April 12, 2016

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writing to Heal: Altar of Innocence Giveaway

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
Ann Bracken

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: 

The Path
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.

Ann's writing journal.
Eventually, 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.”     

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.

Afternoon Resolve
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.”

Posted with permission of the author.

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 and

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.


Linda B said...

I just started writing poetry with a group in my class of early adolescents, and find that some are already are writing from their deep places, finding ways to use words to help themselves take the early steps into adulthood. It's a wondrous thing to see what they share. Thanks Laura for introducing Ann's book to us. And thanks to Ann for sharing her life in it.

Author Amok said...

Linda, I applaud you for doing that work. Having an adult to write alongside and act as a mentor will help your teens feel safe as they write.

Donna Smith said...

Depression is a confusing thing to me. It seems if it is short-lived and can be defined by an event, then it is just sadness or confusion. When it is all-encompassing and foggy, that must be true depression. I have not really felt the latter, though some relatives have - so it scares me. Too bad they don't have "depression vaccines" like flu vaccines!
Thanks for sharing Laura and Ann.

Gathering Books said...

Thank you for sharing this. This was all too close to home. When I was a teenager I used poetry to process my feelings, it gave me a voice wherein I there was enough freedom and concealment in the play of words. I always said that poetry kept me alive, and I do mean it literally. If i didn't have poetry, I wouldn't be here.
And thank you for the guest blogger. I too suffer from depression. I was recently diagnosed and the progress has been good recently. I feel how it is, the getting out of bed. My mother was the same, and I try to push myself out of it all the time.

Thanks Laura for today's post. :)

Anonymous said...

Poetry can be so connecting and healing. Thanks for sharing this poem. I used to refer to that place as the black pit of despair. PBofD for short. Although, it wasn't short, but any stretch. You've reminded me how numbing and sad that was, in a beautiful way. A way that speaks of transcendence of spirit over biology.

I would love to win the chapbook!! :-)

Anonymous said...

I myself do not get depressed, but I can still relate to her poetry. I have used poetry more as an avenue to work through finding my feelings in regards to things since they are not always apparent sometimes while experiencing those things or events. I hope the youth of today get the significance of the great learning and healing processes poetry has to offer both as a writer and a reader.

jama said...

I do believe in the therapeutic power of poetry! Thanks so much to Ann for sharing parts of her journey, and thanks, Laura for featuring her today.

jan godown annino said...

Appreciations to both Ann Bracken & Laura Shovan. (I'm not competing for the chapbook but like it when a PF post includes a prize - I want to do that more often.)

This new poetry collection calls to mind Diane Ackerman's Origami Bridges (which isn't geared to teen writers) & explores her therapy that guided her out of depression.

How fortunate writers are to be able to employ words as a way of finding a path back to peace & joy.

Tabatha said...

Poetry therapy is so powerful!

I esp. like this description: "I used poetry and journaling to explore the mysteries of my feelings" & Laura's comment: "Teens don’t want to land in the guidance office every time they write a dark poem."

Anonymous said...

A really interesting post! I don't usually think of using poetry in this way. Kind of a revelation...

Carol Varsalona said...

Thank you Laura and Ann for your candid comments about the cathartic side of poetry. As a teen poet, I often look back at my poetry and wonder why I wrote the way I did-deep and reflective. Perhaps, it was a bit heavy for the times but I think many of us wrote like that. Teen drama, family issues, hope for more. I continued the writing into college and worked with a professor who spurred me on. It's funny how memories come to light when you read what someone else writes. Because of many issues in life, I have decided that positivity is the better route for me to take. 11 years ago when I was diagnosed with lymphoma and the road was a very difficult one, I started a journal, Walking on the Edge of Darkness because it was faith and hope that provided the path away from dark places.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Laura, thank you for shining a spotlight on teen writers. I would love to work with teens one day, but the idea of it is a bit scary, even though I was an emotional teen myself.

Thank you for your post, Ann– for sharing your pain in such an honest, personal way, and for the glimpses I saw of myself. Besides poetry and journaling, music was a great healer for me as well.

Author Amok said...

Thank you for your comment, Iphigene. I like what you said, "there was enough freedom and concealment in the play of words" -- that appealed to me also when I suffered from a bout of depression in my teens. I'll be thinking of you. Be gentle to yourself.

Author Amok said...

Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story here, Carol. I'm so glad that Ann's post spoke to you. She's an amazing person and I'm lucky to have her as a friend.

Karin Fisher-Golton said...

Thank you for this post. Ann's writing is beautiful and touched my heart. The story with your teen students was educational. Sometimes I see my 2nd-4th grade poetry students processing things in their poetry, too.

I had not heard the term "therapeutic poetry" before, but there are times in my life that that term fits well. It feels like putting some order where there is chaos, and getting something outside of me to make more space inside. I love the notion of writing on newspaper with markers to express big feelings.

Mary Lee said...

Powerful. Thank you.

Catherine said...

Thank you for sharing this, Laura and Ann. All writing has a purpose, and journals and poetry are the perfect place to express those feelings we wouldn't necessarily want to speak aloud to another person. Those final lines of "Afternoon Resolve" are heart-wrenching yet inspiring.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Such a powerful post today - many thanks to you both. I'll share the link with my psychiatrist hubby. Like Karin, I was struck by the wonderful idea of spreading out newspapers to catch all those strong emotions in words.

Anonymous said...

The poems in Ann's book "The Altar of Innocence" are so powerfully descriptive of this time in her life.
I suffered from serious bouts of depression as a teen and adult as did my mother.
I find Ann's poems both healing and an inspiration.

Margaret Simon said...

I judge a youth writing contest every year and a few times we have come across a teen poem that seems to scream for help. It is difficult because we do not know these students at all.
Love Ann's work and her touching story about living with depression. I'd love to read more of her work.

Ann said...

I am deeply touched to know that my work spoke to so many people. Thank you, Laura, for giving me the opportunity to share with your wonderful community of readers. I'd be happy to hear from any of them! Here's to poetry!