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#WritingOurselvesWholeBook has arrived!

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, held in a hand over toys and a wooden floor
The picture my sister texted when she received her copy of Writing Ourselves Whole in the mail! It’s how I knew the book was out in the world!

Good morning, good morning!

We’ve reached that beautiful moment in the SF Bay area when the light begins to change, school gets going again, the leaves on our few deciduous trees start to change color and fall — and suddenly summer arrives in the Bay Area. I hope you are enjoying this warm weather — and staying cool and hydrated in the places where it’s been extra hot.

I have an exciting announcement: the book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Heal and Recover from Sexual Trauma, is now available, both in stores and online, in print and e-book format! I found it on a bookstore shelves yesterday (thanks to our local Barnes and Noble in El Cerrito, the only bookstore left in town!) and finally got to lay my hands on a copy — see below there for the picture of me by the books on the shelf, after I got to autograph them!) 

Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore's shelves!
Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore’s shelves!

Thank you so much for all of your support, encouragement, and enthusiasm over these months of the publication process — I honestly can’t wait to hear what you think! (I, myself, am terrified to even open the cover.)

(For those who have gotten the book and have thoughts you’d like to share with others, even a brief review on Amazon or Goodreads goes such a long way. Thank you!)

Coming soon: the #WritingOurselvesWholeBook launch party! I’ll be in touch a little more frequently over the next few months with announcements about readings in the Bay Area and also elsewhere around the country. (If you would like me to come and offer a reading/book signing/workshop in your area, please let me know!)

If you have or are already reading the book, I so hope you enjoy it, are inspired to write, and then share it with friends, pass it around, maybe even start a survivors writing circle of your own. 

Thank you for your words today, and every day. 

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extra:ordinary – a letter

I have exciting news to share today: I wrote a letter to the editor of The New Yorker magazine (about this idea of some survivors’ resilience being treated as more extraordinary than that of other survivors) — and they have published the letter!

You can read the letter here (mine is the third letter down); you can also read part of the article (“Gone Girl”) that I responded to — this article inspired our extra:ordinary community story project, which you should also read!

Here’s how the letter reads:

ORDINARY AND RESILIENT

Margaret Talbot’s article about Elizabeth Smart offers a profile of a strong survivor and advocate, who, after what is for many an unimaginable trauma, is now able to extend a nonjudgmental message of hope and strength (“Gone Girl,” October 21st). Her story shows, in part, what trauma survivors are capable of when they are given the resources and support they deserve. The article, however, bills Smart’s resilience as extraordinary. As the founder of Writing Ourselves Whole, an organization that works with survivors of trauma, and as a survivor myself, I believe that this message can undermine recovery. There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are survivors of sexual and other intimate violence, and resilience takes more than one form. Many who seek help are silenced or shamed. It is within the context of these additional experiences of violence and hostility that most survivors of intimate violence live out their lives, and most attain a measure of happiness, connection, and personal achievement. That, to me, is extraordinary resilience.

Jennifer Cross
Oakland, Calif.

 Keep writing, and keep on sharing your words with the world: you don’t know how far those words can go.

 

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the radical act of putting our oxygen mask on first

In my community, a lot of folks are talking about radical self care – not just self care, but radical self care. But what makes taking a vacation or a bubble bath or watching Pretty in Pink or your favorite guilty pleasure movies with a pint of chocolate Coconut Dream and a package of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies radical?

I think you have an idea why. I think your deep heart knows. Your deep heart isn’t the questioning your real need for a break. It’s the other voices questioning you– the inner critic, the internalized perpetrator, your inner radical activist wanting to know how you can possibly justify an hour for a walk around the lake at the heart of your town or – holy shit – several days’ vacation when the revolution is nowhere near at hand and people are starving and beaten and suffering while you decide you’re just gonna take a little down time. Really? Who do you think you are? ask all the voices in unison.

Writing has been the place where I learned the power of a regular self care practice. I’ve had few other consistent self-care practices, save going for long walks. Writing has been my meditation, my grounding, my chance to be more fully in my skin for at least 15-30 minutes a day. On the days I don’t write, I am a less pleasant version of myself: cranky, crotchety, crabby – still disassembled. The days I write I find I breathe more easily. I feel more human. And still I’ve had stretches of days or weeks during which I told myself I didn’t have time to write – the voices of self-denial and abnegation are strong; they’re embedded in our very flesh.

