Trauma and art: being creative in times of crisis

In Jennifer McDonald’s forthcoming work, My Big Breast Adventure, we hear a first had account of Jen’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery from breast cancer. Jen first began writing just days after her mastectomy, less than two weeks after her first diagnosis. So often, our first response to overwhelming trauma is a creative response. So often the poor, oppressed, disadvantaged or wounded create beauty that transcends their circumstance. Take the writings of Martin Luther King, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the art of Vincent Van Gough or the music of Ray Charles. Jennifer has talked about wanting to ‘make sense’ of her diagnosis and surgery.  When medicine, science, politics and rationalism feels less than satisfactory, art often fills the gap.

Sadly, artistic endeavours that are about illness, void of a personal narrative, often come across as cold. Think of the benign, coporate artwork in doctors’ officers. Or the seemingly cheery brochures, bound in pink and screaming in Helvetica: “So you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening, terrifying illness?”

Jen didn’t want to describe the management of her illness as a ‘journey’. When you’re inside it, it doesn’t feel like anything as neat as that. Dr Michael Copeman, Jennifer’s oncologist, comments:

“No patient going through cancer just wants ‘support’. At best, they would like the huge, scary roller-coaster called ‘treatment’ to stop and let them off. At least, they would like to meet someone else on the ride who can give words to the experience and make some sense of it all. Jen McDonald is that person.”

It takes intimate works of art to properly convey the messiness of any crisis, and through this we draw inspiration. Jen was initially blown away by the comments that her blogs received, as readers compared her journey to their own: through cancer, divorce, or any other personal crisis.

That’s why we decided to include the comments in the publication of My Big Breast Adventure, now a book. The crowd-funding campaign for the book is now underway, and you can donate and find out more by clicking here.

Whatever the end result, very few people come out of a artistic process and feel they’re worse for the experience. It’s most usually seen as a healing process, that explores the interior of one’s pain to find meaning on the other side.

Visit the Indiegogo campaign here to donate now. To hear Jen speak more about her work, and to listen to her first audiobook for free, visit our podcast here. Or visit the store now to buy Jen’s first work, Vegetarian Vampires.