How Pictures Heal – Expressive Writing from Personal Photos, with Kelly DuMar

WOMAN WHO WEARS HER MOON HEART FULL ©Kelly DuMar

. . . A long time we were separate,
O Earth,
but now you have returned to me.

~ Elaine Equi

We all take, save, and inherit photographs of the people, places, and things that bring meaning, mystery, hope, and connection into our lives. In my upcoming 6-week writing webinar for the Transformative Language Arts Network, we will write from personal photos as a means of restoring meaning, purpose, hope, and resilience during and after loss. Particularly, throughout this time of the pandemic, unexpected losses, without meaningful closure, have mounted for many people. TLA practitioners and writers at all levels of experience will imaginatively encounter personal photos sparked by questions that generate remarkable and uplifting writing experiences.

If you’ve ever kept a diary or journal, it’s likely you know what expressive writing is–– and how this spontaneous writing about your feelings serves your emotional well-being in a variety of ways. Expressive writing is a way to get in touch with the “ideal listener” or the “silver lining voice” within all of us. The imagined listener who lets us express our feelings, hurts, dilemmas and joys, without judgment––or editing. And, because we write what we need to express without controls of grammar, form or outcome, we transform feelings, gain insights, and reduce our stress and anxiety. When we practice expressive writing in a supportive workshop, we also gain powerful feelings of connection with others, and the recognition that we are not alone. In fact, our stories and experiences can help others heal and grow.

Photographs fill boxes in our attics and cover our walls. We store them on our computers and cell phones and share them instantly on social media. We’re taking and sharing more pictures than ever before. Why? Because our photos show what we care about and hope to preserve, what moves and delights us. Our photos capture the people, places and memories that bring beauty and meaning into our lives. Writing from personal photos brings insight, healing, and zest into your life––whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not.

One young man wrote from a photo of himself and his brother as a child posing in the arms of their mother. As soon as he began writing, he wondered who had taken the photo. Ah. He realized it was the last photo his father had taken before leaving the family. His expressive writing led to this awakening: I was able to not only write something I’m proud of, but to process and communicate emotional difficulties I hadn’t been able to find words for in years.

Photo-inspired expressive writing revives our spirit. Long-dormant parts of our lives, places we’ve traveled to, people we’ve loved and lost come alive on the page. As the psychologist James Hillman brilliantly said, the gift of an image is that it provides a place to watch your soul. Expressive writing leads to re-discovering a zest for living. Deep conversations are sparked by showing, writing and sharing who, and what, we love. And, because listeners are truly interested, we feel a renewed enthusiasm, energy and sense of connection. As the author Martin Prechtel writes:

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

AUNT MARION , from the private collection of Kelly DuMar

My own photo-inspired creative writing was sparked by this picture. I was a twenty-two-year-old college student when the aunt I’d looked up to and adored since childhood needed me by her side. Caring for Marion as she died took me out of my comfort zone––and changed my life. So, when I saw my young, adventuresome aunt in my mother’s scrapbook, I asked her if I could keep it. This photo of Marion, captured in this archetypal pose of the archer, like the goddess Diana, stretching her bow, aiming her arrow, captivated me. My expressive writing helped me unpack all the truth, beauty and healing it held.

What I love most about photo-inspired writing is that it engages us with the profound beauty of our ordinary lives. We discover what I call The Secret Reveal––a revelation––something we have been unable to express that leads us to a new way of knowing ourselves or others and changes our response to the community and the world.

About the Webinar Format
This 6-week class is hosted on the online teaching platform, Wet Ink, and on Zoom. The Wet Ink platform allows you to log in on you own time to post your writing from the prompts and get to know others through their writing by adding your comments. The day before class begins, you’ll receive an invitation to join Wet Ink. There are no browser requirements, and Wet Ink is mobile-friendly. Additionally, you will have three LIVE webinars on Zoom to discuss your writing and interact in real time with other participants (scheduled during the first week according to best availability of participants).

Who Should Take This Class
This course will serve writers and TLA practitioners at all levels of experience, as well as anyone interested in personal and artistic development. Counseling professionals and para-professionals will find dynamic creative outlets for personal and professional development. Writers and artists with an interest in exploring the healing aspects of personal photos may also be quite interested.

