Sunday, October 18, 2009

Medicinal words

Having only recently relocated to Melbourne I was delighted when fellow blogger, Lindsay's Lobes, invited me to an all day Life Writing conference at La Trobe University. A delight, I should add, slightly marred by mention of biography and autobiography, perhaps my least favourite genres.

As it turned out the day was about far much more than raconteur and name dropper dressed as autobiographer, or painful self disclosures, all bordering unsavory ingredients for gossip; this was an interdisciplinary investigation of how writing, words might have powerful healing effects.

In fact it went further than text, looking into visual stimulus as well as potential triggers for the bodies inbuilt curative mechanisms. I do not intend a blow by blow account here, the day was far too intense for that. Rather I will recount a few highlights and impressions of this ongoing journey of discovery.

Take two pronouns and call me in the morning

The keynote speaker, Melbourne psychologist Doris Brett was an inspired choice. Her talk was on a research project which is showing empirical evidence of a relationship between written expression and physical healing – mind and body resolving their own issues.

Without going deeply into the methodology of the study, it was found that a specific exercise produced a measurable improvement in the subjects wellbeing. The focus was on trauma and the most effective exercise required the participants to write, without any constraints, about the facts and emotions of some trauma in their lives.

Researchers found two interesting factors here. The first is that most people can relate a very personal and moving trauma. The second is that even relating someone else’s trauma had a curative effect on the writer. That all had to do with measuring issues such as blood pressure and those other medical things which are beyond me.

It is no secret that aggressive and obscene language, generally used as weapons anyway, have a deleterious effect on health and wellbeing, for the user and receiver alike. These are the big, powerful weapons of language. Doris revealed the health giving antidote was in fact those little, seemingly insignificant pronouns. I won’t pretend to understand that, but refer as she did to a paper: Chung, C.K. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007)

The ineffable condition

With so many speakers during the day it was not surprising, and welcome, that some were ‘boring’ It was amusing to find that one persons boredom was another’s joy. Some I spoke with found the presentation of host Richard Freadman boring, though words like incomprehensible crept. Richard’s subject was Life writing and illness in Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eyes.

I have not read the book so can only relate through Richard’s words. It is supposed to be an autobiography, though given the inclusion of chapters on broader history and actual fiction, confirms my view that the genre of autobiography is problematic at best. Unalloyed self analysis must rank alongside Alice’s six impossible things before breakfast.

In part the contradictions arose from Clendinnen’s own assertion in her book that the autobiography was in fact a lie. I admit I have been toying with a blog on the nature of the lie for some time, but really don’t understand the truth of the matter. The most complete definitions are often legal and far fall short of explanation.

Richard’s presentation layered contradiction on dichotomy and back again. In private I made one of those observations I generally regret as it emerges: “I closed my eyes to better concentrate and thought Stanislaw Lem had stepped up to the rostrum.” Thankfully he took it well, and the fact is, unlike Lem, he had not invented the situation and more importantly did not invent a solution.

Richard in fact demonstrated that knowledge is a minor part of the intelligence equation, even an ape can know things. It is curiosity and the courage to go down the road of the unknown which distinguishes intelligence. It is the in the ability to admit ignorance in the quest for understanding, to step into new realms and throw issues into the wider world for, hopefully, a collaborative resolution. I have to say I was impressed by this academic afire with questions rather than pat answers.

In Retrospect

I will happily admit that I am unused to the intense intellectual weight this day imposed. Given the number of speakers and the diversity of aspects canvassed around the central issue of writing as a curative, I simply felt like a sponge soaking up as much as possible. It was only later, given time to digest this over egged) puddin’(for me at least, salient issues emerged.

I am sure, on reflection, that Richard has seen as I now have, that the second speaker, distinguished medico and writer Tony Moore, answers some of the contradictions raised by Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eyes. I have no intention of denigrating Moore, in fact I can actually relate to what I saw with ease.

Tony is an able and engaging speaker, but a performer, and somewhat reluctant at the conference. His body language and demeanor made a lie of the words; but not immediately obvious I concede. A consummate performer. Trussed in a jacket zipped to a high collar, hands thrust deeply in pockets, Tony laughingly allowed that he would rather be back at his writing than speaking.

That was made obvious when he disappeared as soon as was socially acceptable. Again, I don’t criticise, as a writer I too suffer from a almost obsessive yearning for retreat from the world.

An issue of definition

There is a contradiction in that perhaps, writing of humanity and needing to be separate from humanity to do that. Tony made it clear in response to a question, that his writing demanded that he was separate from the subject, i.e. his accident recovery.

There were suggestions, as the conference progressed, of a problem with definition. In our literate society many people believe they can write, and of course they can to a pedestrian level. But the issue of being a writer and being able to write seemed to create an unnecessary conflict. The potential medical use of writing is vastly different from writing as a skill. The fact is writing, regardless of creativity, is a craft much like a blacksmith of old perhaps.

The noise in a writers head excludes, or needs to exclude, interference as much the noise from the smith’s hammer blocks others. Simply sorting that noise into an understandable narrative is difficult enough. Knowing that if the message is not understood by the reader there is no message is overriding. Little wonder the writer craves a solitary environment, and not as an antidote or curative.

I thank Lindsay and all the participants at the conference for the opportunity to be part of an exciting concept which I look forward to participating in at some time. Words and language must never be underrated. I expect the 'craftsman' writer does have a role to play in this program, but possibly more to do with communication than writing skills.


D.K. Raed said...

this sounds like a fascinating conference where you could absorb as much as you needed and save the rest for later rumination!

random thoughts ...

re: the writing and health connection ... many writers say they write because of a NEED (far beyond DESIRE) to express themselves ... so I do not find it hard to believe that there is a connection between a writer's health and his/her ability to express thoughts in written form. that said, I always find it easier to talk than write (but then, ahem, I am no writer).

I liked the "pronoun" observations you linked. As one who tends to use "I" quite a bit, I now must wonder if high blood pressure, depression and/or hyperself-esteem lie in my future. So far, I seem free of those side effects, but perhaps a healthy vigilence is required for the excessive "I" user!

That an autobiography might contain lies seems almost self-evident to me since all experiences are filtered through the writer's personal prism. Parts of any autobiography might seem like lies to the reader (who are filtering what they are reading through their own prism), but that in no way denigrates the truth of the autobiographer.

Finally, you ended with "words and language must never be underrated" ... amen! ... in fact it could be argued that these skills have given humans their main evolutionary edge ... and you know I NEVER quarrel with evolution!

thanks for a great recounting of an obviously wonderful day in academialand!

Cartledge said...

DK, the pronoun issue I am still working through – it is complex. The computer modeling appears to show the best effects are achieved from mixing them up, changing case I guess. I wonder how a reasonably literate person can simply ignore basic grammar rules, even to gain a health effect. I expect the effort would traumatise me.
Another area I am interested in with language and health, given my recent experiences, is how much effect the ratio of positive and negative language from others might have. I know being subjected to the constant negative was draining, but I recently read a study which asserted that tough, aggressive (rude?) managers climb the corporate ladder more quickly. Over the bodies perhaps…

Mark – the deleted comment. I consider promotional comments if they meet certain criteria and I am asked. As I was not given the courtesy to consider I have deleted your comment. My email is available on the page to facilitate future requests.