It was a cold December night when I sat in Genie Zeigerâ€™s writing workshop and tried to listen to my fellow participants. With sweaty palms and a quickening heart, I tracked the progression of readers, as, one by one, the members read what they had just written.
I felt the circle closing in. It was now time for the man on my left to read. I would be next. As he picked up his yellow lined pad and began a story about his cousinâ€™s wedding, I could barely listen. I blanked in and out as he described a joyous and loving occasion, blessed with family from both sides and a sunny day. The bride, of course was beautiful, wearing a flowing white dress and a radiant smile beneath her bald head.
Bald head? He had my full attention now. Apparently the bride, his cousin, was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. In the midst of the bride and groomâ€™s hopeful decision to go ahead with the wedding despite uncertainty about her health, she had made the brave decision to wed bald-headed, without wig or veil.
As was the custom of this workshop, when he finished reading others responded with comments about the writing, its strengths, particulars of the language, the rhythm of the piece. I was mute. I could not bring myself to speak, I did not even know if I still had a voice.
Then â€Thank you,â€ the man said, and he turned to me. My head spun. I wanted to pass. I wanted to run, I wanted to do anything but sit here in this living room and read my words. I canâ€™t do this! I thought.
I tried to take a deep breath, tried to quell the wavering in my voice, tried to stem the tears that blocked my vision, tried to keep my hands from trembling as I picked up my notebook. How ironic to be the next reader, because what I had written about was how, just days before I had heard a surgeon say, â€œYou have breast cancer.â€
My reading had a rocky start. I stumbled, I paused to collect myself, but I made it all the way to the end. And when I finished the room was completely still. Except for my heart thundering in my ears, there was silence.
Then someone spoke. â€œ That was a powerful piece. The narratorâ€™s description of being on the phone with the surgeon was very vivid and real.â€
And another said, â€œThe short sentences and repetitive language built tension and made us feel the fear.â€
And another added, â€œWhat brave and honest writing. This is so needed, it helps us address our own fears.â€
I felt the heat rise in my cheeks. I had done it! I had written about something so scary, my very new breast cancer diagnosis, and had shared it with my fellow writers. They in turn had given me feedback on my writing and helped me to feel safe and supported. In this process I had found a moment of respite from my fear. In fact, more than that, my fears had been transformed.
That was 13 years ago, the first time that I experienced the healing power of writing. I have since come to believe strongly in it, to believe that everyone has a story and that the telling and the hearing of our stories is healing. And in this healing lies the realization that we are more than just our stories.
After that night I continued to write in Genieâ€™s workshop about my experiences with breast cancer. It was as if once the dam was broken the force was too powerful to stop. Every week, on a Tuesday night, I gulped down my dinner, kissed my kids goodbye, and drove up the winding hill to Genie’s house. Every week I wrote about my journey in the land of breast cancer, and then I read it to the group. Sometimes what I wrote was funny and sometimes it made all of us cry. While I lost my breast, underwent chemotherapy, joined a support group, and tried numerous forms of complementary healing, from acupuncture to nutrition to psychic surgery, I wrote.
This went on for about five years. Sometimes I wrote playful little ditties, but for the most part, no matter what Genie suggested, I wrote about my experiences with breast cancer.
â€œWrite about a dream,â€ she might say, and I would start, â€œIn the time before I was diagnosed, I had a dream about a possum who clung to me no matter how often I flung him away. When I awoke I just knew.â€
â€œWrite about a photograph,â€ she might suggest, and I would write, â€œIn this photo, I have two breasts and now I have one and everything is both different and the same.â€
What I found during this time was that my writing was healing me even more than the therapies I was trying. It was healing to express my fears and grief and then write myself into a place of stillness. Very gradually, over time I wrote my heart open and found peace and acceptance.
I believe that healing is not the same as cure. There is no cure for breast cancer â€“ you can have a recurrence at any time, but there is healing, which to me means finding clarity and harmony in body, mind, spirit and feeling. Healing is feeling whole.
A couple of years ago I concluded four years at the IM School of Healing Arts in NYC where we learned wholeness healing. We learned that we are born whole but get fragmented by life, so healing is connecting with that memory of wholeness. We do it within ourselves and in relationships with others, by bringing our loving attention.
For me, a way of connecting to that memory of wholeness is through writing. Because of my healing experience as a member of the writing workshop I became a leader of writing workshops for people touched by cancer, and I have seen time and time again how we are moved to tears as we read the words that express our deep truths. Writing like this, within the intimate community of a workshop, is an act of courage, connection and ultimately transformation. As we share our stories, we find that we are more than just our stories. And in that realization we can make a transformation from the personal one to the universal One and experience healing.
(This piece is included in a book, The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader. You can learn more about this book and about Transformative Language Arts at their website (http://www.tlanetwork.org/).
Â© Pam Roberts