We are not supposed to take care of ourselves. We know we’re not worth taking care of: those meant to care for and protect us didn’t, so who are we to do otherwise?

We live in a culture that trains us in dissatisfaction with our bodies and lives. We live in a culture that routinely disregards the lives and needs of those who have less power, and so we are left to struggle and battle for better living conditions for all. If we are activists, we inhabit a culture of overwork, in which direct and secondary trauma impacts everyone around us. We see our comrades doing too much for too little (if any) pay. We see frontline activists, direct action workers, burn out; we see long-timers harden into a professionalized cynical mindset that helps protect them from the pain and stress they see every day. It’s awful, but it’s par for the course. This is what you sign on for if you want to change anything in society. Right?

We are asked, during our job interviews for these jobs, how we take care of ourselves; we understand that we have to have an answer to this question. We also understand that our self care is never supposed to take priority over the work. The work.

I don’t believe this anymore. I used to, but after hitting a massive burnout in 2008 and then continuing to overwork myself for 2-3 more years, I have finally opened my eyes to the idea that there might be other, maybe even more effective, ways of engaging in a longterm and sustainable relationship with trauma and social change work.

Our self care is radical because we have been trained from birth to look to others’ needs first. Our self care is radical because it sustains us for the journey, it keeps us in the game, it makes our work more effective, it opens our hearts, it brings self-love back to the table as a necessary goal and practice.

We have to ask what kind of world we’re working for. Don’t we want — for all people — lives that have more life in them?

I know, you say. I’ll get there. I just have to finish this grant, do my shift at the co-op, organize tonight’s transformative justice roundtable, answer these 27 emails and cover the hotline…

Then I’ll take care of myself.

There’s no good time. There’s always going to be more work for we who are activists or other sorts of creative beings engaged in work that doesn’t get done. To do lists are only marginally useful when they include items like “upend patriarchy,” “write healing book,” “undo white supremacy,” “end sexual abuse.” I don’t know about you but I’ve had to do lists like that. The work seems endless – we’re a part of an enormous transformation. For us to be able to show up consistently and reliably in this work that we love, for the people and communities and world we believe in, we have to take care of our hearts and bodies and souls/ This is how we sustain ourselves in the world.

This decision, to sustain ourselves, is radical – especially for those of us whom society deems not at all worth saving. Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care is radical when it directly contradicts the messages living in us, telling us we deserve to die.

Self care is uncomfortable for many of us: we fear judgment from our friends and communities, our comrades, our families, those around us who are not taking care of themselves. Of course it’s uncomfortable at first — and maybe for awhile: it’s discomfiting to act in direct opposition to the voices of those who say we don’t deserve to live, much less have joy, comfort, ease, pleasure and celebration in our lives.

Radical self care looks like acting with intention, looks like small daily or regular centering practices, looks like creative intervention in a way of life designed to sap all of your energy into the daily grind and away from love, intimacy, and cultural change.

Radical self care looks like leaving work on time instead of staying an extra two or three unpaid hours to finish “just one more thing.” It looks like learning to listen to your body.

Radical self care looks like saying Yes when someone I trust asks to give me a massage, rather than reflexively saying no out of some guilt that I hadn’t asked them first and wasn’t already giving them a massage. It means understanding what being an introvert means. It means listening to my energy patterns, my hungers, my curiosities.

Radical self care means being easy with myself, and it means pushing sometimes, too. It means releasing myself from the pressure to be like everyone else – either in mainstream culture or in my various alternative subcultures.

Radical self care means knowing that what works for me today might not work tomorrow – and what I think today is ridiculous, indulgent, woo-woo or way too Berkeley (body work? Ecstatic dance? Writing retreats? Somatic energy healing?) may very well be just the thing that works best for me tomorrow – so if I can ease off on my judgment of others, I’m likely to move more smoothly through my own healing process.

Radical self care means opening space in my life – means holding open room to move around. Down time. Breathing room. Means making sure that all these muscles I’m building and stretching have time to recuperate and strengthen – the resting is as important a part of the exercise as the contracting, after all.

What else is radical self care? Consent. Sobriety. Quitting the day job. Therapy. Going back to school. Quitting school. Media breaks. A movie marathon. Masturbation. A month of celibacy. A sex party. Tending a garden. Adopting a cat. Planning a vacation. Finding a different job. Leaving activist work. Returning to activist work. A cup of tea. Meditation. Making yourself a delicious lunch. Grieving. Watching movies that make you laugh and cry. What’s your list?