About Kelly DuMar
Kelly is a poet, playwright, workshop facilitator, and certified psychodramatist from the Boston area who has been leading creative writing workshops for decades. She’s author of three poetry chapbooks, and her fourth is upcoming from Lily Press, 2023. A producer of high-quality literary and transformative arts programming, Kelly currently serves on the Board of the Transformative Language Arts Network, and produces the Open Mic Writer Series for the Journal of Expressive Writing. Her past board leaderships include the International Women’s Writing Guild, and Playwright’s Platform, Boston. She blogs her nature photos and creative writing from the Charles River (where she lives) daily, for the past six years, at #NewThisDay.

The Messenger, a guest post by TLAF Certificate student Sharon Bippus

Editor’s note: Sharon is a student in the Transformative Language Arts Foundations Certificate program. This blog post is one of five reflection posts she will be submitting as part of the certificate requirements.

Credit: Sharon Bippus

To be seen is something that I have struggled with since childhood. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I was the middle child sandwiched between an older sister and a younger brother, my mother’s obvious favorite. I was the second girl when I don’t think my mother even wanted the first one. I felt unloved and neglected. Feeling so shy and awkward, it felt safer to remain hidden and keep my distance.

Fast forward to the present, and I continue to work on this issue. To be sure, I have made progress, and my creativity has played a large role in my healing. My art, whether it is photography or mixed media or collage, is where I can safely express my emotions. It’s where I can relax and play. It’s how I can give back to that little girl inside me that never felt safe or wanted.

Nowadays, I find my creative outlet expanding into writing which is a new way of being seen. While taking Kelly DuMar’s “How Pictures Heal” course with TLAN, I had the opportunity to examine layers of myself, which allowed me to both see myself more clearly and to be seen by others. It was in this course that a photograph of a cardinal taken at a nearby nature sanctuary helped me uncover a revealing message about myself.

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For the first assignment in the course, Kelly directed us to select one of our own photographs to use as a writing prompt. I had no idea which of my personal photos to choose, and I spent hours scrolling through the pictures on my phone. A few of them whispered to me, but none of them really jumped out. Then – serendipitously – I was checking one of my social media accounts and saw that a woman, whom I don’t know personally, had tagged me in a photo. She is an artist and a friend of friends, and I follow her on social media. Intrigued, I looked at her comment to me. She had taken one of the photos that I had recently posted on Instagram and used it as a model for her watercolor painting. A thrill of excitement went through me, and my mouth hung open in surprise. Someone who works as an artist had been inspired by my photograph! I was so excited, so flattered, so joyful! 

This was the picture. This was the picture that I needed to explore in Kelly’s class – a bright red cardinal staring straight at me, seeds protruding from his beak making it look like he has buck teeth. He saw me and tried to make me laugh with his fake teeth. Then Sue (the artist!) saw my work, and by doing so, I felt as if she saw me. She saw the beauty that I try to capture and share with the world.

Some people say that birds are messengers, and I believe that is true. This is what my cardinal told me:

People notice me and see my beauty right away.  There’s no hiding it.

I can fly.  I can soar.  I am free.

Nature is my home.  The trees shelter me.  The wind guides me.  The rain cleanses me.

I am nourished here in this sanctuary.  I am bold and determined.  I can look you right in the eye, and I can make you laugh.

Sharon Bippus, PhD, is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) instructor who finds inspiration in the intersection of creativity, mystery, and synchronicity. As an undergraduate, she was awarded two scholarships to study in Germany which fueled her desire to learn more about the diverse world we live in. Since that time, she has taught English in Slovakia and China and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Russia. She currently teaches ESOL at a community college in the suburbs of Houston, Texas where she works with students from all over the world. In her free time, she enjoys mixed media, collage, and photography and has received training in trauma-informed expressive arts and nature-based therapeutic practices. She is a SoulCollage® facilitator, a Veriditas-trained labyrinth facilitator, and a student in the Haden Institute’s Dream Work Program.

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