Writing helps one man heal from some big life changes

Nov 1, 2010

Two big changes recently happened to Russ Hicks. His wife Carol was diagnosed with cancer and passed away.

“I tell you right after Carol died I was completely rudderless and almost berserk. There was a time, a week afterward, at work where they said ‘you 'gotta go home and we'll drive you home!'”

Shortly after that, Hicks got laid off from his job of 22 years at a factory warehouse.

“And so here I am, within a year’s time I’d lost my wife and my job.”

To deal with his grief he got some counseling at a center called Lory’s Place in St. Joseph. They offer traditional support groups.They also offer art programs like journaling, scrapbooking, painting, and drama classes. Hicks signed on for a writing class.

In one assignment the teacher has the class write for 10 minutes about a button.

“I wrote about how my life had been too buttoned down, and now it was becoming unbuttoned, and how exciting and scary it was at the same time.”

Hicks kept up with the writing and the memories began flooding back, onto the page. Like the time his son Justin turned six and they threw a party at pizza joint. Tons of kids showed up

“I asked Justin how many kids he invited and he said the whole school. Our total bill was $75, quite a lot in 1982. We never did that again.”

Anne-Marie Oomen teaches writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. 

“One of the things I find in this world where so many things are going awry, is we seem to need to tell our stories.”

She says all kinds of people get comfort from writing about their lives. In fact, Oomen says there are these “storytelling patterns” –stories about identity or loss of innocence. And these patterns comfort and reassure us.

“Even though it may have been your story of losing your child, it’s my story of losing my boyfriend. Or it’s your story of surviving a divorce, it’s my story of surviving an illness. And when we hear another person say that we say ‘oh I have that one, too.’”

Oomen says writing can be an act of compassion, because the writer wants the reader to understand what they’ve gone through. She also says that all great writing is about trying to speak the unspeakable and to say something about you and me, and being human that is ultimately inarticulate.

Hicks says the more he writes, the more old memories resurface. And that helps because it reminds him of all these good things that have happened to him. And that gives him a sense of stability.

“As I’m remembering these things it’s not like I’m cast into the sea adrift by myself with no control anymore. It felt like that for a long time. But these memories are helping me to make connections between my past and my present and it’s helping me come to grips more with how things are now.”

Hicks has taken the writing workshop several times. He’s also gone through the training to become a grief counselor and he’s been counseling teenagers who are dealing with big losses in their lives. 

knorris@umich.edu

Here's the radio story I produced for Michigan Radio: