I had a little existential crisis a few days ago. No worries, it’s solved. That is, I politely (I hope!) disengaged from a venture that wasn’t really a good fit for me. (I only took it because I’ve been freaked out by a major writing gig I’ve had for years, and had to walk away from recently.)
Anyway, a good friend and wise woman called me on it. Called me on wallowing in self-pity, when I’ve already proven I have something to give that the world needs.
A few years ago, I met up with another wise woman I’d taken a workshop with, and told her how much her words had affected me. I can still see her face as I recited several things she’d said, powerful words that have stayed with me for years.
She said, “I don’t remember saying that. You must have a good memory!”
I said, “Not really. But it was exactly what I needed to hear, and I carried them in my heart for a looooong time.”
It made me realize then (and hey, right now!) how we never, ever know how far our words will travel.
We may never know who needs to hear them almost as much as we need to say them.
Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.
Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.
Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.
They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.
And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.
The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.
“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”
She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.
People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.
We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.
(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)
We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”
And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.
The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”
Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”
The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.
A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.
All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.
How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.
For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.
It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.
Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.
Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.
We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.
When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.
So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?
I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.
I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.
I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.
I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.
I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.
I’m left with peace in my heart.
And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.
I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.
For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.
It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”
She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.
There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.
It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.
Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.
We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.
I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.
Continuing my series for Fine Art Views on using story hooks in your publicity and self-promotion…
I just figured out how to republish my Fine Art Views articles here! Duh…..
Tell Me a Story: Proximity
by Luann Udell
In short, the world is a pretty big place. But it’s still made up of countless communities. These days, our communities are far more than just the people who live near us. Take another look at yours. See if there’s a group who’d love to hear more about what you’re up to. […]
This excerpt appears courtesy of FineArtViews Art Marketing Newsletter by FASO,
a free email newsletter about art, marketing, inspiration and fine living for artists,
collectors and galleries (and anyone else who loves art).
Artist statement resources for the folks who are smarter/better/more educated/more sophisticated/more talented than me.
It’s our choice. We can make the commitment to say something meaningful and compelling about our work.
Or we can stick with the attitude that people need to educate themselves in order to really appreciate our work.
I’ve been writing a series of articles for Fine Art Views newsletter about how to punch up your stories–Your artist statement, your artist bio/cv, your press releases. This series, TELL ME A STORY, starts here. The second article is here:, and the next two will appear June 23 and July 7, 2011. Mark your calendars! (Or just subscribe to Fine Art Views newsletter–it’s free!)
Some people are ready to hear this stuff. Others, not so much. When I get resistance, I hear one of two things:
“Can’t you just give me a template, and let me fill in the blanks?”
“I really think art critics, galleries and art-collecting audiences want something more….sophisticated than a ‘story’.”
Well, say no more! If this is what you want, I’ve found just the tools for you.
Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of Quick Draw McGraw as a methaphorical interpretation of both Georgia O’Keefe and fixing people.
What began as a personal journey of frackism has translated into images of cookies and arms that resonate with Caucasian people to question their own aquamarineness.
My mixed media dog images embody an idiosyncratic view of Billy Graham, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between Janis Joplin, cats and french fries.
My work is in the private collection of Darrin McGavin who said ‘Yeow!! That’s some real shapely Art.’
I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The Peabody Museum. I have exhibited in group shows at McDonald’s and the Pucker Gallery in Boston, MA, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my den and Berlin.
I’m sure with a little practice, you could get something a little less silly.
For the academically-minded crowd, this artist statement writing tool site from Gurney Journey will surely appeal. It’s actually easier to use than the previous one. No need to even fill in the blanks! Try it. It’s a handy little exercise to create a bang-up, very academic-sounding artist statement in no time flat. All you have to do is combine any items from three different lists, and voila! An artist statement that is sure to start a spirited discussion about your work among the (g)literati.
My first result using the Arty Bollocks Generator was promising:
My work explores the relationship between the body and skateboard ethics.
With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and John Lennon, new combinations are crafted from both simple and complex layers.
Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as triumph soon becomes corroded into a tragedy of power, leaving only a sense of decadence and the possibility of a new reality.
As shifting phenomena become frozen through boundaried and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the limits of our era.
Hmmmmm. Not…quite. So I tried again. I got a message that said I was a little hard to please, and this new statement:
My work explores the relationship between new class identities and midlife subcultures.
With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and John Lennon, new synergies are generated from both simple and complex textures.
Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a dialectic of greed, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the prospect of a new beginning.
As temporal impressions become clarified through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the inaccuracies of our era.
I still wasn’t satisfied (and the ABG got a little crabby), but I persisted. I clicked the tab again and came up with this one:
My work explores the relationship between postmodern discourse and urban spaces.
With influences as diverse as Nietzsche and Andy Warhol, new synergies are crafted from both simple and complex textures.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the theoretical limits of relationships. What starts out as hope soon becomes debased into a tragedy of temptation, leaving only a sense of chaos and the inevitability of a new beginning.
As shifting forms become clarified through boundaried and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the edges of our condition.
Wow! Pretty good! But why settle for pretty good when I can have the best? My next try resulted in this one:
My work explores the relationship between emerging sexualities and urban spaces.
With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and Francis Bacon, new combinations are created from both explicit and implicit layers.
Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of relationships. What starts out as triumph soon becomes debased into a tragedy of lust, leaving only a sense of decadence and the inevitability of a new synthesis.
As spatial impressions become frozen through diligent and personal practice, the viewer is left with a glimpse of the inaccuracies of our world.
The ABG grumbled that I was a bit of a perfectionist, but I just couldn’t resist one more try:
My work explores the relationship between postmodern discourse and recycling culture.