I think one of the reasons we call our self care radical is that we want to assert its importance. No, really, this matters: it’s radical. Things that are edgy, dangerous, and transformative are radical. Radical is about roots, is about shifting the core of a thing: of ourselves.

So, sleep is radical for those of us raised on exhaustion. A long talk with our best friend is radical for those of us isolated away from community. Deep, prolonged belly laughter is radical for those of us fed despair. These are transformative practices. Radical acts.

For me, it meant writing every day (and then reaching beyond a writing practice into other healing modalities, once I found the limits of what writing could do for me). Writing practice has helped me discover when I needed a break, has also helped me understand what I might need to do to take care of myself or make a change in my life. The writing itself, of course, is also a healing and self care practice. When I take the time to go back through the notebooks, to meet myself and my mind, as Natalie Goldberg encourages, I am confronted with clear information about where I’m out of balance. What am I complaining about regularly? What am I refusing to write? Where am I putting most of my energy? Is there a part of my body bothering me? Do I need a massage or a steam or a run or a hot bat or a nap or a swim or a movie or some play time? Am I in procrastination or avoidance mode and do I need to take some action? Am I lonely or people-overloaded? When I take the time to be in reflection (itself a practice of radical self care), then I can respond to what my body and life are asking for. In the end, this is about crafting a life that is sustainable and consistently nourishing me so that I can engage in work that nourishes others, so that I can be of use in the ways I am meant to be of use.

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What self care practices feel radical to you right now? What do you do to take care of yourself today that a younger self would not have been able to imagine? How would you like to be able to care for yourself? Can you give those ideas and imaginings 10-15 minutes on the page today? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your generosity and spaciousness with yourself, the way you model powerful self care practices for others. Thank you for your writing today, and thank you for your words.

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Podcast Answers – Day 6: How do the workshops impact survivors?

A couple weeks ago, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day six!

6. What has been the impact of the workshops for survivors of sexual abuse?

metal sculpture of phoenix rising from the ashes
I love this question, and it’s a challenge for me to answer: while I can say what’s been my experience, I can talk about what I think happens for some folks sometimes, but I can’t speak for all the survivors I’ve written with. So I’m going to say some things I think about the workshops can impact or have impacted folks who’ve participated (myself included), but I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!

(Note: there’s a little bit of sexual language in this post — just fyi!)


We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes they always are of us. Through [this] writing, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am seen and I see. I am witnessed. I am heard. I am differently present. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment.


We can change the world this way, through writing deeply and openly—I mean, with this and other practices of knowing and living ourselves into the vast elemental of art. Don’t ever think that our work, the very practice of writing—the very fact of taking the time to sit down with one’s own thoughts, committing them to paper, doing so in community –is not revolutionary. We undermine and examine the old teachings. We take the old language and turn it inside out. We name our hidden truths. We true our hidden names. We crack through the surface of the advertised world and take hold of the reins of our lives. As long as we keep on writing and knowing each other as constantly changing peers in this process, as long as we are free to tell ourselves and our stories however we choose, as long as we play in the memory and myth of the thickness of metaphoric language, as long as we climb into other writers who speak to us and experience their words viscous with reality (whether those words are published in a collection or read aloud in a writing group), we will walk ourselves, together, into freedom.

stones talk: trust, strength, focus Remember the guidelines of the AWA method writing workshops (as developed by Pat Schneider in her book Writing Alone and With Others):
1) Confidentiality: everything shared here stays here;
2) Exercises are suggestions;
3) Reading aloud is optional;
4) Feedback is positive and treats all new writing as fiction.

We build trust in a space in which we hold ourselves and each other in confidence. Writers have the structure and possibility of exercises offered by someone else, and the freedom of interpretation and play. We can then choose to “perform” (read aloud) our new writing, or not. If and when we choose to share what we’ve written, we know we will receive a warm and strong hearing that focuses on the artistry of our words, our language, our imagery. We ourselves aren’t deconstructed, analyzed or pathologized.

