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Life's big story is a simple series of anecdotes

If you sit down and write about it, even cancer can be a gift.

Charlotte Matthews, an award-winning poet and writing instructor for the University of Virginia’s Bachelor of Independent Studies program, was a single mother of two small children back in 2005 when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and offered a treatment regimen that included a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

The disease, and the foggy brain and medicine moods that treatment induced, led Matthews to pay closer attention to the highs and lows of daily life and translate them through the written word.

“It’s going to sound strange, but 13 years after cancer and after treatment, I’m really glad I had it. It taught me a lot. I feel like I went through a metamorphosis. Life is so much lighter. Small things don’t bother me,” she said. “The gift of cancer is to put things into perspective.”

Matthews, who has written three books of poetry, will be the prose writer in residence at The Chautauqua Institute, in Chautauqua, New York, for a part of this summer. She also just published a book of essays looking at her life through small windows of inspiration such as chain link fences, colanders and overheard phrases.

Even the title, “Comes With People and Furniture,” came from a simple classified ad for a doll house. She thought the phrase explained, with five words, the complexity of life.

“We think of life as a whole, but life is made up of a lot of little moments,” she said. “We carry these moments of grief, happiness and emotion throughout our lives and writing them down, getting the right words and saying exactly what we see and feel, helps us focus on the small moments that make up a life.”

Matthews will read from the book at the New Dominion Bookstore on the Downtown Mall on Sunday from 2 to 3 p.m.

Her book is not a novel. In real life, Matthews said, there is no certain plot and no discernible antagonist. Rather the book focuses on memories, hopes and living.

It’s about the death of her mother and the grief she didn’t know she carried until one day it jumped off her shoulders and got in her face.

It’s about the boy she met while waiting for eyeglasses and the cashier who made small talk while trying to get a malfunctioning card reader to reboot even as the checkout line grew longer.

“Anecdotes are stories and we get to know the real human inside us and inside others by telling our stories. We live so much of our lives at a superficial level that we don’t see the importance of what we’re doing when we’re doing it,” she said.

The book is a published example of an accepted therapeutic exercise in psychology known as expressive writing. Two decades of studies by numerous universities show it is an effective mood enhancer and psychological healing agent.

A 2015 study by three psychology professors at three different universities used three different methods to prove the same thing.

“Writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding your most distressing life experience for 15 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, would dramatically improve your well-being,” Jiyoung Park, Özlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross wrote in the American Psychological Association journal “Emotion.”

“Engaging in this process would lift your mood, lead you to ruminate less about the negative experience, and lead you to visit the doctor less,” they wrote.

The study showed that expressive writing reduced physical symptoms by giving the writer a chance to step back from emotions associated with an event. That, Matthews said, is good advice for everyone.

“Life is a jigsaw puzzle with bits and pieces of an image all jumbled up. When you take the time and patiently put them together, you get the whole picture,” she said. “It can help you make sense of things that are dumbfounding, bewildering and confusing. We’re easily confused by what we don’t understand and writing about it makes you put it into clarity.”

While the book is entertaining and well-written, Matthews said she hopes it can also serve as a primer for others to follow, even as writing prompts.

“People live lives of great substance and I often ask my students in the BIS program to tell the story of their lives through anecdotes,” she said. “Lots of people get cancer. Lots of people lose their mothers. These are my stories and they’re the same stories other people have but with different circumstances. The idea is to pay closer attention to the world around you.”

Writing for its own sake, she said, is the best therapy.

“Take away the competition. It’s not about getting published. It’s not about being a famous writer,” she said. “It’s a great thing whether you share it with a friend or you are the only one to ever read it. It helps you find meaning. It gives you perception and maybe liberation. Everyone can do it, so why not write?”


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