You Can’t Tell By Looking. . .

By Stacy Brewster


I have several prompts I love to throw out the first week of a writing workshop. Where I come from…, Out my window…, On my way here…. Prompts which, when shared aloud, help break the ice between strangers by giving some insight into each person’s perspective, their style, their humanity and how it’s evoked through language. Even with a short write, eight minutes say, you already begin to appreciate all the disparate ways we have of telling stories — with prose and with poetry, in linear ways and circular ways, with wit or surprise or humor or an exquisite eye for detail.

You can’t tell by looking… is another one I pull out early for the way it gently pushes us up to the line of what we sometimes feel uncomfortable naming. Even though I train participants to speak about each other’s writing as though it were fiction — to keep the focus on the words, not the writer — still it is hard to write on this prompt without using first person. And when we share, we are often giving others a glimpse into our own vulnerability, the fear or shame or pain we keep secret, the words between the words.

You couldn’t tell by looking, but in the summer of 2015, my own hands began to fail me. My creative practice was in high gear. My writing group was going well. I was turning out the most intimate, personal fiction I’d ever attempted. Older pieces — a mix of poetry, flash fiction and traditional short stories — were steadily finding homes in literary journals and magazines. I had two bigger projects mapped out ahead of me and was gearing up to facilitate a 10-week writing workshop for Write Around Portland. All this while working a full-time day job. I was completely oblivious as to how serious my carpal tunnel syndrome was or how much further it was being activated by the additional stress I carried in my neck and shoulders.

You couldn’t tell by looking then because at first it was just some numbness in my fingers or a weird thrumming vibration in my arms I didn’t really know how to describe, let alone name. Wasn’t this the price for doing the work, for working my hands too hard — a morning writing practice, commuting by bike, a day job heavily reliant on email, not to mention a normal day’s worth of text and social media? Wouldn’t some exercises, some ergonomic adjustments at home and at work, do the trick? Wouldn’t there be a payoff?

You couldn’t tell by looking but my whole world was gradually being sucked into an acquired disability invisible from the outside. In addition to my arms and hands, two other unrelated conditions flared up as well, the combined force of which triggered more anxiety, more depression, a sense that my entire body was betraying me. I had sought different specialists, tried different remedies, bought new keyboards and mice, overhauled my posture, texted less, responded less to email, tried a two-week electronics diet, stopped biking, stopped doing yoga, stopped holding workshops because my handwriting couldn’t keep pace, even bought a new computer and new assistive dictation software to allow me to control everything by voice. All to avoid a diagnosis I feared and surgery I didn’t want until I’d tried everything, including physical therapy.

My transition from abled to disabled was too gradual and internal for anyone to take much notice who didn’t know me or work with me. My embarrassment, confusion, frustration, impatience, pain and fear had to be churned over, dissected, the script flipped in my own head first so I could accept the challenges that awaited me. You couldn’t tell by looking, but for most of last year it felt like someone had pressed the mute button on me. And, even after bilateral carpal tunnel release surgery this past February, it is still a very gradual process of my volume coming back, prompt by prompt, word by word.

Whether in a short workshop write with strangers or our repeat visits with specialists, we never stop revising our stories, trying in small ways to make visible that which you can’t always tell by looking, to put in words what medicine sometimes can’t. As a patient, I’m constantly reminded that not all medical histories are written down. It is the same with writing. There are always words between the words, and it is our great privilege to listen for them.

Stacy Brewster is a writer, editor, writing workshop facilitator and longtime volunteer with Write Around Portland. He is the co-founder of the Full Frontal Writing Collective and owner and principal of Launch Creative NW, dedicated to helping writers of all levels and stages of their careers get creative projects completed and shared with the world. Stacy co-hosts the Northwest Narrative Medicine Series, a monthly speaker series at OHSU. Join him on Tuesday, June 13th for a mini-writing workshop and talk about what it means to have a creative practice interrupted by illness. More at





A Night of Art and Healing with Sharon Agnor

By April Brenneman

Glass and steel artist Sharon Agnor shared her illness narrative as well as her art at the Northwest Narrative Medicine’s Monthly Series on May 9th.

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Agnor has vivid memories of being sick and in the hospital as a child. Struggling with her health on and off most of her life, the decade of her 50s turned out to be the most challenging. Her son was diagnosed with two debilitating illnesses, her mother suffered an aneurysm that permanently disabled her, and short while later, her father suddenly collapsed and died. As if that were not enough, Sharon was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and began the grueling treatment: double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries.

