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.
When the body breaks down, so does life.
Medicine may fix the body but
it doesn’t put one’s life back together.
—Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body, 1991
You’ve just heard the words, “I’m sorry. You have cancer.” It’s a dream, right? Some kind of bad joke the universe is playing on you. Maybe you sit on the edge of the examination table, suspended in disbelief or at the least, wondering if you heard that correctly. Cancer? I have CAN-CER? Without warning, you’ve pulled into a whirlwind and, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, dropped into some strange new territory where nothing seems familiar. The doctor speaks again, detailing the specifics of your diagnosis. He might as well be speaking a foreign language. You listen without really hearing as your world seems to spin out of control.
Cancer impacts virtually all of our lives, Jeremy Geffen, MD, wrote in the preface of The Journey Through Cancer, (Three Rivers Press, 200). … it is a life-transforming experience that often challenges the mind, heart, and spirit of patients and family members as deeply—if not more deeply—than it challenges the physical body. Healing, from the experience of cancer, is much more than the treatments and surgeries that come with the diagnosis. The body may recover, but your world has been forever altered—mind, heart and spirit.
Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break
(From Macbeth, by William Shakespeare)
Shakespeare knew it, just as many famous writers who followed him. “When life hurts, writing can help,” I typically say in the first meeting of an expressive writing workshop for cancer patients and survivors. Some nod their heads in agreement. “I’ve journaled for years,” someone might say. “Journaling gave me a way to express my feelings about things.” But those who haven’t written regularly aren’t so sure, yet because of a cancer diagnosis, they’re willing to give writing a try.
Expressive writing, also called “therapeutic writing,” is defined as personal writing about a difficult or stressful event which doesn’t involve attention to form, grammar or spelling. It’s a process of pouring out or releasing one’s emotions and thoughts on the page. It’s less about what happened and more about what you feel about what has happened. In my groups, writing what you feel about cancer is where we begin, but it’s only a starting point.
Why? There’s a body of significant research on the health benefits of expressive writing, triggered by the early work of James Pennebaker, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin. As Pennebaker continued to explore the relationship between writing and health, he discovered that the most healing kind of writing did more than simply express difficult feelings. Simply venting emotions, whether you’re writing or talking, doesn’t do enough to relieve stress and improve health. “…when we see our suffering as story,” Anais Nin wrote, we are saved. “…When you make connections between what you feel and why, your writing begins to take on shape and form. It becomes a coherent narrative, a story, which is characteristic of writing that is most healing.
Think about it. Story is how we communicate with one another. Think of a conversation between two people. Imagine a friend asking, “So, what happened today at your doctor’s appointment?”
You might reply with something like, “Well, when I checked in at reception, I was told that Dr. Smith was running nearly an hour behind, which didn’t do anything for my stress level, but when I sat down by a young woman who…” And you’ve begun to tell a little story, one with a beginning, middle, and an end.
It’s something that happens to the writing done in my groups as the weeks progress. People move from the raw, emotional writing typical of the first meeting, and gradually, their writing begins to develop into story, a personal narrative that both expresses and explores, one that moves the writer toward new understanding, insight or meaning. As it does, the benefits of writing become visible. People relax; they begin writing about other life events as well as cancer. Laughter, as well as tears, is shared among the members. They help each other in times of stress or need, and they consistently report how important the writing has become to their well-being and attitude.
But that’s not all. They have begun writing narratives or poetry that would move anyone who might hear them read aloud. Writing is healing, in part, because it is transformative. As your stories change, so do your lives. You gain new insights and perspective, and not only how you see your life, but the way in which you act on it begins to shift. That’s the healing power of writing, of turning our suffering into story.
How can you start? Begin at the beginning, or, if you like, the middle of your cancer journey. It really doesn’t matter. What matters most is that you write, freely and honestly without worrying whether or not it’s “good enough.” It’s your story, and as author Dorothy Allison wisely reminded her readers, “I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.”
Write! Why not explore writing’s power to help you heal? First, get comfortable in a quiet place. Second, I recommend keeping your writing in a spiral bound notebook (or file on your laptop) so you can, from time to time, re-read old entries and reflect on your changes. Third, set the timer: 15 or 20 minutes, then write without stopping. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just write. When the timer goes off, you stop writing. Read over what you’ve written, but don’t do anything yet. Put it aside for a day or two. Then re-read. Highlight those passages that stand out for you. Why? If you feel like it, you can expand on what you’ve written or even revise your first attempt, but that’s entirely optional.
Try one or both of these suggestions, ones I often use in the first few meetings of my cancer writing groups:
- The moment when… Think about the very first moment you were told you had cancer. Close your eyes and try to remember as many details as you can, for example, the setting, quality of light, things in the room, sounds, where you sat, and so on. Then think about that moment just before you heard the word “cancer.” The look on your doctor’s face, his/her body posture, or the ringing of the telephone. What were you feeling? Now write for twenty minutes, taking yourself into that moment gradually by describing as much detail as you can. End your narrative with the words you heard, for example, “I’m sorry, but you have cancer.”
- Talk back to cancer. Once during every series of workshops, I ask the participants to address their cancers directly. It takes the form of a letter, one in which you say what you feel about your illness directly to cancer. Here’s an excerpt from a “letter to cancer” written by a former workshop member:
You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake… Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman …You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror…
When the timer stops, you can stop. Sometimes, however, you’ll be so involved in your writing that you will want to keep going. That’s fine. When you’re finished, read over what you’ve written, but don’t do anything with it. Put it aside for a day or two. Then re-read again. Highlight those passages that stand out for you. Why? If you feel like it, you can expand on what you’ve written or even revise your first attempt, but that’s entirely optional.
What Then? Find a time two or three times a week when you are able to write without interruption. It doesn’t have to be much. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and begin with anything, even “I don’t have anything to write this morning…” but keep the pen moving until the timer stops. You will gradually write your way into what’s important. Who knows? You may stumble onto the beginnings of a poem, an essay or story that wants to be written. Make writing a part of your healing.
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.