or fly into new flesh being born all over again. Or maybe linger, resonating in the bones.
The story I must tell sounds like a wail. A very, very old lady crying a heartache that just doesn't heal but has to be carried.
carried (let it go) carried (let it go) carried (let it go)
but it is my love, and a part of me…how can I lay it down?
The story I must tell is about a long phone call, last night, in a dark room. My plan won't happen. My dream is unfulfilled.
Someday my skull will be grinning at it.
… Rebecca Senoglu, 2007, from a prompt of the same title
Riding the Giant Boat Swing at the Santander Carnival
We met in his family's snack bar in Santander, where I had traveled on a week-end jaunt to escape the oppressive heat in Madrid and to see another face of Spain. Green mountains butting up against the sea contrasted with the dry arid center where Madrid rested. He invited me for dinner: fried calamari, crusty bread, and sangria in the tourist town of Santillana del Mar. The next evening we were off to the Carnival in Santander with its camel races. Juan Ramon Gonzalez Gomarin won a white Styrofoam hat, which he gave to me along with a "Yo Santander" bumper sticker. Juan Ramon told the ticket man at the Giant Boat Swing ride that he worked for the carnival and asked for 10 complimentary tickets. There in Spain, where we seemed to need our carnet [ID] for everything, the man asked for no ID, no credential, no badge; he just handed over the ten tickets. This is itself amazed me.
Once we and about 30 other people were locked into our seats, the boat began to swing. Back and forth we sailed. Higher and higher we climbed. I asked myself, "What if this boat comes loose from its mooring, tumbles downward through the air and crashes to the earth?" I was as high as the boat, just from the exhilaration of it all, and I realized I didn't care. In fact, this was the most fabulous way to leave the world that I could think of. I wasn't anxious to leave the world. I didn't wish to die. At the same time, I wasn't attached to life either. I was free, living dangerously, and loving every moment of it. To this day, I often think back on that summer evening in the warm, humid air when life was joyful and treasured but I did not need to cling to it.
… Peggy DuFon, 2008, to the prompt "Things that are fun"
We also write sometimes just for fun. Here are three examples of quick writes using the words skip, rose, stars, cold, cookie, fruitcake, whale, happy, and pepper.
Skip rose happy from his breakfast of fruitcake. It had been a whale of a party, under a cold, clear, November sky peppered with stars. Her scent still lingered in his memory - sweet and warm - like a freshly baked cookie.
… by David Michael Pierce, 2007
The whale looked at the cold stars and wished that if she couldn't have fruitcake or a cookie, or even a pepper, she could perhaps at least smell a rose. But whales just can't have or do these things.
Oh well. It's okay. Skip it!
… by Marilyn Birkes, 2007
"Skip the one perfect rose this Christmas, big boy, and give me the stars
instead," Pepper the voluptuous blonde purred.
He gave her a cold glare and said, "Look, cookie, you'll be lucky to get last year's fruitcake from me if you keep that up. You've got a whale of a nerve thinking I'm happy to cater only to you."
… by Jenny Kay, 2007
PWJ: As I read these rich and varied writings by members of our group, I remember again that the prompt itself doesn't really matter. Any prompt or trigger in a timed writing can open the floodgates; the words, memories and feelings rush out in whatever needs to be said at that moment.
Other things can happen, and our Jenny Kay is a prime example. A former feature writer for the Bangkok Post, she hadn't written in twenty years. A few weeks ago she sent one of her pieces, written with and read to the group, to the Chico News & Review Fiction 59 contest—and won first place. We won't let her put down her pen and paper now!
Thanks so much, RD, for inviting me to write about 'healing writing'.
Anderson, Charles M. and MacCurdy, Marian M., editors. (2000). Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice. National Council of Teachers of English.
Bray, Sharon. (2004). A Healing Journey: Writing together through breast cancer.
Amherst, MA: Amherst Writers & Artists Press. http://www.amherstwriters.com/AWAPress.html
DeSalvo, Louise. (1999). Writing as a Way of Healing. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Klauser, Henriette Anne. (2003). With Pen in Hand: The Healing Power of Writing. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing. www.perseuspublishing.com
Pennebaker, J.W. (May 1997). Writing about Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, Vol. 8, No. 3, May.
Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Oakland, CA. New Harbinger Press.
Samuels, Michael, MD & Mary Rockwood Lane, RN, MSN. (1998). Creative Healing: How You Can Use Art, Writing, Dance, and Music to Heal Yourself. NY: Harper Collins.
Schneider, Pat. (2003). Writing Alone and With Others. NY: Oxford University Press. Amherst Writers & Artists http://www.amherstwriters.com/