Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is author of 16 books, including The Divorce Girl, a novel, Needle In the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, and The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body. A professor at Goddard College, Mirriam-Goldberg founded the Transformative Language Arts track at Goddard and facilitates workshops, retreats, and readings to broaden different communities' ideals about the spoken, written, and sung word. She was honored as the third Kansas Poet Laureate (2009–2012) and is, in addition to her writing achievements, a beloved teacher, inspirational artist, cancer survivor, and spiritual seeker. Mirriam-Goldberg talked to me recently about the sacred power of words and why, as Dostoevsky contended, "beauty will save the world."
Mark Matousek: Is writing a spiritual experience for you?
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It depends on how we’re defining spiritual. One of my closest friends is a Korean Zen master at our local Buddhist center. Another of my closest friends is with the Lebanese Orthodox Church. I have other friends who are agnostic, atheist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Because I live in Kansas where there is a huge evangelical base, I’m working to develop inter-faith writing workshops where participants witness each other’s spiritual or non-spiritual journeys through writing and storytelling
So for me, while I define myself as a practicing Jew with Buddhist tendencies, writing is just core to my spiritual path. And by spiritual I mean what I feel called to live, to learn about, to do and be. It is my life’s work and writing is the way I blast away the cobwebs and get a clearer view of what this all is. I think that writing certainly helps you to sit in silence and even though you’re working with words, you’re cultivating this quieter space where you can more clearly hear how to live, who you are and who you aren’t.
I write in many, many genres including poetry, memoir, fiction, song-writing, short essays and so on, and, for me, just the practice of moving my hands on the keyboard or putting pen to paper is my way of dwelling with the mystery of life. Whenever I sit down to write a poem, I always have this little thought process. The first thing I think is, I have no idea how to do this. The second thing I think is, good, that’s a good way to begin. For me that’s what it’s about. Letting go of those preconceptions and seeing what wants to come.
MM: You’ve used writing as a healing practice in your own life. Is that something you can teach to students?
CMG: If you look at healing as a way to put the pieces of our body and soul back together, remember more of who we are and find greater integration and integrity in our hearts and lives, then writing in and of itself is a very healing process. When I was living through cancer, I wrote and thought a lot about it. Even now, I facilitate workshops for people with serious illness and often talk about the difference between curing and healing. Finding greater meaning and vitality in one’s life can be a very healing endeavor but it may not cure the disease. I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of James Pennebaker and the book he edited called The Writing Cure written by Steve Lepore? There are all kinds of quantitative studies showing how writing can help in lowering blood pressure and improve circulation, which can make medication or chemotherapy work more effectively, and how writing can decrease doctor visits and be an adjunct therapy for people with serious depression or a whole slew of illnesses.
MM: How did writing affect the experience of having cancer?
CMG: Well, allow me to jump way, way back in time to what made me become a writer in the first place. I was fourteen years old and my parents were going through a horrendous divorce. Nobody would move out of the house for a year. It was a little bit like The War of the Roses. I was a visual artist and drew all the time, but at some moment I realized I needed words to survive and to find some hope and ground to stand on. I needed to start to believe that my life wouldn’t always be like this and writing is what got me through it. I have no doubt it saved my life. It kind of gave me a focus.
Everything I’ve done in my work and in my writing, and in my life in some ways, harkens back to what I discovered as a teenager. Putting words down on the page opened up the tunnel between what was on the surface of my life and the possibilities … or a direction I could travel to find greater wholeness and integration. So I wrote like crazy while living through cancer and it became a book of poetry called Reading the Body. I also wrote a memoir called The Sky Begins at Your Feet about how cancer (and to some extent writing through cancer) helped me to find my way back to my body.
Writing helped me to understand what it means to be a body, to be aging and facing issues of mortality. Not just for myself, but also for those I love. I love working with people in that space [end of life care] because the veil is gone. Everybody’s looking at what their life is really about and how they can make the most out of what’s given despite whatever is trying to take it away.
MM: Sharing these sacred moments with people is incredibly rewarding.
CMG: Absolutely. I remember coming home from one workshop and my husband said, doesn’t it push your buttons to be with people with metastatic disease? Given that not only I went through it but many people in my family have succumbed to cancer. And I said, No, it actually does the opposite. It’s like you’re right in the pulse of life. People are writing about what’s directly calling them in this moment of life. What’s trying to be created and how do you relate this to your life?
MM: Why is translating experience into language more therapeutic – or should I say “differently therapeutic” – than visual arts or music?
CMG: Well, I do believe in the healing potential of all the arts. As an extremely amateur musician, I do songwriting with someone on a regular basis, and I do a lot of visual arts just for my own sanity. The thing about writing that really differentiates it is that for the most part we live with language on a moment-to-moment basis but not with the other arts. Most of us aren’t painting, composing scores or choreographing dances all the time. And even though you could say movement and motion is very close to dance, and we’re always moving, we live in language most of the time. It’s the way our minds work. It’s like language is our native country and that makes it far more accessible, effective a tool for finding our ways home to ourselves.
MM: Language also helps us to step outside of our story and gain objectivity.
CMG: Absolutely. Whether we call it narrative therapy or narrative theory, mythology, revisionary mythology (which is what I wrote my dissertation on) or narrative medicine, we’re talking about stepping back enough to see what the storyline is. Is this story the true story of my soul? Is it a story where I’m being led forward in my life? Or is it a story that is making me push the river because of habit, fear, or old patterns? Writing is a wonderful tool to better see what the tools are.