Tag Archives: workshop

Tomales Bay

graffiti typewriterToday I head out to the Tomales Bay Writing Workshops, head out for  a five-day writing workshop with Dorothy Allison and deep writing community in a place that I love, and it’s thanks, completely, to you.

Thank you.

A few months ago, I applied for a fellowship to this workshop, and then didn’t receive it. I had told myself, initially, well, if I don’t get the fellowship, then fine, I just won’t go. But I got the letter informing me that I’d been placed in Dorothy Allison’s workshop and they hoped I could join them just the same, even though they had given the fellowships to other folks. Something in me said, the writer part said, we have to go anyway. I couldn’t afford it, not without help. We had sudden bills that were coming due, family business that needed dealing with, low enrollment in workshops — still: we have to go anyway, the part in me said. Just ask for help.

So I asked you for help. And you came through with help, and I was stunned. I still am. I described the process to someone yesterday, and she said, And how does that feel? Like affirmation, right? and I said, Oh, right, yes, like affirmation. I was going to say, like pressure. And so she and I talked abut shifting that inside message, paying attention to the way in which each of those gifts of money and messages of support and encouragement weren’t about pressuring me to write something in particular or to “be good” in some specific way (sigh), but about supporting this side of my work, the writing side. (The Mr. helps me re-think those messages, too.) I’m a little overwhelmed, considering it now, and kind of verklempt, and so very grateful to you all. I want to do right by you, and can’t wait to share with you what I learn at the workshop.

I’ll be working on a tiny excerpt of this novel I’m in the middle of, that I may be in the middle of for awhile. Right now it’s at 168 single-spaced pages. Sometimes I double-space it, just to give myself a thrill. I’ll be working with Dorothy Allison. (You know her work, right? She wrote Bastard out of Carolina, which about everyone has heard of and should read, and also the amazing collections Women Who Hate Me, Skin, Trash and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, as well as another novel, Cavedweller. I would invite you to read them all.) I think I mentioned that already, and I might do again — it’s not quite real to me yet. Hold hopes for me that I don’t devolve into a slavering fangirl in front of her, ok? Also, Danzy Senna will be there, whose book, Caucasia, I reread at least once a year or so — I very much hope to get a chance to talk with her as well.

She asked us to have read Ursula K. Le Guin’s book on writing, Steering the Craft. I’ve liked reading it as homework, and appreciate, too, the opportunity to think more on craft. In the workshops I offer, while we do some craftwork (not kraftwerk), it’s always rather through the back door — we’re much more focused, at writing ourselves whole, in generating the material to work with, in trusting the guidance of our writing voices, and learning by listening to and commenting on one another’s work. The craft comes in through the backdoor, when I offer an exercise that’s all in dialogue, or we use a simile/metaphor prompt, or a prompt that invites us to consider setting and detail. We just don’t talk about those craft parts as much as folks might happen in other writing workshops. It’s good, sometimes, to refocus, to let craft in through the front door, and I’m enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s clear, invitational-yet-instructive voice. Reading the book, I have the sense of being in a workshop with her, which, of course, is the point. (Also, she encourages a re-reading of some of the classics, for specific writing-related purposes, and also purely for love of reading. I haven’t read most of our classic works, and am feeling invited to do so after spending time with Steering the Craft.)

So this morning we’re headed up to Tomales Bay for some time in Inverness, maybe a little stop at Spirit Matters, maybe some beach time for the puppy and the mama and the papa, and then I’ll go to the workshop. I won’t be blogging from there, I don’t think — I’m leaving the computer at home, anyway, will be handwriting this weekend. Whew. I do have a little wordpress app on the cellphone, so we’ll see what the at&t service is like up there.

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As a prompt for today, and maybe for the week, I’d invite you to generate a list of places that you or your character love. Choose one of them for today (or let one choose you) and describe that place — begin with just the place itself, no people, no description of why it’s beloved to you or the character; stay with the details.  Then, if you are feeling drawn to, bring yourself or your character or other people into that place — let us see what happens there.

Tomorrow choose another of the places from your list. Just ten minutes — give yourself ten minutes for this thing you love, this writing work. If you start on the prompt and end up going in a completely different direction, if you stop and write, You know, this isn’t what I really want to write about. What I really want to say is — and then take the work in the direction of whatever it is your heart wants to write just now, that’s exactly perfect.

(You can also create a list of people you or your character loves, and start writing by describing one of those people — just describe them, and let the love and relationship come through in the details you or your character notice to reveal to us.)

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Thank you thank you. I’ll be back with you in five days. Thanks for your affirmation. I want to be able to offer just the same back to you.

