The Positive Side

Fall/Winter 2003 

Write of Passage

Derek Thaczuk joins an HIV narrative group and discovers that the pen is mightier than the sword.

I MADE SOMEBODY CRY on the first day of our writing group.

Ten of us were gathered at the big wooden table in our meeting room. We’d all written our first stories and were supposed to volunteer to read them out loud. Like swimmers at camp by a strange new lake, we all wanted to swim, we were there to swim, but nobody wanted to jump in first. What would everyone think when they saw me in my swimsuit, all bony ribs and weird birthmarks? Maybe someone else will go first…

Mark did. He calmly, slowly read a story about calmly, slowly smoking a cigarette — in the smoking room of the psych ward where he’d stayed for a while after being diagnosed with HIV. I could practically taste the curls of smoke, see the cracked orange plastic chairs.

We were all quiet for a minute after he finished. Then I broke the silence, telling him his story was very, very good. That it was understated, moving, and that I could relate to losing it a bit myself after my own diagnosis. That’s when I noticed him crying, with relief. So I said, “It’s no fun till somebody cries,” and we all cracked up and started owning up to how vulnerable we felt. Just like any support group, but more so: We weren’t just sharing our feelings and thoughts, we were writing them down. Even scarier! Not just worrying about how weird or pitiable we might sound, but about writing badly.

One of the first lessons we learned was that in our group there was no such thing as writing badly — the only crime was writing dishonestly. We weren’t there to be Melvilles and Alice Walkers; we were there to write — for each other, but mostly for ourselves. No worries about grammar, spelling or metaphors. Not having to say the sky was “cerulean” if you could simply say “blue.” Just writing about what was important to each of us, as honestly as we could.

 

DR. ALLAN PETERKIN, staff psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, started the narrative group along with occupational therapist Julie Hann as a therapeutic activity for people with HIV/AIDS. The idea was that writing about our experiences could help with the stress and trauma of living with this disease. We met every Monday for 12 weeks, each session gently and capably led by Allan and Julie. Every week there was a different assignment. The topics were big and spacious: Write about an experience with the health care system. Write about a decision. Write about a traumatic experience.

You could write your piece as long or short as you liked, on topic or not, at home during the week or in the meeting room just before the session. Each week, two or three people would read aloud what they’d written. Then the rest of us would give feedback — what was strong about the story, what might have been done a little differently, which directions we thought it might have gone in. We quickly discovered that at least two people are involved in each piece — the writer and the reader — and that the reader often hears things the writer wasn’t even aware of.

I tried to write honestly and not worry about how “good” it was. I wrote about some of the strange and difficult things that have happened to me: Relationships on the rocks. Having a camera stuck up my butt to look for cancer (thankfully, not finding any). The mixed emotions I felt when people I didn’t care for very much died.

I thought the majority of my stuff sucked. Most of my stories came out awkward and raw — all bony ribs and weird birthmarks. In my work providing AIDS treatment information, I’m used to writing about medications and viral loads, not personal, human experiences. Writing I could handle, but this somehow felt like being a writer, and I didn’t feel up to that title. Still, I kept doing it, coming in most weeks with a page or two typed up neatly on my computer or scribbled in the notebook I’d bought. (Word of advice: Don’t use a small notebook. It cramps your thoughts.)

There was one thing that haunted me, one thing that hovered quietly and invisibly nearby, biding its time. Near the end of the 12 weeks, when Julie turned the page on the flipchart and I saw the words write about a goodbye, I knew the time had come.

I didn’t know if I could do it, if I should do it. How dare I presume to take my friend’s death, his life, and capture it in a page or two of my clunky words? How could it possibly be worthy of him? How dare I steal it from him like that?

 

AND YET I DID. I wrote about standing at Simon’s bedside as he died, that final moment frozen forever in time. I wrote it crying, then sobbing, sometimes barely able to see the words. I edited and polished it, trying to do it justice. And I read it aloud to the group. (See “The Blackbirds,” below).

Everyone was silent for a while, as we usually were after a particularly personal or painful story. Then, one by one, people remarked about what a person Simon must have been to inspire such feelings in me. And what a friend I must have been to care so much about him. Then it was my turn to cry a little more.

The group wasn’t always so intense, thank goodness. Bob, who could write like blazes, penned what Allan called a “postmodern striptease” about webcam sex (adjusting the camera angle to hide his lipodystrophy). Earl wrote about his ex-girlfriend, Wayne about his ex-boyfriend, and Gail wrote about her childhood town. We wrote about gay bashings, homeless old men on park benches, coming out as positive. Some of it was very good. Some of it, honestly, was not. It never mattered. We didn’t need to be told not to trash somebody else’s story because it didn’t sound like Shakespeare. There was always something that made us say, “Wow, thanks for sharing that.”

