When we experience illness or trauma we hold it in our bodies.
Sometimes events happened pre-consciousness, when were very young. Sometimes they happen as we age. No matter how young or old, our bodies are our repositories and these events can disassemble us. They can create chaos where there was order. Perhaps we’ve made a new internal order to keep living, perhaps shielding ourselves from pain, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been able to hold or transform in some way those earlier or current events.
Writing, and especially poetry, can be a vehicle or a container for our emotional, thinking, and spiritual selves.
1. Where to start: Move from abstraction to image.
We can say “I’m grieving” when talking about having lost a loved one, or “I’m in pain” if we have diabetes or chronic pain, but how do we really convey what that feels like to someone else? The words grief and pain are abstract; they have many meanings and mean different things to each of us.
But we can find words to describe those ideas. Image is a container. Rhythm and sound create music in our poems, and they are containers and transport vehicles. Metaphors and similes, comparing this to that, helps us find words that can communicate some of our experience.
We can move the feelings into words/music, and this allows us to move from being overwhelmed by those experiences to having the ability to think and feel simultaneously. And it allows others to empathize with us, when the words “convey.”
2. Focus on one part of the body.
One approach might be: instead of trying to write from your entire body, focus on one part. Try a body inventory. Focus on your breathing, where it moves most easily and where it doesn’t.
If you say “My stomach is in ‘knots,’” expand that image: What kind of knots, what color are they, what material is the knot made of, how big is it, does it make any sounds, does it remind you of any characters (real or fictional), can you compare it to an animal?
In this way, you can make a whole poem from one aspect of your awareness. You can write poems about your bodily experience, and your mind will begin to make the connections that can lead you to a new place.
3. Don’t think your poem has to be great to start with. Use craft to shape a poem.
Most often we can use writing to lay down our most vulnerable or visceral experiences. But that in itself may not be a poem.
At first our experiences are indigestible, and like food they take time to break down and become useful in our growth. It takes time to let ourselves see the shape of the poem and to craft the most necessary words to convey the essence of what we hope to say.
Most times we don’t know what it is we’re trying to say, and we need to let the poem guide us to what may lie hidden in us but is trying to speak. The tools of craft (line breaks, white space, image, metaphor, narrative, point of view, time, assonance, consonance, meter, etc.) help us distill the words into a poem.
4. Homework: Follow your instincts and find prompts for yourself.
Keep a notebook by your bed. Just before you go to sleep, write down three images that get at what you’re feeling. If something occurs to you in the night just jot it down; this also can help you get back to sleep if you tend to ruminate on ideas at night.
At the end of a week, make a list of all the words, and then make a separate column of words that include their opposites. If the words tend toward abstractions, see if you can put images to those words. Then try writing a poem that includes both the original image and its opposite. In this way, you may come to a new idea and the poem will hold more dynamism or tension.
You may also find that being able to hold two realities, the original feeling/image and its opposite, allows you to contain a larger perspective on your experiences. It may help you to move from a state of suffering and pain to moments of healing or acceptance. The poem is just one aspect of yourself, not all of you and the “I” in the poem may be partly you and not you.
You do not have to show your poem to anyone! Your writing can be only for yourself, and that is ok.
To learn more, join me for The Words to Say It: Writing & Reading Poems on Illness, Trauma & Healing, beginning Wednesday, April 17.
Suzanne Edison, MA, MFA is a poet, educator and former therapist. She has led workshops for parents and medical professionals on the effects of chronic illness on families at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH), NIH, and at national conferences for the Cure JM Foundation. She created a writing group for parents of kids with chronic illness at SCH, and the workshop “Teens Writing from the Heart of Illness & Healing” at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her recent chapbook, The Body Lives Its Undoing, was published in 2018 by The Benaroya Research Institute. It is an exploration in poetry and visual art about autoimmune diseases based on interviews with researchers, doctors, patients and caregivers.
Suzanne is the recipient of grants from Artist Trust, 4Culture of King County, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and will be a Hedgebrook fellow in Fall of 2019.
Some of Suzanne’s work can be found in her first chapbook, The Moth Eaten World, and in the following journals and anthologies: Michigan Quarterly Review; Naugatuck River Review; JAMA; CMAJ; The Healing Art of Writing, Vol. I; The Examined Life Journal; Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism and Awakening. Her work can be read online in various other journals and on her website. www.seedison.com