Thanks again to isabella at moritherapy and her post about Mental Health Camp, I’ve been reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing. She discusses at length not only the healing power of the writing process but also the need for a writer to care for the creative self.
Her own breakthrough in becoming a professional writer started when she discovered a demanding form of Japanese painting that grows out of the Zen tradition. It requires that the painter prepare by achieving an inner balance and “emptiness” that allows total concentration on the creative act. The painting itself is achieved with a series of strokes in one sitting that permits no changes. This is an art requiring an inner harmony cultivated through spiritual practice and a balance in all aspects of life.
There’s a similar tradition in the Chinese art of calligraphy, as explained in a beautiful book – The Way of Chinese Painting by Mai Mai Sze. The tradition is also described in Wen Fong’s Images of the Mind, which includes dozens of excellent reproductions of calligraphy, poetry and paintings. According to the Chinese “way,” the artist not only achieves spiritual, mental, emotional and physical wholeness but also captures the essential spirit and energy of external reality. There is a connecting energy that relates the individual to the larger world. The artist expresses that unity not only in the finished work but also in the act of creating it. During those creative moments, the calligrapher/painter stands apart from the tumble of thoughts and emotions and works in a state similar to meditation.
What DeSalvo drew from studying this tradition was that writing was not separate from life but an integral part of it. She felt a healing power through the detachment she achieved during the creative process that allowed her to observe difficult and destructive thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them. Instead she could write about those feelings and explore in detail the most wrenching experiences of her life. The detachment she achieved helped her come to terms with the issues that had long troubled her and interfered with her writing. She found that this healing effect, repeated on a daily basis, strengthened the resilience needed to survive emotional shock.
To help others get past their fears, she developed many practical suggestions – which she calls her yoga of writing – about how to structure time, set realistic goals, remove fear about completing a long project by consistently doing small parts of it each day. The basic idea she conveys is that writing is an achievable practice, an integral part of living, rather than a separate reality requiring inspiration or special talent that one must be born with.
She mentions Janet Frame, the New Zealand fiction writer, who provides, I think, the most amazing example of someone who used the healing power of writing to end her mental and emotional turmoil. After years of breakdown, therapy and voluntary hospitalizations, she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. She was also scheduled for a lobotomy, which would certainly have destroyed her creative powers, but avoided that procedure because of the great critical acclaim that greeted her first book of stories. She went on to write a series of novels, stories and autobiographies that helped her resolve the emotional legacy of her most difficult life experiences.
DeSalvo’s description of what happens during the writing process brought to mind two books by Anthony Storr, which I mentioned in an earlier post – The Dynamics of Creation and Solitude: A Return to the Self.
Storr compares the creative state to one of Carl Jung’s key therapeutic methods – active imagination. Jung urged his patients with mood and personality problems to spend time writing, painting, modeling clay or other form of creative expression. He observed that this brought them to a mental and emotional state where they stood apart from thoughts and feelings and could avoid being overwhelmed by them. This “active imagination” also induced a kind of free association that permitted new insight. Conscious and unconscious thoughts and symbols came closer together, and links could be made between areas of experience never previously related to each other.
For some of his patients, this led to dramatic breakthroughs in which they could achieve complete relief from disorders, such as depression, and help the mind and body return to what Jung thought of as a self-regulating condition. The organism as a whole, he believed, normally achieved a balance between extremes through a self-regulatory process, just as the biochemistry of the body returned to the optimum point – such as the system for maintaining a fixed body temperature or the appropriate level of oxygen in the blood. The breakthroughs achieved seemed not to have external causes but to come about through a deep inner change of attitude.
Observations like these led Abraham Maslow to believe that the creative state and the condition of being a healthy self-actualizing or fulfilled human being were likely identical. In that state, one is “lost in the present,” achieves a detachment from time and space and a form of transcendence of the normal limitations of self-awareness. He describes a fusion between the creative person and external reality that resembles DeSalvo’s sense of what the artist experiences in the Japanese tradition.
Jung and Maslow were concerned with the creative state itself as a mental activity that contributed to human fulfillment. They were not looking beyond that to the completion of a particular work of art. For Louise DeSalvo, however, experiencing the full healing power of creative expression involves not just the act of writing itself but also the ordering and support of daily living that leads to the finished work. That achievement brings creative expression into the larger context of life as a whole. She emphasizes that the healing practice of writing can be shared by many, not just the most accomplished artists. It is a way of life that can be learned.
That leads me to ask this question: To what extent have you been able to integrate writing or other imaginative work into a “yoga” of daily practice? What I have found so difficult over the years is integrating the practice of writing with all the other needs of work and family. What’s your experience of finding that balance?
Image: Some Rights Reserved by cmykcellist at Flickr