 Many writers in these workshops seem to “break open” right from the beginning. And that power is magnificent. We do it because we can and we are ready. We have a kind of “public performance space” that is also private, confidential. The writing room becomes our stage and our quiet bed. We have the assurance of privacy, which allows for the audacity, bravery, and cojones of recital. We come and write because we know someone will be there to hear us, and that we will be able to construct ourselves in the sight of others and yet not be held or tethered to any one permutation of ourselves. Finally, it’s out in the open, and other people are talking about it. No longer do we as individual (so-called) victims have to remain silent: we have a place where we can receive others’ stories, experiences, recovery, struggle, contradiction while offering our own.

In this space, no one has any authority over another in the realm of experience. How I receive a piece of writing is how I receive it, and how you experience it is how you experience it. What we hear and like might be similar or disparate, but any disconnect in our experiences/hearings does not render one or the other more right or better or more important. Also, each person’s interpretation of an exercise is correct. butterfly heart

For survivors, those of us–so many of us, in so many different ways–trained into wrongness, trained into silence, trained into the invisibility of our language: when I say that the workshops are “transformative,” I mean that we create ourselves a space in which to alter how we have come to know ourselves through words. When we tell newly-re-framed stories and we are heard… how can that not empower and open the heart?

This can take awhile to sink in for writers in the workshops. But you know how it is: Over time, and through hard and serious risk, each person learned the primacy and power of their words, their experience, their interpretation, their artistry. It’s revolution. It’s gorgeous.


Now, it’s y’all’s turn: What about for you? Have you participated in this or another AWA-method workshop? What’s been your experience about how survivors can be impacted by this work?

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Podcast Answers – Day 2: Transformative writing

As I mentioned on Monday (here, you remember), I’m going to post longer, more well-thought-out (maybe!) answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation last week. Here’s our second installation!

The second question on the list:
2. On your site, you describe [your workshops] as “transformative writing” workshops. How are they transformative?

Monarch emerging from its chrysalis Transformative writing is writing that changes you in the process of its creation. A dictionary gives one definition of transform as “to change completely for the better.” Another definition: “to convert one form of energy to another.”

And for the word transformation one of the definitions is: a complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness.” Another? “A sudden changing of a stage set that takes place in sight of the audience.” Yes – that’s what we’re talking about here.

(In looking these up, I’ve just learned that there’s such a thing as transformational grammar, a phrase I find extremely exciting but which I’m not (necessarily! I can’t actually say for sure) talking about here).

Writing that’s transformative is writing that surprises the writer as it’s emerging, either with respect to form, content, structure, or some other element. It’s writing through which the writer maybe learns something about hirself* on the other end (even if the writing is fiction—that teaches us about our capacity as writers/artists). In my experience, there’s much writing that’s transformative – freewriting as a method works well for me, when I can let the writing come, can get the editor out of the way and discover after I’m done what it was that I was trying to say.

Dara Lurie, a writer and workshop leader in New York, describes transformative writing as, “a process of refining and clarifying ones own thoughts and actions through the conscious use of language.” ( from her website). I like this a lot! Transformative Language Arts NetworkI initially met the word ‘transformative’ in conjunction with writing when I learned about the Transformative Language Arts program at Goddard College, which describes itself as being “is for students interested in the intentional use of the written, spoken and sung word for individual and community growth, development, celebration, and transformation.” (more info here…)

There’s also writing that, because of its structure/creation, is transformative for the reader: this is writing that gives us as readers the chance to discover something about/for ourselves as we take in the work. (I’m going to name two names here, for me: Gloria Anzaldua – Borderlands/La Frontera; Jeannette Winterson – just about anything).

This all ties into my understanding of an erotic writing practice or process: writing that is risky, genre-defying, full of metaphors, stream of consciousness, deeply connected and unconsciously-driven. An erotic writing process is distinct (though not always separate from) writing that is erotic in content (sex stories & the like), a writing session in which one engages in the erotic/organic process of freewriting, an experience of writing that brings one well into the paths of one’s inner labyrinths. Over time, through the use of this practice, we are not only able to improve our writing, but we are also able to witness ourselves in the process of changing. “One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body…We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process. Ultimately, if the process is good, the end will be good. You will get good writing” (Nataile Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones).

Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider, which contains the essay, Uses of the Erotic - The Erotic as PowerI’m talking about the fact that the process of writing itself can be an erotic experience, if we can engage a definition of “erotic” that’s closer to Audre Lorde’s (“I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.” About Audre Lorde) or Alicia Ostriker’s (“Metaphor is the erotic element in language.” Ostriker, Alicia. “A Meditation on Metaphor.” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade.).

