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The Healing Art of Writing: Volume One

Edited by Joan Baranow, PhD, Brian Dolan, PhD and David Watts, MD

Reviewed by Jason Karlawish

In the summer of 2010, some forty-three writers gathered for one week at Dominican University of California to tell stories, recite poems, and discuss essays. Some were clinicians (physicians in obstetrics, gastroenterology, family medicine; nurses in ICU, primary care and oncology; nurse practitioners; a clinical psychologist; a psychotherapist). Some were patients—a stroke survivor, a patient with chronic pain from a cartilage disease, a victim of sex abuse. Some were both. Others identified themselves as witnesses to disease—spouse to a man with pancreatic caner, daughter to a frail mother with a rare blood disease. One participant was a perpetual student. There was a poetry therapist. Some told you their likes—swimming, cats (lots of these), “hanging with family”—and others professed their beliefs and world views, many of these the consequence of their illness experiences. They were a true democracy of letters.

As diverse and multi-disciplinary as this body eclectic was, they shared a common belief: Writing has the power to heal. The product of their labors, The Healing Art of Writing, is a collection of essays, poems and narratives that is—as a whole—an expansive, honest, sometimes quirky, never dull, page-turner.

The writing is arranged by author in a manner that seems without the intent of categories, such as genre, topic, or even—like the “Notes on Contributors”—the alphabet. At first, this frustrated me; perspective and framing do much to set up the reader. I’d finish one piece without a clue about what was up next.

An index would have been helpful, but in time, I came to enjoy exploring the book in its random layout. I found myself flipping between the text and the “Notes on Contributors.” The governing question was whether I wanted to “prepare myself” by knowing the writer’s background before reading their work, or whether I wanted to approach a work free of context. I had fun doing a little bit of both.

The book opens with co-editor David Watts’ fast-paced essay appealing to the neurobiology of stories. Watts, a physician and poet, essayist and fiction writer, throws down the gauntlet. Data (he cites JAMA!) support that stories heal. The book’s other essayists develop and apply this theme. Louis Jones makes the case for a writing life lived according to the rule of empathy. “A writer,” he says, “provides us with our dreams.”

The poems generally work just as poems should, transforming ordinary quotidian experiences into something extraordinary and singular. Jan Haag’s “Night Watch” is just one example. She engages the reader in her failed effort to rescue a mouse from an evening’s indoor cat and mouse game. The terrorized plump of a furry body escapes behind the bookshelf and the cat “settles down for the nightwatch.” All very ordinary, but what starts simple should not end simple. Haag closes her cat and mouse game:

I know how this ends.

I go back to bed, knowing one heart
will stop beating in my house tonight,
knowing I cannot save this one little life,
as I could not save yours.

This poem is one of the volume’s many in which—after some thirty lines or so—the poet deftly turns ordinary water into a complex and intoxicating wine.

For any clinician or family member who tried what she thought was her efficient and caring best to tidy up a patient’s problem, only to witness disaster unfold, such a poem is arresting in its vivid truth. This effect of writing’s ability to create a feeling of knowing is central to the poems and narratives in this book, and the many essays make this point.

“The process of deep writing, in which a linguistic connection is made between traumatic event and emotional response, produces a healing effect,” Watts argues. Writing about illness—having multiple sclerosis, undergoing treatment for torticollis, facing a brother’s death from autoerotic asphyxiation—is an act of understanding facts that leads to appreciating those facts. You not only know the facts, but now the facts make sense. At least the facts you remember and choose to tell.

Claire Badaracco’s frail elderly mother, forced to choose between losing a leg or her life, chooses the amputation, and so prolongs by a year her slow death from a rare blood disease. During this year, her daughter-as-caregiver discovers the power of language to shape quality of life.

Joanne Steinberg Varona’s narrative “The King and I” is a plaintive but witty account of how multiple sclerosis transforms her marriage. Her king is the king bed she increasingly retreats to, exhausted, alone, and apart from her husband. Amanda Skelton’s “Attack of the Killer Calories” leads the reader along a step-by-step account of bringing her dying son to a treatment center for adolescents with anorexia, called Footprints of Angels, a place not populated by angels, but fallen angels. “Wraith-like girls with perilous clavicles and concave bellies drifted through the room, their footsteps mere whispers against the dark wooden boards.” The facts reveal the darkness of a family fallen from the grace of health and now living with a chronic and even terminal disease.

Skelton’s narrative, like this volume’s other illness narratives and poems, is not simply advice for patients and caregivers, schadenfreude entertainment, or a diary of self-therapy. These narratives and poems deliver the revelation that comes from a well-told story, and the essays that support them are thoughtful and provocative. Writers, readers, and teachers will all find value in this book.

Jason Karlawish is the author of the novel Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont. He is a Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.