Breaking open, over and over: The Healing Art of Writing Conference

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the Healing Art of Writing Conference/Workshop, offered at Dominican University here in San Rafael and organized/led by Dr. David Watts, a poet and UCSF GI doc. What can I tell you about this event? When I first saw the information about the conference (shared by Dr. Aronson at USCF, who runs the Medical Humanities listserv there), it felt like the absolute right place to be — a writing conference, about writing and healing and writing as healing? And Jane Hirshfield, Dr. Rachel Remen, John Fox, Terese Svoboda, Robert Hass and other amazing poets/writers/thinkers will be presenting? And it’s at Dominican, just two miles from my new home? Yes, please! However, the conference fee (which, at $700, is completely reasonable for an event of this length and caliber) was out of my budget, and so I thought maybe I’d be able to catch the evening talks or save up for next year’s offering.

And then Cindy Perlis, who leads the Art for Recovery program at Mt Zion (where I lead Healing Through Writing workshops with folks living with life-threatening/life-altering illness), asked if I wanted to go. She’d been offered a spot, but couldn’t take it herself. And so it was that on Sunday evening, after a weekend of queer-lib-madness (given that it was the end of Pride week in San Francisco), I found myself on the second floor of Guzman Hall on the Dominican campus, listening to a roomful of healers, poets, novelists, new writers, long-term writers, those living with illness or life-altering physical experiences, nurses, therapists, and doctors introduce themselves to one another. I felt wholly out of my element and terrified (and not a little bit awe-struck). I learned that night that the folks who had signed up for the Prose workshop (as I had) would be expected to share a 10-15 page chunk of their writing with their workshop groups. This was new information for me, and I had to scurry that night to get together the material I wanted to share with my group.

What else can I tell you? The Dominican campus is tree-and-deer filled, a peacefully-riotous green. Often during the week I was reminded of being at Goddard, from the reminders to be in one’s own process to the old wood frame buildings, there was something familiar about this place and these healing-focused folks gathered to attend to their own stories, their own writing.

(doing this early morning writing on the computer is a new thing for me — it’s so difficult to just stay with the words, not to stop and edit, not to question or correct. bear with me as I learn this new practice!)

What I want to say is that I entered this space the same way I enter the Goddard space every time (be it one of my residencies during my MA years, or whenever I go back for the Power of Words conference): I am, every time, entirely determined to stay closed. I’m not going to open, I’m not going to stretch, I’m not going to cry. Every time I make this determination — I don’t know if it’s a survivor/survival thing or my ego (god bless her) just struggling to assert her dominion, but each time I go to an event that I know must change me, I decide to resist that change.

This time around, I felt the pull, that energy, the swelling of promise and possibility on the very first night. I heard each of the other attendees describe themselves as we went around the room and did introductions, I listened to the faculty share their hopes for the week, their expertise and interests, and I thought to myself: I can resist this. I will get what I need without breaking.

Now, that’s fear speaking, without question. But you can’t blame an ego for trying! This time around we (my ego and me) lasted all of 12 hours — by 8 the next morning, during John Fox’s Poem as Healer workshop, I was already crying as I listened to the poems he shared, and then as I did my own writing. I had decided to share with my workshop some especially difficult writing, and I was terrified about their response: would they think it too graphically depicted sexual abuse? Would they feel like my writing voice was entirely underwhelming? Would they let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t up to the challenge of telling this (my own) story?

And so I wrote those fears out onto the page, as I sat out on the cement stoop outside the morning meeting room, and let myself cry. A young security guard came by, his face folded with worry, and asked if everything was all right. Now, no, obviously, things aren’t all right — here’s a woman with a face full of tears! But then, yes, absolutely, on the other hand — I was very much ok. I said, “Yes, I’m ok, I’m just at a writing workshop” — as if that should explain everything. Doesn’t everyone weep at a writing workshop?

And so I was broken open, though still quite scared. Our workshop group was made up of strong and brilliant and risk-taking writers from the San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, South Bay, Houston, the East Coast, even Australia. Some of these folks are experienced writers and workshoppers, and some are new to both writing and talking about writing. I worried that we’d be doing some old-school, Iowa-style workshop method (which, in my fears, is all about desecrating a work with the idea of building up the writer’s skin, and building up one’s own work in the eyes of the workshop facilitator at the same time. This might not be the true intention of the Iowa method, I’ll grant that.) What I want to tell you about this group is that we created a (yes, ok) sacred space there in the course of that week, where we could be enthusiastic and encouraging about each other’s writing and stories, where we could talk about what we wished for the piece, what folks might want to do to make sections stronger or clearer. We got to be deeply kind and honest with one another, and our various group facilitators (Louis B Jones, Dr. Rachel Remen, Terese Svoboda) each encouraged this in their own way, and I’m so grateful.

