Writing Your Story
The Role of Creativity in the Science of Transformation
Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is a recovering drug addict who wrote a book about his journey. Scar Tissue illustrates the importance of accepting one’s dependency in the recovery process. Kiedis’s story proceeds as new scars form atop old scar tissue.
He remembers a moment of clarity on a Christmas Eve in Grand Rapids. He drove to a sobriety meeting and stopped outside the building.
“I paused and considered my choices. I could turn around and drive down to the ghetto. I knew the precise corner, I’d seen the dealers, so I could go cop some dope and get high in a matter of minutes. Or I could walk through those doors and turn my life over to a power higher than myself, and start walking out of the woods of my dependency.”
Kiedis enters the meeting and announces himself as a newcomer, just like he did twenty years earlier when he attended his first meeting.
Memoirs are a unique kind of writing. They’re autobiographical but also filled with attempts at self-representation, sometimes unintentionally mixing fiction and nonfiction. It’s a familiar feeling—trying to describe oneself accurately but constantly catching oneself obscuring certain qualities and enhancing others. Psychologists call these two phenomena self-discovery and self-projection, and they’re both part of the greater act of self-representation.
Did Kiedis really imagine himself in the “woods of dependency” while standing outside that meeting? Unlikely, but the image of a dark wood is both accurate and embellished. The line is reminiscent of the opening lines of Dante’s epic journey, The Divine Comedy—in some ways, Dante’s own medieval memoir of recovery from unwellness, fear, and paralysis. “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” Kiedis may not have imagined himself as actually lost in a forest in the moment, but perhaps his memory of the experience combines with what he now understands about the nature of his addiction to create a truer, imaginative account. Maybe stating the decision to remain sober in those terms gives him the power to keep going.
Writing is not just expressing what one already believes. Rhetorical theory views writing as heuristic, which is to say, generative. We can actually learn what we believe when we’re forced to work it out in writing or speech. When we express a point of view in writing we undergo a cognitive process wherein the generation of new ideas happens concurrently with the exploration of the sorts of ideas we might adopt and how we might organize them. This is one of the reasons why writing is such a powerful tool in trauma therapy and why Alter uses it in its substance use disorder programs. Writing helps us explore our subconscious. It presses us to be clear when we’d rather not be. And it helps us to track progress and hold ourselves accountable.
This may explain why the recovery memoir has become one of the most popular kinds of memoirs. Amy Dresner’s My Fair Junkie, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, Lisa Smith’s Girls Walks Out of a Bar,” Russell Brand’s Freedom: all best sellers. Notice the titles. They cast their journey to recovery as a story, like an adventure movie or a romantic comedy.
Creative expression is all-important in recovery. The fact that there are so many addiction memoirs attests to the important role that writing the memoir played in each author’s ongoing recovery. It takes a lot to make something new out of one’s addiction. It takes knowledge, honesty, time, and discipline. But most importantly, to make something new and creative out of one’s addiction requires true transformation of mind and heart.
Ken Wilbur, a leading figure in Integral Psychology, characterizes the deeper levels of the progress to wellness as both a uniting of oneself and an increased ability to care about things outside of oneself. There’s something of a paradox to progressing toward wellness. On the one hand, recovery requires integration—that our head knows what our heart feels, that our heart accurately feels what our body experiences, that our whole consciousness is clear and honest with itself. On the other hand, recovery is characterized by a lack of selfishness and increased capacity for empathy. Wilbur outlines this movement as:
EGOCENTRIC —> ETHNOCENTRIC —> WORLDCENTRIC —> COSMOCENTRIC
The recovering addict moves away from a self-focused perspective where everything is for or against me to a community oriented perspective and finally to a broader species-oriented point of view. The goal is to see oneself in other and others in oneself. The healthy person recognizes the unity of things (one’s self, job, family, friends) as joined up in bigger and transcendent phenomena like morality, love, and purpose.
Susanne Cook-Greuter calls this cosmocentric stage one of “unitive consciousness” and notes the important part that creativity plays. Creating something out of the rubble means that we’ve come to see the rubble as the detritus of a whole. For Kiedis and other authors of recovery memoirs, the mere act of writing a memoir enacts their progress toward wellness.
The psychology of the relationship between creativity and recovery is part of what we at Alter call the Science of Transformation. It’s important for health and wellness organizations to use clinically tested treatment methods, but those methods are only optimally effective when people are able to truly internalize and apply them. Thus it’s crucial that our recovery science includes the study of how humans change, how they learn and grow. This is the Science of Transformation.
And a pivotal event in the Science of Transformation is that very transition from learning to application, when a person moves from recognizing something to creating something new from it. Learning scientists have documented the power of creative transformation in what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of stages of deeper learning created by Benjamin Bloom.
At the bottom of the pyramid is the low-hanging fruit of passive learning—the ability to recall information, for instance. And nearer the top are learning activities that require more engagement, such as synthesis, application, and adaptation. Creating something means you’ve mastered the material so well that you can now make it your own and even give it to somebody else in a new form.
At the neurological level, acts of synthesis and creativity are the perfect antidote for addiction. The brain’s cravings for dopamine that drive substance use are fueled in no small part by the negative stories that we tell about ourselves and by our inability to view ourselves as part of a bigger, unified, and meaningful story. Dopamine can be generated synthetically or naturally. And applying, adapting, and being creative with what you learn about addiction can give your brain the natural motivation it needs to keep growing.
The Science of Transformation is about putting cutting-edge research to work for real people in need. Alter invites people to tell their own stories and gives them the clinical, medical, and social resources they need to find the higher purpose that makes their stories great.
Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University