The small, frail woman in the chair looks at me and shakes her head, ‘I’m not a writer or a reader’, she says. ‘But I’d like to write something.’
We chat a little more, getting to know each other. Then I hand her a notebook and a pen. I give her a sensory prompt: This morning I saw / heard / tasted… Then she is off, she’s away, her tiny frame concentrated on the movement of the pen, as if this is what she’s always done. We then go onto another prompt: I remember… In this first session, she writes in three ten-minute bursts. Despite her protestations, B is a natural writer. She has an eye for detail, a gift for dialogue, sharp and distinctive powers of observation. When I tell her all this, she smiles shyly, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s written. I ask if she’d like some more prompts to work on at home. She does.
At the second session B comes in with pages of her notebook filled. She writes about the change of seasons: the string of daffodils outside my window. When I read this line back to her, praising its beauty, she says simply, ‘I’ve always noticed things’. At the third session, I bring in a box of coloured pencils and a sketchbook, photographs and poems. I realise she’s up for anything. She is fearless. We begin with a poem by Vicki Feaver and I suggest that B might like to use the first line: Home is here, now. B nods, opens her notebook and starts writing, quiet and happy and intent. She’s delighted with the coloured pencils and uses three different shades of green for her first three lines in the sketchbook. She writes a short prose poem which takes in the sights and sounds of the day and also how she is feeling. This builds upon our work in the first session. After that we read haiku by Alan Spence – Scottish novelist and contemporary haiku master. I often use poems from his Glasgow Zen to encourage people to write in their own voice. B then writes three haiku in red pencil prompted by the photographs. One is about her life as a care worker and her love of ‘the weans.’ Another poem evokes a memory of a trip to Spain and the final poem is about the past: Glasgow wifies down Duke St, children strapped to their backs. In-between she reads out what she’s written and we discuss it.
At the end of the session, B beams at me. ‘I wrote a poem. Three poems! I never would’ve thought!’ We mind-map topics to write about over the coming week. She packs away her notebook and carefully folds the poems. At our next session, when I ask her if her family are supportive of this new writing habit, she says, ‘They’re only concerned with the present, not the past. But it’s my past, and it is important.’
As it turns out, that was the last time I saw B. We only had three sessions together, but we both discovered new things. B tested the boundaries of herself, found that she was, in fact, both a reader and a writer and derived great joy from fashioning a line, from describing something ‘just so,’ from paying close attention to her lived experience, present and past. From using her imagination. And I discovered yet again that even a very short time with someone, helping to ignite their creativity, is not only worthwhile, it is transformative.
The approach of the Art Room at the PPWH hospice is unique. The focus is not on the illness, but rather on the whole person. We try to foster autonomy and full creative expression at a time when people feel that they have less autonomy and are less able to express themselves. It is an intuitive, organic process.
People confronted with life-limiting illness and their own mortality are often able, with skilled support and encouragement, to test the boundaries of a fixed view of the self. They are able to find their own voice, hit through to their own preoccupations and astound themselves. What this work continually shows me is that it’s never too late to unlock your full potential or to learn new things. Recent research into the neuroplasticity of the brain supports these observations. As Suzanne O’Sullivan, neurologist and author of Brainstorm notes: ‘We used to think the brain was fixed, that it didn’t change after you were an infant. However, we now know that is possible to create new connections.’
It is never too late to be inspired by a work of art, a piece of music, a poem, a story. It is never too late to make something, to both find and lose yourself in the flow of it, to forget your physical and psychological pain in the process. To create is what it means to be human.
At first, just getting a couple of lines down is both frightening and liberating. Sometimes just writing a word in your own voice is enough.
But I cannae say that.
But of course, you can!
The projects I’ve worked on at the hospice are extremely varied: from translations of medieval Latin poetry to a hand-made children’s book; from a sci-fi novel to a memoir based on Michael Jackson lyrics, from haiku to life writing. From thank-you cards to a piece for a granddaughter’s wedding. From a PhD thesis to short stories based on conversations – including a conversation with cancer. The range and scope of what people choose to write about is as varied as literature itself.
We often live our lives circumscribed by other people’s view of what we can and can’t do. Often at the end-of-life, we realise that risk-taking is actually what it’s all about; exploration is what it’s all about; we have nothing to lose. To quote artist Corita Kent: There is no pass or fail, there is only make. To be constantly reminded of this fact is why my work at the hospice is beautiful and joyous. And the most important discovery for both myself and the people I work with is the one we have to learn anew, every day: this moment is enough, that this is all we have, this is all any of us have, so, let’s celebrate, let’s communicate.
*This perspective was first published on www.artsandhealth.ie