Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times. As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.” Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.
by Sharon Bray, Ed.D
The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book. — André Maurois
It’s taken me the better part of three days to organize my books into some kind of order on my bookshelves. In part, I have a lot of books, although far fewer than I used to when our move back to Toronto dictated some serious downsizing of our belongings. Despite my reluctance to let many of them go, a feeling much like saying good-bye to old friends, I did inviting writing group members to choose from the books tagged for donation, giving a few favorites to friends, and donating several boxes to the local library. Yet I kept favorites, volumes of poetry, selected works of fiction, books on art and writing, and to my shock, I still had enough to fill three large bookcases.
The process of organizing was a slow one, alphabetizing poetry books, grouping fiction favorites and then nonfiction before several volumes on writing and poetry craft, even several favorite children’s books I have yet to let go of. But as time-consuming as the basic task was, I was further slowed in my progress by the constant desire to open a book to a dog-eared page, re-read the underlined passages, someone’s inscription on the title page, or if poetry, more than one of a poet’s collection. I was often lost in remembering: where I was, what was going on in my life, why I loved a book or a poem as much as I did. My books, it turns out, have been as much a source of healing and happiness as they were about learning and growth.
“And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem by the same name, his words offering me some measure of solace in the wake of my first husband’s drowning:
And death shall have no dominion.
They shall have stars at elbow and foot…
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Those lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion…
My volume of e.e. cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 was filled with marked up passages, asterisks, and dog-eared pages, among them one that during my recovery from grief and loss offered me hope and a new way of living:
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young…
I pulled Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Angle of Repose(1971), sitting down to re-read several pages. I remembered reading the novel shortly after I moved my children and myself from Halifax to Toronto two years after my husband’s death to begin my doctoral studies. I was aching from loss and longing for what I still called “home,” the small Northern Californian town where my father’s family had homesteaded, settled and where, each day of my childhood, I gazed at the beauty of Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.
Stegner’s book was a powerful read for me, and he became one of my favorite writers. In Angle of Repose, the protagonist, Lyman, a writer confined to a wheelchair, had recently been abandoned by his wife. He was filled with bitterness and a sense of defeat. After moving into his grandparents’ house, he decided to chronicle his grandparents’ early days in the western frontier. As he read through his grandmother’s letters, he discovered much more about their marriage, struggles and difficulties than he anticipated. Through their story, he learned not only of their lives, but his own.
I sampled passages from several of the pages, in awe of Stegner’s command of language, his deep understanding of the challenges of early life in the West, and the way in which he artfully moved from the struggles of the grandparents to his protagonist’s. There were lessons in the book had real impact for me at the time, and I had underlined passage after passage.
- Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend…”
- Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality…”
- We must be reconciled, for what we left behind us can never be ours again…”
- She saw in his face he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He set his crosshairs on the snowpeaks of a vision.
It’s no surprise, perhaps, but as my shelving slowed and I paused to page through one book after another of the books I’d loved, I was reminded that reading, perhaps as much as writing, was not only an important part of my daily life, but of healing and happiness.
“Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.” –J. Arroyo, author
It’s not a novel concept (no pun intended). The notion that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world. “The Reading Cure,” published in a 2008 issue of The Guardian reminds us that Apollo was not only the Greek god of poetry, but also of healing. Aristotle believed literature had healing benefits and could be used to treat illness. Hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were typically situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure.
One sheds one’s sicknesses in books. – D. H. Lawrence
A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a 2015 New Yorker Magazine article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey. Dovey explores the origins of Bibliotherapy, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an interaction between the reader and certain literature which is useful in aiding personal adjustment.”
Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice, widely used in the U.K., that uses words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts and to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems. Covey notes that the Ancient Greeks inscribed a library entrance in Thebes as a “healing place for the soul, noting that Shakespeare, in the play, Titus Andronicus, encourages the audience to “Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow …”
Bibliotherapy came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions, famously remarking, “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.” Following World War I, as traumatized soldiers returned home from the front, they were often prescribed a course of reading. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was also used in hospitals and libraries, and since, the practice has been utilized by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of adjunct therapy.
You may be interested to know that there is scientific research that supports health benefits of reading, for example, Covey cites a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology that showed when we read about an experience in a novel, we draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings. And other studies suggest that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others. At the very least, reading does boost your brain power, like a good jog exercises your cardiovascular system, and it can help you relate to others feelings, particularly if you read literary fiction. Reading helps us relax, and reading before bed even helps us sleep.
But perhaps the most important thing reading does for us is in its capacity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the larger world, to immerse ourselves a world beyond our everyday lives, and to find ourselves among the words another has written on a page–words that speak to what we are experiencing, that remind us of hope and healing. What good literature can do and does do best, for so many of us, is touch our souls.
From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul. –Karen Swallow Prior, The Atlantic, 2013.
- Consider how reading has played a role in your life.
- What role does reading play in your life?
- What kind of books or literature do you most prefer? Why?
- Has reading helped you during difficult periods in your life? How?
- What are some of your most memorable or enduring books or poetry you’ve experienced? Why?
- Describe a difficult time in your life and a book or poem which offered you some solace and insight.
Let us hear from you! CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon. Send them to Karen Irwin. 500 word limit.
Sharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site, www.writingthroughcancer.com, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.