Originally posted in her May 1 newsletter.
Many years ago, in Hawaii, I got a chance to go “scuba diving.” I’m putting the words in quotes because it was really pretend scuba diving for tourists. There was no training involved other than the most basic instructions on how to breathe through a tube connected to the oxygen tank that was strapped to each person’s back. I think we had to sign a waiver saying we would not sue the company if we drowned. Then a group of us waded out, submerged, and voila! We were “scuba diving.”
Well, not quite. My man-friend, S., had heavy bones and big muscles and he descended like a stone to the ocean floor. I could see him fifteen feet below me picking up beautiful shells while I floated directly above him. I couldn’t sink. They gave me a weight belt affixed with all kinds of metal doodads which allowed me to at least get below the surface, but my small bones, light muscles and, ahem, general fluffiness meant that my body just wouldn’t go down to the depths where S was exploring. Instead I watched him, and enjoyed what I could see from the mid-level.
I thought about this image last week in memoir class when the timer went off—we had been writing for thirty minutes—and I softly announced that it was break time. My students ignored me and kept writing. They were down there on the ocean floor with all the sea creatures and hidden caves and to come up too quickly would have given them the bends.
I let them go on for another five minutes, at which point I set a good example by standing up and stretching. No one even looked up. They were too busy confronting dragons and consorting with mer-people.
“They say sitting is the new smoking,” I remarked helpfully. Silence, except for the sounds of pens scratching and computer keys clicking.
When they finally consented to stop writing and shared their work aloud, I was reminded again of the image of one diver floating directly above the other. Because of the nature of the reading assignment and our discussion, many of them had felt prompted to write about trauma. Trauma writing is a place where you can often viscerally feel various layers of consciousness operating at the same time. Deepest down is the Child or the Actor, the person who experienced what happened. He or she is like my friend S., at the bottom of the ocean floor, experiencing all the details.
Hovering just above the Child is the Witness-Self, taking notes. The Witness is in touch with the Child, but can see more of what’s going on than the Child does. The Child cannot see the Witness just as S couldn’t see me during our whole dive, (he told me later he had spent the whole sojourn wondering where I was.)
The Witness floats like a guardian angel near the Child’s back, even if the Child is oblivious.
Floating above them both is the Writer-Self who is close enough to the surface to be aware that there’s a whole other sunlit world out there. The Writer-Self knows how things turn out in the long run and she can, if needed, give a larger context (political, social, spiritual) to the story.
It’s important to say here that the depths can be scary but they’re also nourishing and rich. They’re the ancient birthplace and deathplace, place of mystery and regeneration. It takes courage to return there to uncover the bones and retrieve the gems. And the support of a class or group can help.
This particular class of psychic scuba divers are very dear to me, for their courage and stubbornness and willingness to stay deep until they have completed their mission, until they are down to their last sips of oxygen.
Note from Marlene: There are many wonderful writing teachers who can help you go deep in your writing. Check your local resources. In Sonoma County, writing teachers are listed in the Sonoma County Literary Update.
The Write Spot Blog posts for suggestions on how to write about difficult situations without retraumatizing yourself:
Use Your Writing to Heal http://thewritespot.us/marlenecullenblog/?p=6226
Alison Luterman is a poet, essayist and playwright. Her books include the poetry collections Desire Zoo (Tia Chucha Press), The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University Press) and See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions) and a collection of essays, Feral City (SheBooks). Luterman’s plays include Saying Kaddish With My Sister, Hot Water, Glitter and Spew, Oasis, and The Recruiter and the musical, The Chain.
Her writings have been published in The Sun, The New York Times, The Boston Phoenix, Rattle, The Brooklyn Review, Oberon, Tattoo Highway, Ping Pong, Kalliope, Poetry East, Poet Lore, Poetry 180, Slipstream, and other journals and anthologies.
Go to Alison’s website for writing workshop dates as well as her coaching and editing work.