I got to spend the week immersed in writing as art, as practice, as possibility, as offering. We did two hours of workshopping each morning, and then there were three hours of craft talks most afternoons. Our faculty talked about learning to empathize with one’s characters (Louis B Jones), the importance of compassion in writing (Rachel Remen), seismographic attention (Jane Hirshfield — honestly, I mean just look at that title. so fantastic), and more. Robert Hass talked about (if I can possibly pull the breadth of his talk down into a synposis) the three skepticisms of our time and how they could be considered pathologies (though he wasn’t using “pathology” as a negative phrase, I think, more as a judgment-free assessment), engaging with postmodernism and how it’s changed the way that new writers enter into their work. (An aside: I just figured out last night that I can use the Voice Memo “app” on my iphone like a tape recorder; I wish I’d figured that out *before* the craft talks. I’d like nothing more than to be able to listen to each one several more times.) We attendees got to share our writing with the wider community during participant readings, and had the pleasure of hearing our faculty share their writing during evening faculty readings.

A week immersed in kindred community, words and love of words. What an extraordinary gift.

And yes: my Prose group met my writing excerpt with fierce presence and honesty, and they met it as writing, as art, which was another gift. (Sometimes, when I share work that’s centered around trauma, folks can meet it as a therapeutic offering, and tell me that they’re grateful for my bravery, etc. While I think this is a generous hearing, I’m often trying to do something beyond just share the difficult words — I want to bring you, reader/listener, into the experience, as art ought to be able to do. And so it’s a powerful thing when folks are willing to enter into the work on its own terms, are willing to be in the story along with the narrator, are willing to relinquish their distance and take up the fact that this is now our story, not just “mine.”)

In the end, I connected with a number of other healing-writers in the UCSF community, strengthened my relationship with AWA-ers in Sacramentocom (hello Jan & Terri! :) and am hoping that our Prose workshop will continue to be a place to share work and encouragement, even if it’s via email/virtual space rather than in person. And, too, I learned I am up to telling my own story. I had forgotten, maybe (could I have?), how important that deep-embodied understanding can be, forgotten what it feels like to walk in to a roomful of strangers and offer my words to their new-to-me ears, forgotten what it can be like for folks new to my own writing workshops. I remember now, and I’m so grateful to each of the attendees at last week’s Healing Art of Writing conference, and to each person who’s ever come through the door to one of my workshops, for the risks we take together, and for the transforming power of that risk.

Saturday 11/21 — Body Empathy

Body Empathy:
A day of body mindfulness, gentle movement and writing for queer, genderqueer
and trans survivors of sexual trauma

Facilitated by Alex Cafarelli and Jen Cross
10am-4pm, Nov 21, 2009
At The Space, 4148 Mac Arthur Blvd., Oakland
(The Space is wheelchair accessible)

No previous experience necessary! Pre-registration required. Fee: $50-100,
sliding scale (Please check in with us if funds are an issue—payment plans are
always possible, and we may be able to work out trades or other arrangements
as well!) Please write to jennifer@writingourselveswhole.org to register.

What if we could truly experience empathy for our bodies as they are – and
then, by extension, for ourselves, as we are?

As queer, genderqueer & trans survivors with a wide array of backgrounds and
identities in a sexuality-/gender-restrictive culture, our self-protective
tendency can be to “check out” by detaching mind from body to such great
degrees that it can be dangerous. Physical activity and writing are two ways
to check back in with your embodied self.

With deep respect for the privacy and variety in our personal experience of
gender expression and our individual histories, this workshop will create safe
space for participants to embrace our bodies as they are, and to write the
stories our bodies have been wishing to speak, while allowing possibility for
the integration of identity and physical presence. Using brief writing
exercises and low impact body mindfulness exercises derived from
improvisational theater, Zen meditation practice, and the internal Chinese
martial arts, participants will have the opportunity to fully embody our
gender complexity in a healing and playful environment.

The exercises we practice can be easily incorporated into our daily lives and
can enhance our ability to reflect mindfully on our experiences, while
interacting with others from a place of self-acceptance, internal power, and
confidence, as we move through the world as the fabulously feisty queer &
gender warriors we are…

Your facilitators:

Alex Cafarelli is a Jewish genderqueer femme trauma survivor with a background
in 17 years of martial arts training. Currently teaching body mindfulness
classes in Oakland, Alex also works as a gardener specializing in
drought-tolerant and edible landscapes, does Reiki/massage bodywork, and
develops and leads element-based rituals to support women, queers, transfolk,
and genderqueers in moving through transitions and healing from trauma. Cntact
Alex at petals_and_thorns@yahoo.com.

Jen Cross is a queer incest survivor and a widely-anthologized writer who has
facilitated survivors and sexuality writing workshops since 2002. She offers
two weekly AWA-method workshops (Write Whole: Survivors Write and Declaring
Our Erotic) in San Francisco. Fnd out more about Jen at
writingourselveswhole.org or write her at jennifer@writingourselveswhole.org.