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.
For several years, I worked on a memoir that over time, turned into a novel. As I completed the first drafts, I sent it to a few respected writers and friends for review, and, depending on their comments, returned to the manuscript to revise it—as it turned out, multiple times. The writing dragged on through four revisions, but something wasn’t working. In the process of making my life experience into “fiction,” I inadvertently turned it into something that no longer resembled what actually happened to me. Yet, as frustrated as I was at times, I soon learned that none of it was wasted effort.
As I wrote and revised, I was also healing from a painful and turbulent chapter of life, although that was not my reason for writing. But I was changing as my story changed. My memoir/novel had become an “old” story for me, one that I finally could put to rest. I was ready to begin a new life chapter and create a new story. I realized that the process of revising my old story had been more about revising the way I looked at—and acted on—my life, not about completing a work of fiction.
Revision, in writing or life, is about letting go, acknowledging that we must make choices and changes we didn’t anticipate, but that are necessary, either for what we’re writing or because of life events like serious illness, loss, aging, or changes in health and circumstance. I think of the individuals in my cancer writing groups and how a cancer diagnosis forces them to confront mortality no matter what their age. Lives are altered without warning, and part of the hard reality of a life changed by a debilitating or terminal illness is the necessity of letting go of one’s old life and story. As they write together week after week, their cancer stories begin to change just as they do. Through writing and sharing their stories with one another, a process of revision naturally takes place. Perspective shifts; the writing changes, becoming more complex, descriptive and reflective.
We think of revision as something that is necessary to the work of writing. It is, but it’s also something that reflects changes in us—not just our work. The word “revision” essentially means “to look, or see, again.” Check the dictionary and you’ll find synonyms like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change. Revision is something we do naturally whenever we try to make sense out of something that forces us to alter the course of our lives. Letting go of the old scripts of our past is necessary if we are to move on with life and live in the present. We revise, deciding what to keep and what to discard as we shape and re-shape our lives and stories at every stage. Revision helps us to see our lives and our work in a fresh light. Revision, as described by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, is “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”
“A new vision of something…” We are the authors of our life stories. Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes. Sometimes, especially in periods of crisis, our own story can be the most difficult to understand. In You Must Revise Your Life, William Stafford’s wise book on writing, the author wrote:
My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend. One part is easy to tell: the times, the places, events, and people. The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…
The mysterious inner life, our emotions, thoughts, and memories, interact with what is written. It’s a process of constant motion, the “two rivers that blend.” One thing changes the other, and Stafford reminds us that revising our lives involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language. “The language changes,” he said, “and you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”
So many times, in the midst of hardship, illness or loss, I’ve wished I could change my life on demand, skip over the painful and difficult chapters, dump the old scripts and begin again, just like the Vietnam veteran in Paul Simon’s song, “Rewrite,” who wants to rewrite his life so it has a happy ending:
I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna’ substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…
(From the album: So Beautiful or What, 2011).
We all like happy endings, but unlike the fairy tales of childhood, we have learned we are most often the architects of our happy endings. It’s easy to fantasize sometimes, look back and imagine how our lives could have been different…if only…but the difficult experiences, struggles and hardships are still there when we open our eyes. If we pay attention, we can recognize and learn from new insights we’ve gained, ones that help us see and define our futures with a fresh perspective.
I think of Stafford’s words, “Dawn comes, but not on demand” and recall how the individuals in my cancer writing groups experience this gradual process of “dawning.” In our first weeks, what gets written about is cancer: the shock of diagnosis, agony of treatments and surgeries, one’s fears and sorrow. Gradually, as individuals begin to heal, the raw, emotional writing begins to change. Tears subside, and the writing deepens and becomes more organized. The content shifts. There are persistent themes of looking ahead, considering how one wants to live moving forward, acknowledging one’s old life has been altered by cancer in multiple ways and cannot be reclaimed as it once was. They begin defining the changes in themselves that will shape their lives as they recover and for however long a life they have.
In an interview published in the Paris Review (Winter 1993), Stafford was asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for his book on writing. He answered:
“I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”
“Revising a life…a change to see how your life can be changed.” Revision is not something we think about in writing or life when we first begin writing from the painful events life throws at us. It’s necessary we freely pour those raw and confusing emotions on to the page at first. Even then, there are bits of insight expressed, although we may not initially be aware of them. Whenever group members read aloud after we’ve written, they are often surprised at what shows up on the page. Comments like “I didn’t know I was going there” or “I didn’t realize I wrote that down” are common among the group.
The surprise we discover in what we’ve written is like an open door beckoning us to enter and explore the deeper meaning of our experiences. Discovery is a gradual process; it takes time, but once we’ve written our imperfect first pages, we can re-read and begin to revise them. Revision involves reflecting on what we’ve written. The “real” story gradually surfaces coupled with the meaning inherent in our experience. It’s why writing can be such a useful tool for healing. We begin writing out of those confusing emotions, but the magic in the writing and revision process is that we can begin to learn from our experiences, see our lives anew and embrace them fully again.
There’s a favorite poem of mine by Ellen Bass that hangs above my desk. I keep it in sight because it reminds me what life is, and how, out of illness, loss and hardship, we somehow learn to love our lives again.
To love life, to love it even
When you have no stomach for it
And everything you’ve held dear
Crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…
When grief weights you like your own flesh
…you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
Between your palms…
And you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
(“The Thing Is,” In: Mules of Love, 2002)
Given the chance, how would you rewrite your life? Which parts? Has writing out of hardship or illness changed you in any way? What have you learned from those difficult life events that have prompted you to revise your life or embrace the life you have? You might begin with the line, “Before _______ I was…” and, after examining what that inspires in your writing, start a fresh page, this time beginning with “After _____ I was…” Read the before and after over. What stands out? What has changed, and how?
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.