When I was eighteen years old, a senior in high school, my mother was dying of cancer. No one said the words out loud, but we all knew.
Of that time, I most remember sitting at my desk and drawing. With a crow quill pen and a bottle of India ink, I used minute lines to create intricate pictures. None of them remain save one, a portrait of my cat asleep on my bed.
I would scratch away with the tiny pen point for hours, until my blood sugar dropped so low that my hand began to shake. In that universe bound by the edge of the paper, I discovered a grim joy. Certainly I found something I could control; control that did not exist anywhere else in my life at home. There was no conscious realization that I was using creativity to defy death, or that those myriad lines of ink were healing me and holding me together like stitches. But that is what happened.
During that time, I also kept a journal. Later, I referred to my journals as my “garbage cans,” receptacles where I could throw anything. There were no rules for these writings. I wrote whatever inspired me, whenever I felt the need to write. Poems, the beginnings of sappy romances, and a lot of whining filled the pages. Some of those notebooks still exist, stashed in a plastic bin. Fifty years have passed and I am still unwilling to read them.
To this day, I find solace in creating, be it writing, drawing, or sewing. Each of these activities carries its particular medicine. Writing lets me pour pent-up emotions, persistent thoughts, and fantasies, and then it teaches me where I am. Drawing and painting focus me and put me back together. Sewing grounds me as I use my hands to produce something utilitarian and attractive.
The stories I wrote during my first two years in a writing group helped me exorcise the collected bitterness and sorrow of a failed marriage. When at last I spread those vignettes across the carpet and arranged them in chronological order, I found I had created a novelette. What a satisfying result from so many pages of tearful memory! The best part was that the sadness and anger were no longer sitting like sewage waste in my gut. Like compost, the smelly mess was transformed into something of positive value.
Art is not an elitist activity. As one of my writing mentors, Pat Schneider, states in her Five Essential Affirmations , “A writer is someone who writes.”* Publication is not a requirement to claim that title. The same can be said of any medium. Pat Schneider also affirms that “Everyone is born with creative genius.” No matter who you are, or what you have been told about yourself, you can pick up a brush or a pen or a needle and thread and access the joy and the healing power of artistic self-expression.
*Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and With Others. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, 2003.