Towards a fully-fledged life – Dr Dawn Garisch on the healing benefits of poetry    
Wed, 18 May 2022

Where do I start to write about my life? And why? Dr Dawn Garisch is a doctor who writes, a poet who walks, and a researcher who dances. She investigates the science and poetry of the body in order to determine “what we can trust”. Dawn is a founding member of the Life Righting Collective, an NPO that facilitates healthy contemporary community-building through life writing. This month, this highly inspiring teacher of memoir and poetry shares her encouraging wisdom with people venturing into creative waters – whether for the first time or in a return to writing.
Why write poetry?
From the time humans pushed out frontal lobes, we have been trying to understand and to communicate what it means to be alive and how to manage uncertainty. Yet life is a mystery that no-one has been able to explain comprehensively. Wherever we have gathered – around a fire, a well or a bar counter, a dinner table, around preparations for ritual, worship or war, or around the birth bed and the deathbed, we have told stories to explain how we came to be here, what purpose our lives serve, and where we go when we die. 

Creating meaning
Before writing developed, stories were handed down orally, and the easiest way to remember was through rhythm and rhyme. So poetry was the first form of storytelling. These story/poems are powerful and helpful containers for anxiety. They assist us to find purpose and meaning, and they help direct our choices. 
As a doctor, Dawn has first-hand experience of the limits of logic in overcoming seemingly intractable problems and bad habits. “We need to turn to story and the images and symbols that underlie them in order to understand our motives and difficulties and to find our way out of the loop of our intransigent behaviours and internalised oppression towards better options.”
Metaphor and symbol arise from association, and the majority of our brain tissue is devoted to associative tasks of meaning making, linking this with that in order to make sense of the world and ourselves as we receive information via our senses. Writing stimulates the connections for meaning-making, and thereby helps trauma survivors to integrate the horror of their experience and to move on with their lives. We know from PET scans that, when confronted by metaphor, more areas of the brain light up than during any other activity.

Poetry releases us from stuck behavioural patterns
Metaphor has the power to forge healing connections in the brain – and thereby in the body and in behaviour. Underlying our lives are images that inform both our creative life and our decision-making; where these images or symbols are stuck, they result in stuck patterns of behaviour. 
Uncovering and engaging with these images through writing poetry allows them to unfold and evolve. While our intransigent problems are locked in a loop and going nowhere, like a recurring nightmare, all they can do is disturb us. If we release trapped images of trauma by having a creative interaction with them, we can emancipate our lives, bodies, relationships and stories. 

Reasons to write!
Learning the tools for writing poetry helps us to:
●      Pay attention to and value our bodies and our lives; in doing so we become better able to care for the self, others and the earth.
●      Develop the ability to listen to our own experience and to those of others; thereby developing compassion.
●      Learn to appreciate and work with image, symbol and metaphor; even the act of picking up a pen helps us to feel less a victim and a passive receptacle of circumstances. Through writing we come into a better relationship with our own lives, which helps us accept those things we cannot change and find the courage to change those things we can.
●      Enter the creative process of self-discovery, taking responsibility for who we are and who we might become. This is true for the symbolic shape of our narrative as well as those instances when we discover that what we had been told as a child was simply not true, or that what we had taken for fact was only opinion.
●      Discover a neglected calling due to overlays of logic that stop us from developing our true potential and the meaning of our lives.
●      Find hope. The facts of any matter can be so devastating as to be paralysing, yet we know that things don’t always turn out as badly as the facts would suggest as there are factors at play that fact cannot predict. Fear of the future can clamp down possibility and drive us to act in ways that are not in the best interests of the situation. When we approach a difficulty with the tools of a poet, this can help reduce anxiety and open up the boundaries of what is possible.
●      Stay curious. Creative projects contain a wonderful paradox. Even while we take responsibility for the work, if we don’t insist on and stick to what we already know, material arrives on the page that we do not remember composing. The writer learns that some of their best work was not constructed out of a place of thinking, but from another place more aligned with the body. 
●      Be exhilarated. The effect is electric! This charged space is energising and healing. It teaches us flexibility, curiosity and respect for our bodies and an open attitude. We learn to make ourselves available to that which yearns for expression through our active, attentive participation. 
Running through our lives are facts and poetry. We must reclaim and attend to our narratives to shake off the chains that bind us so we can live fully-fledged lives.

The AVBOB Poetry Project is a free online resource for poets writing in all 11 official languages of South Africa. Visit the website at for more informative articles on reading and writing poetry.