Exploring Poetry – Creativity and Trauma

This month’s poetry guest blog is a post on creativity and grief/trauma. (Check out previous Exploring Poetry posts). Rue Spark’s story they share below with us today is poignant, enthralling, and carries a message of how creativity helps you make sense of the world. Rue has written several online articles and published multiple works with awards.

I’m excited to have Rue’s post today and announce their just-launched poetry, art, and short story book, before i go i want you to know: poetry & stories from a human disaster.

I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy and whew did I feel the weight of emotion and grief! The pieces made me think, reflect, imagine, and I felt they were very powerful – I was moved through the entire reading journey. As always with Rue’s work, I recommend a tissue box nearby. I will suggest this to everyone, but especially anyone who has recently gone /is going through grief.

Favorite lines include:

I’m the knight in my story and someone else’s dragon

I lean towards the things that shed light onto who I really am

I can’t install a firewall or run a virus scan when I am so deep into the lies my brain tells me

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rue Sparks is a composite of neurosis and nonsense held together by duct tape and sheer stubbornness. A widow, disabled, and queer, they traverse the equally harsh and cathartic landscape where trauma and healing align to create stories that burrow into the hearts and minds of their readers. They live in Noblesville, Indiana in the USA with their sweet senior support dog and cantankerous cat.

Visit Rue’s website

Words for the Things We Couldn’t Say: Creativity and the Trauma Response
By Rue Sparks

Six months after my wife’s sudden passing found me aimlessly driving through the back streets of Muskegon along a cloudy Lake Michigan, blasting the newest release from the Marmozets through the halfway open window and into the frigid spring air. 

Whether it be song, art, movies, television, or the written word, sometimes it’s the words of others that express things we can’t explain ourselves. “What do I need to start again?” the lead singer Becca Macintyre asks. “A new millennia.” 

That I could relate to.

I can trace my life story through Spotify Wrapped playlists. Those songs become the bread crumbs by which I can retread my jumbled memories from the times where breathing was no more than a habit, getting out of bed no more than spite.

I see my own disjointed character arc through the songs that defined each moment. Listening to Mike Shinoda’s Post-Traumatic album during my long commute from my cushy job outside of Denver; feeling like hearing about his grief journey gave me hope for my own.

Retreating back to the Midwest when pain wracked my body for months on end, forcing me to end a career in digital advertising a decade and a college degree in the making. Listening to PVRIS’ “What’s Wrong” on isolated evenings in my rented room—and internally claiming it as my anthem.

And today, listening to “This Is Mine” by Hamster on repeat, hoping that with repetition and stubbornness I can believe the words.

Eventually though, I would realize that the words of others weren’t enough. It is something I had known but not recognized throughout my life. Ever since I was a child coming home from seeing The Lion King in theaters (the first time,) spending hours in my room re-drawing promotional art and retreating into my own head.

My wife had been the writer. I was the artist. I had spent my childhood and teen years connecting to others through charcoal drawings of tigers and half-finished comic pages. When it came time to be an adult, I flirted with many different paths before defaulting to the thing I knew best.

I would spend the next fifteen years getting a degree in illustration and interactive design, then building a career as a studio artist, illustrator, graphic designer, animator, motion graphics artist, developer, and eventually art director.

Then it all fell to pieces.

My wife had gone into cardiac arrest with no warning one blistering August night. She was thirty-years-old, and while she had heart issues since she was born a recent surgery should have kept her safe for another ten to fifteen years. Rather than the failed valve we had always feared, she experienced sudden ventricular fibrillation despite having no symptoms or warning signs.

In the wake of her loss, I bounced around the country over the next couple of years, moving across state lines and entire regions of the United States. After the first six months, I crawled back to my home state. The agency I had been working on had several significant rounds of layoffs and it didn’t look good. But more than that, I needed a place to land.

Within another few months I was off to Denver to another agency who had offered me an art director position. I’d never even stepped foot in Colorado before, but at this point in my life moving to a new city or state didn’t really intimidate me. I had nothing or no one left to lose at that point, anyway.

By the time the one year anniversary of my wife’s passing came around, my body had already started giving up.

It started as a neck spasm. I’d had them since I was seven years old, waking up unable to move my neck, so panicked my parents called an ambulance. A couple weeks of muscle relaxants, and it would go away. This would happen again and again throughout my life; and so this didn’t really surprise me terribly much.

Then it spread.

This wouldn’t be a simple two-week pause before everything went back to normal. What started as a spasm moved down my arms, into my hands, up the back of my neck, down my spine.

As an artist, of course the first thought was carpal tunnel. We did x-rays, a particularly painful EMG (which was repeated two more times over subsequent years,) ultrasounds… all clean. Normal. 

As both a treatment and diagnostic tool we attempted steroid injections in the wrist to see if it would ease the pain. It didn’t. 

Instead I learned the hard way I had developed an allergy to lidocaine, and spent a lonely 36 hours in the ER when anaphylaxis set in.

I was at that point still hopeful. As an artist I was no stranger to hand pain. We all develop techniques on ways to make it ease; ice, heat, rest, stretches. It’s an occupational hazard, but one that we learn to live with. 

