|This week's host is
Jone at Check It Out.
I had a phone call the other day from a teen writing workshop leader. Several of her students were writing about suicide. As a former suicide hotline volunteer, the workshop leader knew not to panic. She asked the teens what was up. They told her that a teenager in their neighborhood had committed suicide. They were processing their emotions through poetry.
One of the most challenging things we face, when working with teen writers, is helping our students navigate their emotions. I’ve had conversations with teens who are so frustrated with adults. Why do adults assume all teen poetry is autobiographical? Teens don’t want to land in the guidance office every time they write a dark poem.
But I’ve also reminded these same teens that if I see something concerning in their writing, I will check in with them to make sure they are okay. If I ask, “are you in trouble?” I need to trust that they will answer me honestly.
Today, I’ve invited a dear friend, poet Ann Bracken to guest blog. Ann’s new chapbook, THE ALTAR OF INNOCENCE, is a powerful look at depression, from its roots in family history to the fruit it bears in adulthood. For Ann, writing—writing poetry in particular—was a necessary part of healing.
We are giving away a copy of Ann's book today. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.
|Order it from New Academia Publishing.
This post will touch many of you. Ann reminds me what a powerful force poetry can be during dark times, whether the writer is a teen or an adult.
Writing to Heal: A Poet Reflects
Poetry often serves as a form of therapeutic writing and provides an instinctive vehicle for people in pain. Even people who would never dream of themselves as writers, much less poets, will often place their fears, hopes, and confusions into the safe container of a poem. Maybe they will never share it with anyone else, and that is as it should be. The purpose of therapeutic writing is to help each person make sense of the particular suffering they are experiencing in the moment. Long before I had ever heard of therapeutic writing, I used poetry and journaling to explore the mysteries of my feelings as I struggled with depression and anxiety.
When I look back at how my own use of poetry helped me to deal with depression, I think about an experience with Thomas Moore, a psychotherapist and writer who wrote Care of the Soul. When I heard that Moore was offering a weekend retreat near my home, I signed up immediately. His book spoke to me in ways that I did not understand and I wanted to know more about his ideas of the dark night of the soul. At the time, I did not know I was depressed, just that I felt very down and tired—feelings I could justify because I had suffered from a migraine for nearly two months. On a rainy December afternoon, Moore gave us an assignment—create a piece of art that represents what your soul might be saying to you. I had no energy for any of the art materials spread around the room, so I wrote the following poem:
By Ann Bracken
Reluctantly I undertake the journey.
I resist going. I resist packing. I have no map.
I must go on the journey.
The path is shrouded in fog. My hands are cold.
They cannot grasp the suitcase straps.
The strap breaks. I stumble into a puddle.
I must go on.
At the time, all I knew was that the poem represented how I felt about my life. It wasn’t until years later when I found it in my journal. Now I realize how my soul was speaking to me of depression through the use of images and the metaphor of the journey that I didn’t want to take.
In addition to poetry, I also used journaling to help me through depression. At the time, I had just started working on polishing my skills as a writer, so I decided to keep my journal on the computer. Oftentimes my feelings were so overwhelming that the discipline of typing and looking at the words as they appeared on the screen offered me a safe distance from the turmoil and despair churning inside. I also began to see writing my journal as an exercise in story-craft, especially when I recounted my vivid and highly symbolic dreams, like the dream where I can’t see myself in the mirror and a wizard appears telling me it’s because I’ve lost my soul. That story offered an important metaphor for the pain I was facing and provided me with the courage to do what it took to get my soul back.
But what about writing by hand, I can hear people asking. Isn’t that a better way to process feelings? To which I can offer a thunderous Yes! I kept a spiral notebook handy in a private space so that I could rid myself of some of the messier aspects of my journey—a place to process the events that left me crying hopelessly or churning with anger. Sometimes I even spread newspapers on the floor and wrote using magic markers in big, bold letters, as if to match the out-of-control feelings.
My journaling practice in all its forms became a lifeline for me—a continuous map through the pain, hope, and discovery as I journeyed deeper into despair. I kept a journal long before I ever heard of therapeutic writing and the marvelous work of both James Pennebaker and Ira Progoff.
my journal grew to over 400 pages recounting a dark pilgrimage that lasted
nearly four years. The heavy binders holding my story sat on a closet shelf for
20 years before I turned to them as a resource for incidents I recount in my
memoir in verse, The Altar of
Innocence. In writing the story of my illness, both
poetry and journaling provided me with fresh insights about my situation and
all the things that caused me to descend into depression’s “well of grief.”
|Ann's writing journal.
My deepest desire is that my book serves as a vehicle of hope and inspiration. Writing my story helped me to reach new levels of understanding and forgiveness—for my parents, my ex-husband, and myself. I put the book out into the world as an offering that it may do the same for others. We are never as alone as we think.
by Ann Bracken
Posted with permission of the author.
by Ann Bracken
Following the stream
of memories I return
to the girl I was
tossing a ball and jacks
on rough brick steps
then ditching my toys
I tip-toe into my mother’s
cheerless bedroom, sitting beside her
I rub her back
tracing circles over and over
her groggy words tumbling out
Sorry for always sleeping when you get home.
What saddened me more
than her sleeping
was the empty space
where she should have stood—
in line waiting for the teachers’ conferences,
helping out during playground duty
shopping for Saturday bargains.
And now these dark afternoons
I lie in bed sick
with pounding migraine
my own child-self
pushes me out of bed
before my children come home
somehow prodding me to help at Girl Scout meetings
somehow cheering for my son’s marching band
somehow shopping for Christmas gifts.
My daughter slides a card under the door
with the sun peeking out
from behind dark storm clouds. Inside she writes—
I know you want to shine.
My son says, “Keep going, Mom. It’s just like a mountain bike ride.
When your legs are tired and you want to quit,
you’re almost home.”
Ann Bracken’s memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, was released in 2015 by New Academia Publishing. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Little Patuxent Review, New Verse News, Scribble, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21st Century, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. Ann serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, lectures at the University of Maryland College Park, and leads workshops at creativity conferences. You can find her online at www.annbrackenauthor.com and www.possibilityproject.com.
Thank you for guest blogging today, Ann.
If you would like a chance to win THE ALTAR OF INNOCENCE, leave a comment about this post or with feedback for Ann.
See you on Wednesday when we kick off National Poetry Month, 2015 with a new project. Read about it here.