Over the last year New Zealanders have witnessed catastrophe in their own land. We have watched a city fall down and people die in shocking circumstances, in the rubble of buildings and in a coalmine deep inside a mountain. We have heard tales of despair over the loss of loved ones, of homes and heritage buildings, of work and income, churches, cultural and learning institutions, familiar parks, gardens, streetscapes and the once sparkling channels of meandering rivers and streams. Many have now lost faith in critical concepts of home as haven and refuge, and the earth as grounding, rock solid and stable.
Once, I think, we watched disasters unfolding overseas and felt slightly immune and detached. That could never happen here, surely. But recent events on our tiny, shaky isles where two tectonic plates crunch and grind have revealed our vulnerability to the awesome forces beneath the earth. These are anxious times. We are exposed daily to information about the impact of global warming on extreme weather patterns and the depletion and loss of natural resources, habitat and species. We hear of the rippling effects of the global financial crisis and our own precarious debt levels. The language is bleak. The sources of worry are endless.
Writing memoir is one way of regaining a sense of mastery over our own destiny in troubled times. When we imaginatively recall events that have shaped us, we can forget, momentarily, the uncomfortable present and lose ourselves in the magic of creating a coherent story. As a teacher of life writing I love observing that moment when writers bow their heads and begin writing. The room settles into silence as people work on recreating scenes, on getting the detail exactly right. The task requires intense concentration and a willingness to access deeper internal thoughts and feelings. It is like meditation, absorbing and endlessly nourishing.
Then comes the pleasure of sharing stories with like-minded writers and discovering the universal elements and also the distinctiveness of individual outlook and style. These moments are inspiring. There are smiles and sighs, much warmth and satisfaction.
Inevitably in every life we encounter stupefying loss and suffering. Can we write our way through these experiences? Usually people approach this material when ready and then they frequently demonstrate the creativity and resilience of the human spirit. Given encouragement and understanding people can integrate their experience and write with clarity and courage.
Recently, in response to the Christchurch earthquake, I invited people to write on the theme of ‘surviving a crisis.’ The stories illustrated how writing can lift despair and shift perceptions. Sometimes though, we need distance from the horror before we can comfortably reflect, and that might be the case in Christchurch where the earthquakes and aftershocks are ongoing and the ground continues to jolt and sway. Seventeenth century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote this haiku after seeing his home burn down;
barn’s burnt down … now I can see the moon
I doubt he achieved this insight immediately. In the meantime recording the broader life story can help us reclaim what has been lost and integrate the meaning of our experience.
- Deborah's article was first published in the NZ Book Council monthly E-Newsletter #29, 26 May 2011
Surviving a Crisis
This section is dedicated to memoir pieces that look at experiences of surviving a crisis.