Transformative writing is rich and risky – it takes chances – it’s not driven by our inner editor. It lets the hand, the writing, do the writing and gets our head out of the mix, at least for the first draft—the head comes in later! (No pun intended – let’s move on.) Sometimes the results of this kind of writing are very linear. Sometimes the results are an almost surreal conglomeration of verbs, nouns, and adjectives with no distinct structure, conjugation or form—often the resulting writing is somewhere between these extremes, and every time, every time, though, this is writing that brings listeners to the edge of their seats, emotionally resonant, writing you don’t want to end, even if the content, the topic, is difficult or hard.

The AWA workshop method, as defined by Pat Schneider, is an especially good container for, especially encouraging of, transformative writing: writing that takes risks, that rides on the edges of control, that opens us to the possibility of change. It’s what makes possible us writing ourselves whole!

What do you think about all this? What might “transformative writing” mean to you? What do you think of or envision when you hear/read that phrase? Let me know!

* hir/ze – these are gender-neutral, all-encompassing pronouns; more aesthetically-pleasing (and broader!) to me than “him/her-self,” etc,

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Podcast Answers – Day 1!

As I mentioned earlier in the week (in this post), I’m going to post longer, more well-thought-out (maybe!) answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation last week.

typewriter keys: typing ourselves whole! The first question on the list:
1. What are the Writing Ourselves Whole workshops?

Most basically, Writing Ourselves Whole offers transformative writing workshops, using the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method, in the service of transforming trauma and/or struggles around sexuality into art, and creating spaces in which individuals may come to recognize the artist/writer within. (whew!)

I offer erotic writing workshops open to folks of all orientations and all genders, writing workshops to women survivors of sexual trauma, and (periodically) general topic writing workshops as well.

The Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method creates an ethically-boundaried and safe space in which all participants can write as they are drawn to write, and everyone will be encouraged in their writing. Groups are either single-day intensives or eight 2.5-hour meetings; because the groups are closed (not drop-in), participants come to trust one another and thus often allow their work to grow and deepen in risk and playfulness.

Although these groups aren’t specifically therapy-focused, the process of writing itself can be a therapeutic and transformative process.

While we’re creating narrative and art out of what we think of as the boring (or worse) stuff of our lives, in a community of like-minded others who celebrate our art, our internal selves are rearranged, sometimes without our even realizing it.

Who can participate? These groups are for anyone who currently writes or who has ever wanted to write.

Escher writing hands creating themselves!Even if you have not written in years, even if you “only” write in a journal, even if you worry about your spelling when you put words to the page.

It doesn’t matter if a teacher once told you that you were a poor writer because your sentences were too long, or that your tenses were incorrect. It doesn’t matter if someone once told you that only “great men” can write.

Those were lies. If you want to write, you can write. The truth is that I am blown away by the art created and shared during every single session of writing, regardless of participants’ writing history. You have great art in you. If the path that that art wishes to take is through writing, I hope to have the good fortune to work with you.

The Amherst Writers and Artists workshop model, as described in Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others, arises out of the belief and understanding that everyone has the ability to write: if you can speak (in any fashion), you can create writing that is deep, important, and has artistic merit. I do not ask folks interested in participating in my writing groups for a writing sample, or if/where they’ve published, or what their experience with writing is — this is not a competition. Every participant will have a different relationship with writing, and every participant will produce incredible work.

As I say on the Writing Ourselves Whole website, we’re “creating communal change through individual transformation…”

My vision? Writing Ourselves Whole seeks to change the world through writing. To open our hearts to ourselves and each other, so that we might live in a community of deep expressiveness and self-love, where each individual reaches his and her most complete self. I envision a community aware of its full breadth and power, one that risks speaking truth to power because it has been heard and received by its peers: an empowered community, able to effect change.

The mission of Writing Ourselves Whole is to offer safe, confidential writing groups — that allow for transformation, risk, laughter, and artistic manifestation — to a broad cross-section of the community.

Some writing workshops focus particularly on those who’ve felt marginalized and silenced (survivors of sexual trauma and domestic violence, members of the LGBTQQI communities).

To express our own story changes the world. Writing is both memory and possibility at once, and in moving through and with that tension, we create change.

Yes, it’s true. Writing can take you to the things you never thought you’d do, shift you into someone you never believed yourself able to be.