Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing
by Mary Carroll Moore, The Women's Press
Writing creates a healing pathway through times of change. Here's how writing helped me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In a brilliant essay,
Fiction While Facing Life's Facts," published in the August
New York Times, novelist
Alice Hoffman writes about her recent bout with cancer and
with doctors and treatments--fiction saved her life. Receiving
or a bone scan, Hoffman would immerse herself in her
"walking through snowstorms, moonlight, fields of roses."
in order to make sense of their worlds. During the upheaval of
Hoffman turned to the thing she had always found most healing.
Paradoxically, writing brings you closer, more face-to-face with illness. But there's a theory that I've experimented with in a writing class I teach to cancer survivors and others who have gone through a serious illness. I learned it in my own breast cancer experience: Writing is the means by which we heal.
Most people, hearing a cancer diagnosis, run as fast as they can, faster than they've ever run. If we run fast enough, the wind's noise rushing past our ears will mask everything, especially thought. Because with a life-threatening disease, the mind is suddenly the worst enemy. It wakes you up when everyone else is sleeping, and it's running too. Platters of thoughts in its hands, it runs ahead of you and throws them in your way. Mine went like this:
Please, let me live ten more years. It's not right that a child leave her life before her mother and father. Let me live a day longer than my beloved dog, so he doesn't have to wake up each morning and never see my face again. That's all I ask. Oh, and let me handle the pain well. Let me be graceful, not whimper too much, even when it's very dark.
Doctors tell you how to survive. Eat right, think right, visualize
cancer cells being attacked by Pac-Man cells. Run fast enough, you
win the race. You may never be cured, but you'll get to live.
It was during my second month of chemotherapy that I read this: healing is not about what we're running from but what we're running toward.
Like Hoffman, I decided to go back to the thing that had always healed me. Writing. It slowed my footsteps to a fast walk, then coaxed me to stand still long enough to breathe deeply. In the stillness I caught the first full lung-expanding breath since the cancer treatments began. I began to look around at the trees, the sunshine, the light on the surface of a Minnesota lake at dusk. Things I never fully saw, appeared breathtakingly new, beautiful like pearls. Where have I been? I wondered.
As I began to reach toward all that is life-giving in my days, all that embraced me with hope, as I began to write, the healing started.
• • •
For twenty-five years I had been a journalist and editor, writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column, ten books, hundreds of magazine articles. I knew about writing, I knew about meeting deadlines. My writing had become a job, rather than a joy. What I secretly longed to do was make the leap from my 800-word weekly output into the world of fiction: particularly short stories. I had studied fiction for years, attended classes and workshops, poured over MFA catalogs. As the cancer journey progressed, I faced this secret longing and decided to do something about it. Hoffman writes in her essay, "In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained." Fiction would give me the means to explore death and the deepest fears of living at the edge of life--things I was dancing with every day.