The only real literary “rule” was to try to show, not tell. That could be a challenge. It’s easy to tell you that my ex-boyfriend was cold and uncommunicative, and that I resented him for it. But it’s way more interesting to describe an incident where I tried to connect with him and how he turned his back, and let you draw your own conclusions.

Shortly after the group ended, I saw Bob’s webcam-sex piece in a local magazine. A published writer! For me, the changes have been subtle but profound. These days I feel a bit twitchy if I don’t have a notebook handy. That nagging, censoring voice that says “nobody needs to hear this” hasn’t quite shut up (and probably never will), but it’s gotten a lot quieter. I think my writing has improved, and I certainly spend more time doing it. But the point of the group wasn’t to turn us into burgeoning novelists — it was to help us make sense of our experiences, to find some meaning in the often-painful events we live through.

Now I can tell you about my cancer scares, about standing by Simon’s bedside during his last moments, about the narrative group itself and how I learned to write about these things. And it feels as though it matters. That by telling it I’ve made something a little meaningful, a little lasting. That whether it’s first-rate writing or clumsy chicken-scratching, happy or sad, funny or serious, someone may read it and be affected, may find something that stops them for a moment and makes them think “ah.” That I’m a slightly bigger part of the big, wild web of human life. And that, to me, seems worth the effort.

I’m signing up again in September.

Derek Thaczuk tested positive 12 years ago and has worked at the Toronto PWA Foundation for seven years. His other writing credentials include the Canadian HIV/AIDS Law Review and the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s erotic story writing contest. He lives in Toronto with his cat, his books and his sweetheart of nine years who lets him write on the walls.

The Blackbirds

I see the birds
between the rocks
the crows that knew your name
and came on time

I saw your eyes
we held your hands
what did you think about
until the angels came

lights out

—Diamanda Galás, “Birds of Death”

I NEVER TOLD SIMON about the birds.

Even when they began to gather in the darkened corners of the hospital room, and we all knew the time was finally near.

I wondered where he was: What inner landscape he was travelling, tethered so thinly to his frail body? Was it comforting? Frightening? Was he aware of one at all?

We could never know. He’d been unconscious for days. A mercy. The ventilator prevented speech. How it had frightened him when it began breathing for him. We’d soothed him with touches and words until the convulsions stopped.

His mother asked, surely I’d been through this before? I said no. Not like this.

Not with a friend.

Days ago. How many? Time had lost its meaning.

It did not surprise me when the birds arrived.

I wanted to kneel beside the bed, put my hand on Simon’s forehead and my lips to his ear, and tell him not to fear the black birds now gathering at his side. Don’t be afraid of the sternness of their look, of their carbon-black, diamond-brilliant eyes, of the chill wind as their wings come flapping blackly down.

They are your friends. Your ferrymen. They are here to see you safely through. To see that no harm comes to you, now on this final journey. You, who’ve already travelled through so many horrors. Their sharp eyes, their sharp claws are here to keep you safe, my friend. Don’t fear.

All this I told him silently.

And when the final bird arrived and said, it’s time, and the jagged lines on the machines began to plummet and his mother softly said, “My God,” and we all drew closer to his side, all I said to him was, goodbye Simon. The chorus of our voices: We’re all here with you. We love you. Goodbye, lover, son, friend. Lights out now.

Don’t be afraid.

Goodbye.

—Derek Thaczuk

We buried Simon’s ashes under a sapling cherry tree in front of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he’d spent his happiest years. The last few days while working on this story, I visited his tree — in full July glory in the midst of the beautiful grounds of the bustling campus — and thought about all the atoms that used to be Simon, now growing into this gorgeous tree in his favourite place.

The Write Stuff

Wanting to explore what he calls “the interface between writing and therapy,” Dr. Allan Peterkin, staff psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital, attended some writing workshops at the University of Toronto along with occupational therapist Julie Hann. They then enlisted U of T’s director of professional writing, Professor Guy Allan, to help adapt his workshops for use by PHAs.

Treating writing as therapy, they borrowed some tactics from art therapy groups: The focus is on the work itself. “Pseudotopics” give writers the necessary freedom. Groups are small (less than a dozen people), and confidentiality keeps the process safe.

Five groups have run so far — two a year since the first session in January 2001. Most participants have reported that the sessions helped them deal better with their illness.

By “nudging personal stories into narratives,” as Peterkin puts it, experiences become more understandable — to other people and, perhaps more importantly, to the writers themselves. Stories take on a permanence and meaning when they're written down on paper — as one participant put it, getting them “out of my head and out into the world.”

Got writer’s block? Peterkin and Hann offer up the following tips:

1. Write for yourself. Don’t even think about who might read it later.

2. Pace yourself. Go at your own speed. Something is always better than nothing.

3. Muzzle your inner critic. Forget the rules. Take risks! Writing is an exploration, so go on, explore.