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Metaphor and Image in Counseling the Talented

by Jane Piirto, Ph.D.

Fifteen years ago I wrote my first novel. I had recently been divorced. My children were going to spend a month with their father. I was going to be alone in my own house.

I began a story of two women, Marvella and Letitia: Marvella was as alabaster as Letitia was swarthy. . . These two women had been friends for a long time, even though they were as different as jogging shoes and high heeled spikes.

Letitia was the kind of woman whose bedroom was strewn with discarded outfits tried on in a hurry and thrown on the bed; with crumpled-up panty hose; with talcum powder dusting the bureau tops; with lost earrings beneath the corners of the bedspread; and over all a faint perfumey odor mixed with the odor of makeup, female skin, and Ivory soap.

Marvella's bedroom had all its surfaces clean and polished with lemony scented furniture oil. The nap on the carpet was vacuumed so it all lay in one direction; there were many little boxes in the drawers, and a magnetic bobby pin holder sat neatly on the mirrored tray with the perfume atomizers.

Her scarves and underpants were neatly rolled or folded, and she made her bed as soon as she arose by pulling the covers up to her chin and then sliding smoothly out. . . It hadn't. Marvella's bedroom smelled of potpourri sachet which she put into her drawers, and of the pomander of cloves stuck into an orange that hung in her two eight-foot long walk-in closets.

Where from within me were these two women coming? Who were they? I didn't intentionally or consciously create them or make an outline to explicate them before I wrote. The two women's personalities developed and just flowed out of me as I wrote ten pages, regularly, with discipline, every day.

After the work was all done and the novel was published and I reread it years later, I knew who they were. They were my two selves at the time - my tame daytime self, a responsible, organized single mother, a coordinator of programs for the gifted, and my wild poetic self.

At the time I created Letitia and Marvella, I didn't even know I was in such despair or in a state of great mourning for a long marriage. (Actually, the novel is quite funny, and I would often laugh aloud while writing.)

As I wrote it I felt at peace and relieved. The integration of these two selves, my efficient career-woman self, and my mystical poetic self, took many years, and now I never speak or present myself without both of me showing.

That is why I try to read a poem every time. This example from my own life as an artist illustrates the use of metaphor in healing, and in creation.

A metaphor stands for something else. It is symbolic. An image is a visual or aural representation that is metaphoric. Often these are coded. A code is a language that transmits a message.

Creating metaphors and images that may be coded in ways the makers don't even realize, permits the emotion to be changed, to be released through a safe and therapeutic means.

The "talking therapy" is often not as effective for people in the arts as is an opportunity to abstractly express themselves in the coded way that the arts allow. Doing the work of writing, making music, painting, drawing, dancing, acting, making an image from what is within, is itself therapeutic.

In recognition of the healing that is present in creating a symbol or an image, various therapies have been developed: art therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy, dance therapy.

But if the person is talented in any of these domains, the work produced as self-therapy, becomes more.

The work of the talented person transfigures and transforms other people's lives in its splendor, representation, and majesty, in its depiction of the human condition reaching toward the sublime.

The history of talent domains abounds with examples: In visual arts, the story of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in great emotional pain for the situations in his life is the example always cited.

How the finger of God barely reaches the finger of man spoke to Michelangelo's own despair at the time, and to his desperate leap of faith, but anyone seeing this image can respond to its metaphors, symbols, and codes.

Ancient myths speak of the inspiration of the Muse, and of the power of Eros to explain the impulse to make art in order to assuage feeling. Accounts of spiritual connections between the self, the work, and the emotion abound in the anecdotal literature.

Plato wrote: "For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him; when he has not attained this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles." (Ion.) (By "poet" the Greeks meant all artists.)

Award-winning novelist Russell Banks said, "Storytelling has made it possible for me to make my life coherent to myself." He believes he would have killed himself or have been killed if he hadn't written.

"What would have happened to me is that I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life. I was so self-destructive, so angry and turbulent, that I don't think I could have become a useful citizen in any other way. So I don't think it worked as exorcism, or therapy, but I think it saved my life."

Doing the work itself is therapeutic. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, "Either shut me up right away in a madhouse or else let me work with all my strength."

The dancer Isadora Duncan said "My art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. . . As an adolescent, I danced with joy turning to apprehension . . . of the pitiless brutality and crushing progress of life."

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash said about her music: "It's almost like a survival instinct; it's that primitive." She said that she has anxiety attacks, insomnia, develops eating problems and becomes irritable "if I ignore my work. . . it starts taking its toll in a very physical and mental way."

These three examples illustrate the importance to these talented people of using the symbol system of the domain to express complex internal feelings.

In my book Understanding Those Who Create, I have twelve suggestions for parents and teachers to enhance creativity.

