I’ve been invited several times in the last two years to write about how writing transforms the story I tell about myself, how it saves my life. I desire to write about this absolute truth. I set the intention and make the time. I’ve been given deadlines by organizations and people for whom I have great love, respect, and appreciation.

I’m a prolific writer. My pen is an ever-eager dance partner: so loyally enthusiastic, resourceful, creative. The minute I play this particular song, though, it flat out refuses to dance. All nine muses take leave and I’m left tap-tap-tapping my foot, shifting uncomfortably in the room’s only chair as a blank page and I stare at each other, no end in sight.

This lasts for however long it lasts. Then the tears.

How did I come to believe art saves lives? 

Sobbing, uncontrollable, red-faced, snot-bubbling tears. I’m crying right now. Here in the bathtub, where I hoped this time I could soak myself through an inspired first draft before the water gets cold.

So, here we are. This is the truth. Bare-naked, in a clawfoot cast-iron tub full of hot water that will soon turn lukewarm and force me out, goose-fleshed. Five beeswax candles and a cellphone screen illuminate this translucent, paper-thin pupal case as we rub against it almost imperceptibly from the inside; altogether unaware of our wings near fully formed. My prune-wrinkled left index finger pecks away at one blurred word after another.

“Don’t write something you’ll feel comfortable sharing; write about whatever is real for you in this moment. No one here is obligated to share. For the next little while that we have together, let us not lie to ourselves.” Eight years worth of Seema Reza’s rules for good writing weave through my words now the same way grapes become wine, the way hundreds of hours become thousands of hours. The way only thousands of hours is thousands of hours and a life saved lives differently.


“On a tangible level, writing in community helps me love more what I love. Of equal importance, of greater and certainly more urgent necessity, it helps me hate less what I hate.”

As I write, it occurs to me today is the last day of March in 2024, the eve of April Fools Day, and Easter Sunday. A leap year, no less. The invitation to write this essay has been tugging at my heartstrings as soon as it arrived in the inbox on Tuesday, January 30th, at 5:18pm. Since then, countless false starts and a dreadful track record with this topic have me off balance with apprehension.

Just as a new moon cannot be rushed, when I play the song today, of all days, naturally my pen decides to dance.

What follows is my two left feet doing their best to keep up with a whirling dervish. But first.

When I write “monarch butterfly”, we do not see a banana. Now, even if for a split second, we see both. But which came first and from where: the thought, the images, or the imagination? How fast is it moving? Remember where we are: this is a race not against time but water temperature. What does this even mean? Here, the mirror cracks and our fourth walls emerge. Converge. Create. Recreate. For me, this is the stunning, limitless potential of art, its quintessential transformative power and on that note—

It cannot be a coincidence that exactly eight years ago, during this same time of year in 2016, also a leap year, I first attend a writing group in the military hospital where I am recovering from a very violent suicide attempt. My neck and most of my body’s right side are broken. While everyone around me stands awe-struck and thrilled at how lucky I am to be alive and not paralyzed by mere fractions of an inch, I feel the life I’ve built for 16 years pulled out from under me and nothing beneath it.

My health has been deteriorating since a seven-hour pituitary surgery in 2011. My bladder has stopped working so self-catheterizing is my new normal; debilitating migraines and nerve pain occur several times a week requiring sensory deprivation and ER visits. Combat-related trauma, grief, and moral injury infest every corner of my experience day and night.

Identified as a very high risk of continued self harm, I am issued a donated flip phone and ordered to call my squad leader every few hours around the clock for accountability. Staff Sergeant Ushry takes this responsibility very seriously. Nevermind I outrank him nine times and am old enough to be his mother. Life, our Soul of the matter, does not concern itself with these trivial details the way we like to.

I receive numerous referrals. Among them is a weekly writing group where we gather around the table for 75 minutes, read a poem, discuss it, write something original and are invited to share only if we want. Sooner or later, most of us do. Some lean in, some lean back, others lay down or curl up in corners. We nod our heads, close our eyes, laugh, cry. We put our hands on our hearts. We be with what is, exactly as it is. We disappear for a while and come back. We touch the live wire in front of us. See ourselves, see each other; see ourselves seeing each other. Encourage. Connect.

This accurately describes what occurs in the writing group but I find it impossible to convey what actually happens or how and why I am brought to such intense tears just thinking about it.

I’m sure it must have something to do with seeing now, in hindsight so clearly, that when I was most consumed with, and convinced by, the feeling of nothingness beneath myself, all around me life busied itself tying nets, as life invariably does right in the middle of our one massive, universal blind spot.

On a tangible level, writing in community helps me love more what I love. Of equal importance, of greater and certainly more urgent necessity, it helps me hate less what I hate. Not infrequently, when gripped by an overwhelming regrettable or shameful reason to hate myself for the things I’ve done or haven’t, writing in community with others does for me a thing that, for whatever reason, my goose-fleshed body insists must be conveyed in waves of sobbing, uncontrollable, red faced, snot bubbling tears. “It doesn’t have to be pretty, it has to be real. Honesty of voice: if you curse when you talk, curse in your writing. Just keep the pen moving for these next ten minutes. I’ll play us some tunes and see you on the other side,” says Seema.  And, O my. My-my-my, the astonishing beauty these eyes have seen when the music stops.

Now, I have no idea how long the whirling dervish has had the floor but it’s time to drain the tub, refill it, and soak a while longer. At least until a monarch butterfly with a banana peel body is airborne. What in the world does that even mean? This is the creative process. These are the lengths art is willing to go to for us; the lengths we go to for each other, for the truth. And sometimes just for the fun of it because let’s face it, a life having fun forgets all about saving itself. Yes. At last, this is a whole bunch of words strung together but can we call it a “completed essay”? May that which is so much greater than I please not fail us now with all of its amazing grace.

Anne Barlieb (she/her, favorite = we) iconic masterpiece, unfinished; batteries not included.

Photo Credit: COL Rodger Reynolds