All the grief piled on top of the other took its toll and Agnor found she could not function. Walking out into her studio, she’d look around then go back inside her home. She knew she needed to process all of her loss. Eventually, her medical experiences from her 50s helped her focus on what making art could do for her. Agnor described some of her large scale sculptures and smaller pieces as she spoke.

“In a work of art, I could contain the problem and control it and figure out how I wanted to regard it. I did not have to be a victim,” she stated.

Next, she guided the participants in creating their own pinch pots using clay. The room grew quiet as everyone focused on their own medical journeys, shaping and controlling the clay. Near the end of the evening, those who wanted to share showed their completed piece and told the meaning and expression behind it. The creativity and shared narratives were powerful.

One participant sighed and said, “This is what I needed tonight.”  

Through her work, Agnor explores the effect of life’s unpredictable events on the human form and spirit. She believes that our ability to sustain loss and heal is both amazing and central to our existence. The stories of these events, both joyous and tragic, are carried within our forms.

Currently, Agnor’s large scale work and rotating exhibits can be found here:
“The Choice” (rotating exhibit) Washougal, WA
“The Wave” property of Cannon Beach, OR, near public parking
“Walking Warrior” (rotating exhibit) Hillsboro, OR
“Earth” property of Washougal, WA
“Renovation” (rotating exhibit) Redmond, OR summer of 2017
“Genesis” (rotating exhibit) Lake Oswego, OR
“Urban Rhythm” property of Vancouver Housing Authority, Vancouver, WA
“Wendy Rose” collaborative work property of City of Vancouver, WA
“Pillars of Fulfillment” collaborative work property of WSUV, Vancouver, WA
“Luke’s Star” in the Luke Jensen Sports Park in Hazel Dell, WA

Northwest Narrative Medicine Collaborative thanks Sharon Agnor for her time, her donation of the materials for the event and her art.

Participants look forward to picking up their fired pieces on June 13th for the next NWNMC Series, a writing workshop facilitated by Stacy Brewster.


Poems from the Body

By Judith Barrington

I come to the thrilling idea of narrative medicine as first a poet and second a patient. My first poetry book was published in 1985 and my fifth (a “New and Selected”) will come out next spring from Salmon Publishing. In between, there have been chapbooks, collaborations with artists and musicians, and poems that will never be published but provoked a good round of laughter at someone’s birthday.

I have always been dedicated to the study of prosody (the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry) a subject that will never run out of surprises and new insights. One crucial piece of my learning was the strong connection between the rhythms of language (in poetry the rhythms of poetic lines and stanzas) and the sounds of language (vowels, consonants and words), and the body from which those rhythms and sounds emerge. Although I took very few classes in poetry or poetics, I was very fortunate in that my first teacher used a text book that is so amusing and smart that I still use it in my own workshops, although my copy is almost entirely held together with sticky tape. *

Why not buy a new copy? you may ask. Well, there is a good reason that I keep the first edition: a chapter called “Gold in the Ore: the sounds of English” is illustrated by drawings of what we must do with our bodies, particularly our mouths and throats, to produce various vowels and consonants. My two favorite are “Man saying ‘Ugh!’” and “Woman saying ‘Sn—!’” If you try saying these sounds yourself, and slightly exaggerate them, you will see immediately how essential your body structure is to their production. Sadly newer editions of the book omitted these splendid illustrations.

The rhythms of language that we manipulate into pleasing poetry, are not rhythms that exist solely among the words of poems and songs. The fine poet, Alfred Corn, in his book aptly titled The Poem’s Heartbeat, says that the word rhythm comes from the Greek meaning “measured motion.” To hear it, the ear must hear a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals. For many reasons human beings find this experience pleasurable and deeply engaging. Why? he asks. Well, because this regular recurrence is found in contexts that may be fundamental to forming our consciousness: an infant develops hearing before it is born and of course s/he hears the mother’s heartbeat—a regularly recurring sequence. Add to that the steady rhythm of the mother’s walk, experienced as a physical sensation of rocking to and fro. At birth there comes the addition of a new rhythm: the intake and exhalation of breath, which is crucial to the structural form of a poem (where to break the lines, for example). Later there are all kinds of visual rhythms: night and day; a flight of steps from one level to another; repeating patterns on textiles or wallpaper; phases of the moon. Continue reading