One of them is this: If hardship comes into your life, use it positively to teach the child self-expression through metaphor. If trouble comes into life try to make (as in create) something of it through the arts.

Release of emotion through the arts is often indirect, perhaps more therapeutic than therapy itself. The depth psychologists, the archetypal psychologists, the Jungians, speak of the fire within that is turned into an image, a thing out there.

Parents and teachers should provide sketchbooks. Provide journals. Provide music lessons. Provide privacy. They should resist interpretation.

When the image is created a personal poem, story, song, painting, theater piece, anything that objectifies the emotion that is churning, the young creator can begin to have some peace.

One of the teams that visited Kuwait after the Gulf war was a team of art therapists, who asked Kuwaiti children to draw the horror they had seen, of invading soldiers breaking down the doors of their homes and raping their mothers.

The therapeutic value of creative work should not be overlooked. Auto-therapy is one powerful reason for creativity. After all, the word "creativity" means "to make." Whether or not the requisite talent is present, at the very minimum, educators could try to notice and be sensitive to the emotional situations of the children with thom they come into contact.

A group of young writing prodigies with whom I worked back in New York City indicated that writing was, for them, a way of finding out what they think, and a way of expressing emotions. They were 8 years old.

For the past several years I have been studying contemporary creative writers from a participant observer standpoint. Many themes in their lives have been uncovered, including early reading and writing, early family trauma, high academic achievement that led to scholarships to prestigious schools, and early and constant passion for the domain of writing.

Here are some quotes from contemporary U.S. writers that illustrates their early and constant need for expression through writing: Quotes from contemporary writers illustrating their need for metaphorical expression through creative writing.

Joy Harjo "When I was a kid in Oklahoma I would get up before everyone else and go outside to a place of rich dark earth next to the foundation of the house. I would dig piles of earth with a stick, smell it, form it. It had sound. Maybe that's where I learned to write poetry."

Linda Hasselstrom "I keep writing to understand my own life, and express the truth as I see it around me."

Colette Inez "Even during air-raid drills and neighborhood blackouts, I read poetry by flashlight under the nighttime cover of a blanket. Books were life rafts and, like my cherished blue bicycle, were modes to flight and freedom."

Dean R. Koontz "I began writing when I was a child, for both reading and writing provided much needed escape from the poverty in which we lived and from my father's frequent fits of alcohol induced violence."

Stephen King  As a child, "we had a pretty shirttail existence. I was prey to a lot of conflicting emotions as a child. I had friends and all that, but I often felt unhappy and different, estranged from other kids my age.Writing has always been it for me. . . Writing is necessary for my sanity. I can externalize my fears and insecurities and night terrors on paper, which is what people pay shrinks a small fortune to do."

Barbara Kingsolver "I've been writing poetry since I was eight. . . The poems are deeply felt moments. . . my moments of truth. The poems are little steam vents on the pressure cooker . . . it makes public some terrible things that have happened to me and to other people. It's very intimate."

Richard Price "I was writing in elementary school. What happens is that when you're a kid, you know, everybody hates themselves, but they always have this one thing that they feel makes them different. Everybody's got an ace in the hole. For me, I could write. I was a precocious writer. For another kid, he was the best athlete. For a girl, she was the smartest math student or the prettiest or the most physically developed. For another boy, it was like he was a great dresser. Everybody's like, "What's the one thing I can hang on to desperately, so I can feel like a member of the human race? I've got one thing." And for me it was writing."

Gloria Naylor "I've written all my life. I started writing poems when I was seven . . . What I do today is just a continuation of what I did then putting feelings on paper, sorting out things. . . as a catharsis for myself, to get myself over a moment of pain."

Emotion is often the motivator for expression through writing, or through any art. The writers were motivated by emotion and often used reading and later, writing, as autotherapy.

Barron noted that the student writers in the IPAR study were often motivated to write by a need for self therapy, but the adult writers who had reached a level of recognized success as creative writers also spoke of their emotional need to write.

I could go on and on here with example after example. I call these "predictive behaviors," behaviors that were typical of talented adults.

Young artists draw. Young singers sing. Young actors have backyard theaters on the clotheslines. What begins in the crucible of the family becomes the secret and therapeutic retreat. The creative writers retreat into reading, and then the self therapy and of experiencing the pleasure found in the meditation of writing.

When we speak about the need for counseling and for understanding the sensitivities of talented students, the presence of an element of creative expression in the domain of their choice may be in order.

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article provided courtesy of author Jane Piirto, Ph.D., March, 1999;

article to appear in the Counseling and Guidance newsletter for the National Association for Gifted Children

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Jane Piirto

Jane Piirto, Ph.D. directs Ashland University's Talent Development Education (TDE) program. She teaches graduate courses... and teaches undergraduates in educational psychology and creativity. The Mensa Education & Research Foundation has presented Dr. Piirto with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

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