But this was beyond anything I had experienced before. There would be times where holding anything felt like my arms and hands were on fire. I’d avoid texting or messaging when it became too painful to even hold my phone, isolating myself on top of everything else. My spine would eventually start locking whenever I tried to sit or stand. The pain became so intense that at times I couldn’t walk, stand, or sometimes even sit for more than a few minutes at a time.

Five years later my health has only gotten more severe and more complex, but my physical ailments aren’t why after 6 months of pain I was at the end of my rope. 

My body had stolen away the things I created to process the things I’d experienced. Child, teen, or even adult me hadn’t realized what was quickly becoming clear at the worst possible time: it wasn’t necessarily that I loved creating art. It was that many times it was the only way I could process life.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it nearly killed me. 

During my 45 minute commute back and forth to work, I would often replace the Spotify playlist with an audiobook, which is how I ended up devouring the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl. He was an Austrian psychologist who survived the worst of the concentration camps through one simple goal: understand the psychological reasons how the common man could survive the most horrendous of situations.

His conclusion can be summarized by a much-loved quote: ““Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It doesn’t matter if your ‘meaning’ is the safety of your family or to see the newest Marvel movie in theaters when it comes out. As long as we have purpose, we can survive indomitable odds.This became the foundation for his therapeutic model: logotherapy, or ‘meaning’ therapy.

Nearly two years after my wife had passed, having then lost the career I’d built, my own physical well-being, and the means by which I dealt with life’s struggles, I could no longer deny that for me life had lost all meaning. Something had to give.

The writing started as a whim. During our college years, I had taken a beginner writer’s class with my wife so I would be better equipped to write comics scripts, but more importantly understand more about the thing my wife loved almost as much as we did each other. We’d covered poetry and short stories under five-hundred words during that course, but at the time the craft didn’t interest me the way it had my wife.

Over the years during quiet evenings we had shared—through that strange osmosis that couples perfect—the tools and tricks of our respective creative outlets. She became familiar with the practice of ‘pushing pixels’ (though that didn’t prevent her eye-rolling when my perfectionism took this to truly ridiculous lengths.) I learned how to edit and proofread so she could have a second eye as she powered through a decade of novels written for NaNoWriMo.

And so, when everything else I built had fallen away, I sat my laptop down on my rickety desk and tried to turn my inner perfectionist ‘off’ so I could find words for the things I could never say.

Creative non-fiction turned to poetry, transformed into short stories, evolved into a novella, added on a novel and a web serial. Sharing between friends and family became social posts, published works. There were many missteps, many frustrations, many deleted (or lost) files and half-finished, unused ideas or entire stories. There were also times when everything clicked in my mind, and those moments were the meaning I found I could live for.

Today my creative struggles may be different, but are often just as debilitating as I reconcile my jadedness with publishing and my inner critic becoming stronger the more words I write. My health is often paralyzing despite all accommodations and any attempts to diminish its effect on what I want to create. 

But the gift my wife had left me—the one that has nothing to do with art or writing but everything to do with living—is that I now understand that I had been self-medicating my entire life without knowing it. Whether it be music, art, or writing, creativity and expression is one of the only ways I can understand what’s happening in my own mind. That even if one is taken from me, I can find another way in.

As I progressed through my writing journey, I learned even more about how my brain did (and didn’t) work. I realized that I tended towards speculative fiction the most—I found it easier to process through my own trauma and suffering in the metaphors of cat girls, zombies, and space pirates. Something about that oxymoronic distance and nearness allowed me to tackle subjects that shut my brain down completely otherwise.

There is so much more I have yet to unearth. I am under no illusion that my future will be free of further suffering and pain. I sometimes wonder if or when my time as a writer will also come to a close, and that thought yet chills me. This past November saw the most debilitating physical illness I’d yet experienced—my speech and motor function stolen from me for almost a month. 

As of May 1st, I have released a book of poetry, short stories, and artwork spanning the five years from when I first began writing to process through my wife’s passing, through the things I struggle with to this day. The title, before i go i want you to know, has more than one meaning. One is the reality that none of us know how much time we have left on this earth.

With a fresh year and new data for Spotify to track, I wonder at what moments and memories will find its way on my 2024 Wrapped. I wonder if my writing journey will come to an end or evolve, as my art journey did eventually. I wonder what new horrors my body has in store for me—in truth, I often think my body is decomposing as I breathe. I wonder if whatever the next trauma I have to bear will be the one that fells me.

When the wondering becomes ruminating, the ruminating toxic, I retreat to my well-worn meaning. I create.

And for a moment, the world makes sense again.

Thanks for sharing your story, Rue! Readers, visit Rue’s website https://www.ruesparks.com/ and get your copy of before i go i want you to know: poetry & stories from a human disaster.

3 thoughts on “Exploring Poetry – Creativity and Trauma”

  1. Wow, Kristina, your guest post was heart wrenching. Thank you, Rue for sharing your ongoing journey through grief. It is inspiring to read, even as it is painful to read. Keep creating. Denver and its surroundings are wonderful, healing places. Happy IWSG Day, Kristina!

  2. Everyone grieves differently. Thank you, Rue, for sharing your journey with us. And yes. Grieving takes a long, long time. Depending upon the griever, having others around can help. My prayers are with you.

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