Navigation Menu+

An Unwinding Ball of String: An Image for Writing and Healing

Posted on May 20, 2007 by

Consider this conversation, one which takes place on a porch in Los Feliz, California inside the novel, Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven. The conversation takes place between a young woman, Alice, and a Unitarian minister, Helen, who is in the neighborhood passing out fliers for a lecture series. Alice offers Helen a glass of Red Zinger tea and the two of them sit on Alice’s porch. They talk, one thing and another. At one point, Alice finds herself beginning to tell Helen, the minister, about a deer that wandered into her house in the middle of the night.

Helen, the minister, interrupts.

‘Hold on.’ Helen held up her hand like a traffic cop. ‘A deer came into your house? I’m sorry, but you’re going too fast. And please move your hand away from your mouth so I can hear you. Please, start at the beginning, and take your time.’

. . . Now that she had a willing ear, Alice’s story of the deer unwound like a ball of string rolling down a street. This was the first time she’d been able to tell it all the way through, without interruption, and nothing she said seemed to invite dismay or contradiction. Helen nodded and sometimes narrowed her eyes as if listening to a familiar piano sonata or poem. . .

Encouraged, Alice gave all but the most lunatic details—she left out the fight with her married boyfriend, her raising-the-fawn fantasy, that the deer had seemed to desire pursuit. Hypnosis, she’d heard, was like this: perfect recall with no self-incrimination.

Take your time, the minister says. How often these days does any one of us get to hear those words when we’re on the brink of telling a story? Once a week? Once a month? Once in a lifetime?

No rush. No impatience. No contradiction. No self-incrimination. None of the ordinary obstacles. A full suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. And, in this place of suspension—a ball of string unwinding.

And what (again) might writing have to do with it?

Writing, I think, can augment the unwinding.

Writing and then—perhaps—putting a piece of writing out into the world, and then getting news back that the writing is heard—received—can be a powerful way to encourage the ball of string to unwind, down through one layer, and the next, ever closer to the center.

Writing can take us deep. Putting writing out into the world—and receiving a response—can take us yet deeper.

This can happen anywhere.

It can happen on a porch. For a year or two after I first moved to North Carolina, I helped form and then met with a writing group. The group eventually fell apart, but before it fell apart, for that year or two, one evening every other week, it provided a structure that allowed something to happen—the sharing of stories and a response to those stories. We always met at the same house. Her name was Alice actually, like in the book. We met at Alice’s house. And I remember a particular evening on her screened porch, this in the summer, at twilight, that certain quality of evening summer light, a dog barking somewhere down the street, a child being called inside for supper. This was in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was sitting on the swing, idly pushing it back and forth. Sylvia was sitting on the glider. It was time for the group to end, but I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet. I wasn’t quite ready to leave that pool of light and stillness on the porch.