Turning Swords to Paintbrushes, and Warriors to Painters…


On October 12, 2009, the New York Times published an article titled “Turning Swords to Pens, and Warriors to Writers.”  The story summarizes an effort organized by the Writers Guild of America in mentoring wounded U.S. military veterans to write their stories.  The writing workshop received support from the Wounded Warrior Project, and the National Endowment for the Arts Operation Homecoming.  Below is a summary of the article, some information on traumatic brain injury (TBI),traumatic brain injury and my recommendation to offer painting  and the visual arts as a healing modality for self-expression of the horrors and psychic wounds of war.

Here’s are few veterans’ responses on the writing workshop…

  • One veteran struggled to find what exactly it was that he wanted to say.
  • Another said “…there’s something in my heart…I feel like it’s a calling to write.”
  • Yet, another veteran’s real reason for attending the writing workshop was to sharpen her writing skills for a historical compilation of her family history, and the role America plays in their lives.

Writing offers veterans an avenue for expressing personal stories and experiences of combat, and is a fine medium for those capable and desiring to write.  However,  for veterans with traumatic brain severe-nerve-damageinjuries, writing may not be the best arts modality to offer due to nerve damage or loss of neural connections within the brain. This loss of neural connections may lead to many of the symptoms associated with brain injuries. Depending on the location,  severity, and rapidness of treatment for traumatic brain injuries, there may be difficulties with the following (in relationship to writing).

  • Inability to focus on task
  • Difficulty with problem solving
  • Inability to express language (Broca’s Aphasia)
  • Slower thinking
  • Inability to attend to more than one object at a time
  • Inability to name an object (Anomia)
  • Inability to locate the words for writing (Agraphia)
  • Problems with reading (Alexia)
  • Inability to focus visual attention
  • Difficulties with eye and hand coordination

 (Source: Brain Injury Association of America www.biasusa.org)

To learn more about the other myriad symptoms associated with traumatic brain injuries in the military, visit the link below – DHCC.

According to DHCC  (Deployment Health Clinical Center) , the website states that early mild TBI symptoms may appear subtle, but they can lead to significant, life-long impairment in an individual’s ability to function physically, cognitively and emotionally.  Btw, DHCC is located at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

In a New England Journal of Medicine article on TBI in the military, it  Iraq-Soldiers-PTSD15dec04reported 56%  of those diagnosed with TBI are considered moderate or severe, and 44% mildAlso, some symptoms of TBI overlap with those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).  Those in the military are usually young and healthy, and have a good chance to recover from TBI.  However, they have been hurt in terrible ways which may complicate and affect their recovery outcome. (1)

Use paintbrushes rather than pens…

Given the cognitive, visual and motor coordination problems veterans paintbrushesexperience as a result of TBI, writing may not be the best avenue for self-expression.  Painting (and the visual arts) as a creative intervention is a much better choice of medium.  Why?

  • With writing, there is a tendency for  internal editing and censoring of the written word, and this is by those of us without brain injuries!  Imagine the frusration of veterans suffering from mild to moderate  symptoms of  TBI.
  • Writing requires fine eye – hand coordination. Painting, on the other hand,  involves more gross motor coordination.
  • Painting requires less cognitive and visual perfection or acuity.  For example, Claude Monet painted despite his progressing blindness.

Claude Monet water lilies

(Claude Monet, water lilies, 1840-1926)

  • Painting utilizes imagery rather than words to express psychological and emotional states.
  • In painting, there is no right or wrong methods, techniques or colors to convey meaning and thoughts.  Writing requires concentrated effort, exactness and command of the written language.
  • Paintbrush handles can be adapted for those unable to hold thin paintbrushes.
  • There is less internal editing with painting.

Email me if you want the bibliography.

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