Writing the unbearable

Sage CohenUncategorized10 Comments

These are unbearable times for so many of us. With the natural world and human landscape full of turbulence and terror, many of us feel out of control and unsafe.

I believe that in times of deep difficulty, we have an opportunity to both soften and strengthen, and that both are essential. I believe that feeling it all is, paradoxically, the path to withstanding the inevitable storms, fires, and tragedies. And that writing is one way we can learn to endure and transform the most difficult moments of our human experience.

For we who write, this practice can become a sacred passage from trauma to wisdom, and eventual healing. Through pen and paper, keyboard and screen, we can inhabit more authentically the front lines our lives, retrieve the fuselage and daisies we find there, and mine these for insight.

I was reminded of this when I tuned in to this conversation with Ron Hoffman on NPR. Founder of an organization called Compassionate Care ALS, Ron helps people and their families navigate the complexities of living and dying with ALS.

Though this man’s purpose and commitment to service is exquisite, Ron objects to any suggestion of saintliness. Instead, he credits his own brush with death as a child to the circuitous path that led him to this calling.

At age 10, when Ron’s alcoholic and terribly abusive father pointed a gun at his mother, the boy dove in front of her—and took the bullet at the base of his spine.

Hoffman calls it a “sacred bullet,” because being shot led to a moment he considers sacred. He was on a gurney at the door to the hospital, when an orderly met him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I just felt the warmth and love of his hand,” Hoffman recalls. “And he just looked at me and said, ‘Ronnie, I’m here.’ It was a moment that I’ve never forgotten all my life. Someone was actually there for me.”

We can’t control the events of the world around us. Or even protect ourselves from them much of the time. But we can influence the stories we tell and the poems we write. Through writing, we clarify what these events mean to us, how they inform our lives, and how we can learn to live alongside them.

The way we tell our story shapes the person we become.

Through the writing of his memoir Sacred Bullet: Transforming Trauma to Grace while Tending the Terminally Ill, Ron alchemized grace from the most broken moment of his life. He learned that other people could be there for him—and that he, in turn, could be there for them.

Like Ron, we can make what breaks us sacred—just by writing it that way.

We can dig deep into the terrors of human experience to source the truths of our heart. We can rewrite and reclaim what breaks us into what heals us. We can let writing be a path to inheriting ourselves and finding our rightful place in this flawed and glorious world.


Every poem, essay, story and novel I have ever read has schooled me in my own quest for survival—and grace. Sharon Olds, Marge Piercy, and Dorothy Alison were some of my early guides.

Who are your literary guides?

What is your sacred bullet?

And how has your writing helped you navigate and transcend the unbearable?

I’d love to hear in the comments.


10 Comments on “Writing the unbearable”

  1. You have been a wonderful literary guide and have supported and encouraged me more than anyone!!! Thank you! 🙂 <3

  2. You are one of my mentors as well, Sage. Theo Pauline has also been one. My sacred bullet has been both my relationship with God and my breast cancer journey. Thanks for your inspiring words and post.

    1. Thank you so much, Susan. What an honor to accompany you on your journey. Those sacred bullets go deep, don’t they? Blessings and gratitude to you!!

  3. Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Jericho Brown, Patricia Lockwood, and of course, YOU, Sage are some of my guides. I’ve been working with Anna March over the past two years, writing essays and articles in addition to my poetry. She has been a guide in pushing deeper, being more vulnerable, keeping my commitments. Thank you for all you do, Sage. Your book brought me back to writing poetry when I picked it up and read it down at the Oregon Colonyhouse. As you know, I then bought your book, and picked up my pen once again.

    1. Thanks so much, Sandra! I love that you picked up your pen all those years ago and haven’t stopped writing, since! What a joy it has been to accompany you a bit along the way!

  4. Keeping a diary starting at age 8 has been instrumental in being that hand on my shoulder. It has been a comfort and an expressive emotional outlet, a friend in isolation and traversing life, a creative endeavor, and a way of teaching me how to observe and become a writer.

    1. Ah yes, Candice! Diaries are such a powerful way to witness and welcome ourselves–and our writing! Thanks so much for sharing! (I had an after-bedtime ceremony of sneaking into the bathroom, kneeling on the bath mat, turning the tiny lock in my diary, and then recording every unsolved moment of my day.)

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