#13: Getting better

As lockdown continues in England, so does our global poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of the lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson on 22nd November. Join us at any time through November, using the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

Proverbs 16:23-25

Today we write about healing. Keep this thought in mind: although you will have to touch on sickness or injury to get there, the sickness is not the main point. It is the healing, and the experience of feeling better, that I want you to concentrate on. I don’t mean spiritual healing, or healing from a time of unhappiness like a divorce. These are valid subjects of course, but today I encourage you to write about a recovery from actual illness (including mental illness) or injury – something you have actually healed from, not something ongoing.

Some of you will need to visit dark places to do this, but do so with the fact of recovery in mind. Others, who have been lucky with their health, will not have had cancer or even a broken leg; but you will have had a cold, or a sprained ankle, or a burn from the cooker. Small wounds still give us a chance to talk about healing. The experience of relief after your herpes cleared up is not the same as recovering from chemo, but it has some elements of the same story on a smaller scale.

This is a good opportunity to talk about the beginning and the sequence of a poem. Here’s how it actually happened: you got ill or injured, you had a period of recovery, then you were better. You don’t, however, have to tell it in that order. In fact, the reader will be delighted by a poem that rejigs the narrative. If you are given to telling things in the order they happened, then try one of these suggestions (they are only suggestions, do it your way):

1 You’re healed, you remember how it was to be ill, you’re still healed. Show, don’t tell. Try not to say ‘I remember’ – we know, you’re telling us.

2 Or; you recovered, one step/ boiled egg/ Chaka Khan song at a time. We don’t have to hear about the illness at all; it is implicit in the fact that you recovered, and its magnitude is suggested by the very fact that you aren’t talking about it. Think about the title as a way to give us key information.

3 Or: you were ill. You were so ill. The sheets were soaked, you had feverish dreams, your bones ached. You wallow in description of the illness. And then one day, you smelt toast and felt hungry. Try not to add over-explanation like ‘and that is how I knew I would get better’. The reader has seen that already.

4 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You hint, in the title or somewhere in the poem, that you didn’t expect to see this day. That hint will cast a sense of escape and relief across the whole piece.

5 Or: you describe a perfectly ordinary day. You trace the timeline back, from this moment when you are completely healthy, to the time when you came out of hospital, then back to when you were told you would need chemo, then back to the perfectly ordinary day when you first found a lump in your breast/ testicle. This takes us back to live through the scary bit with you, in the knowledge that there is a happy ending.

6 Or: what? Do it your way. Explore what your recovery shows about those who love you; talk about a trivial childhood illness that seemed immense at the time; go the full Malika, and revisit Lazarus as we did on day 1 of this project. Write about someone else’s illness if that’s where the prompt takes you, but you might get the best value out of this one if you concentrate on your own physical experience of healing. In this case, the happy ending is a given. Even if other illnesses are dogging you now – including the one we are all so aware of – the one to write about is one that you have already gotten over.

Join our Facebook workshopping group

Join our closed Facebook group at any time in November, for feedback from other poets and access to weekly readings. Pay £10 by PayPal below, then find Try to Praise the Mutilated World on Facebook and ask to join (use the link in the first paragraph above). We are over 300-strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.


Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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