With influences as diverse as Blake and Roy Lichtenstein, new tensions are created from both traditional and modern textures.
Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the theoretical limits of meaning. What starts out as hope soon becomes debased into a cacophony of lust, leaving only a sense of decadence and the prospect of a new reality.
As temporal phenomena become transformed through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the edges of our future.
I decided to quit while I was ahead, and told the Arty Bollocks Generator, “Enough already.”
Yep, I had a good laugh. But the scary thing about these very tongue-in-cheek exercises?
These actually sound like real artist statements..
I’m not highly educated, but I do have an MA. And half the time, when I read these ‘sophisticated statements’, I have no idea what the person is talking about. Are these really the things they lie awake nights thinking about? ( Me? I tend to lie awake trying to remember if I let the cats in.)
Remember–It’s our choice.
We can stick with the attitude that people need to educate themselves in order to really appreciate our work.
(Let us know how that works for ya, okay?)
We can try to sound like every other artist who wants to sound intellectual, academic, and obtuse.
Or we can do some work. Get real. Get sincere.
Say what is in our hearts.
We can strive to say something meaningful and compelling about our art that anyone can understand.
I had to laugh when I looked through my drafts file this morning. I have tons of posts labeled “Lessons from Hospice”, but I see I’ve only published a handful. I realize now some of them seem simple, but are too much for me to handle. I’m reminded that so many of the good lessons in life are simple. But not necessarily easy.
Today’s thoughts come from the Grief Writing Workshop I’ve been running for a couple months now. We’re on session number two, with most of the first members signing up for another round, and some new members, too.
I’m seeing the changes in people already. When some of them started, their grief was palpable, written on their faces and even in their postures. It’s astonishing to see the changes in them as they begin the healing process. As they work towards peace and acceptance, they literally seem to glow. Such is the healing power of writing.
When I first struggled to get a grip on what this workshop would be like, I found this essay by Kathleen Adams extremely helpful. For anyone who’d like to pursue a career in such work, I highly recommend her website JournalTherapy.com.
The free-writing technique I learned years ago may be too overwhelming for those who are still in the raw stages of grieving. A simple but flexible structure in my workshop helps immensely.
We have a typical support group opening (establishing rules of confidentiality, for example). We name our loved one–because our culture is so uncomfortable with death, people hesitate to even say their name or bring up their death. For those who have lost someone, this feels like that person has truly been erased from the earth.
We do a few simple warm-up exercises, then move into writing on various topics. I started out with my own, but as people grew more comfortable, they started bringing their ideas, too. We do poetry-writing exercises, and I usually end by reading a favorite poem or prayer. We end as we began–saying our name, and the name of the one we’ve lost.
So simple. So ridiculously, delightfully simple. Yet the results are simply blowing me out of the water each week.
Of course, I’m not really teaching these people how to write. They come to the class because they already write, or they want to write more. I’m not even teaching them to write write WELL. I don’t edit their work, nor criticize their efforts in any way.
I give them the time, the resources, and the encouragement to do what their heart yearns to do–to contemplate what has been lost, and what has been found, in writing.
If anything, the greatest gift I give them is just this: Permission.
Permission to write, because it is important to them. Permission to write, because they love to write. Permission to write, because they want to.
“Write for yourself!” I tell them constantly. “Write your truth, your thoughts. Use writing to get yourself to a place you can’t get to with just talking, just thinking. Write the raw stuff. Write the mistakes, the scribbles, the doubts. Write ‘blah blah blah’ if you can’t think of anything to write–but write down the blah blah blah. Write as if you are the only person who will ever see it. Sure, use this later for inspiration, for ideas, for essays, poetry, whatever. But start here: Write because you must.”
I show them a gem of a book I found in my research for this class, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The book is fine, but what I love best is the title. The writing is in your bones, and you have to do it.
(BTW, it looks like Natalie Goldberg and I went to University of Michigan at the same time. I wonder if our paths ever crossed?)
I couldn’t become the artist I always dreamed of being until I finally realized I HAD TO MAKE ART. And when I let go of the idea of being a GOOD ARTIST. When I accepted that it didn’t matter if it were good or bad, it simply had to exist in the world–and the only way that could happen was through me.
So, too, these folks are slowly losing the coulda/shoulda/woulda stuff that holds back any creative effort. They simply pour their hearts and their souls into the work.
And what comes through is exquisitely, profoundly beautiful. And poignant. And gentle/sad/raging/full of wonder and joy.
And after every session, I marvel at the miracle that has occurred right in front of me, from a small circle of strangers, now friends, who have blessed me, and each other, with the tender gift of their grieving, healing hearts.
So what’s the lesson? I dunno. I thought I’d just write this today, and not wait til it was wrapped up neatly in a package tied with ribbon for you.
I guess I’m learning that even when the worst thing you can imagine happens to you–the loss of your child, your soul mate, your sibling, your dearest friend–even as your heart is breaking and you feel like it is not possible for a human being to cry any more tears–there is a place of healing, and hope, and joy at the gift you had, and how no one can ever truly take that away from you.
I’m learning there is a place where all can be forgiven, if never quite understood.
I’m learning that sometimes, the most important person to forgive is yourself.
I’m learning that everyone is deserving of love. That we all yearn for it, need it, cry for it.
I’m learning, every day, that the line from Philip Larkn’s An Arundel Tomb is true, if only (and it’s such an important ‘if’) because we need it to be true:
I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.
I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.
Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:
keep going keep going keep going
Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.
And the miracle happened. As it always does.
Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.
Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)
I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”
“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)
I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.
It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?
I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!
And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.
But simply trying was…..fun.
Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.
With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.
Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.
Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.
It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.
I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.
None of that matters. Just the practice.
It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”
I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.
So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.