Very sleepy here at my morning writing desk. I have a cup of strong decaf brewed with cardamom and a dash of stevia — so no added sugar! I have Groove Salad slowly waking my auditory self, singing me into this Monday morning. I have a messy desk, receipts to file, notebooks to type up, seeds to plant, and little notes on torn scraps of paper holding topics I want to write about.
A new workshop starts tonight, another group of folks coming together to dive into their creative selves, to make space in their lives for words-in-community, words that get to commingle with other(s’) words, words that feed and are fed upon dreams and synchronicity.
I get nervous at this moment, when the workshop’s just about to begin, when we all don’t know or remember each other yet, when we’re re-finding our way to our inner songs. This sounds a little simplistic maybe. What I know is, the nervousness is about possibility, about my learning this particular chorus of voices and energies about to come together.
I love this moment, and I slide into ritual to keep me moving forward: write up the syllabus (which just means creating an outline of possible exercises for each of the 8 weeks, loosely associated with some themes that I came up with awhile ago as topics I thought we ought to touch on during workshops, or themes that often come up whether or not I intend/plan for them to: re-rooting, writing the body, fearless words, unspoken desire, and others), prepare the handouts, shop for snacks, shave and cut up the carrots.
(This is too focused, not morning-dreamy enough. The poems live under your shoes at the sleepiest times (isn’t that what John Fox said, in the poetry he quoted?). I’d love to have an early morning writing workshop, 8am-10 or even 7-8:30, something folks would come to before they went to work, a space to collect with poetry, with dreamsong, with imagination and vivid interpersonal desire, with the sole purpose of haggling with meaning, a precision of tapping the right words, a sleepy-still writing time with others.)
Here’s what happens at the writing workshops: we write and rewrite our own songs and stories; we practice hearing and witnessing one another’s artistry (and, in so doing, we practice bearing witness to our own); we practice deep kindness. Each of these are revolutionary acts, and when combined, they can be incendiary — the lit match to inflame our transformative desire, our desire for transformation.
What’s important is how folks use the workshops to transform their writing, their sense of themselves as writers/artists –and how we, over and over again, re-learn that we can trust the truth of our own voices.
There’s no reason this should work this way. We sit in a room together, we put pen to paper alone, we read our new writing. Why should that be a liberatory practice? Why should we be willing to take that risk?
There’s no point here, and that is the point. Publishing is great, getting your work out in front of the world, whether you read it at a mic or have it appear in an anthology: this is important, plus maybe you get $25 or $50 to throw into your piggy bank.
But it’s not the most important thing, I think. Or maybe not the most important thing for me, as someone who writes. What happens is we keep on gathering in front of our notebooks, creating something new. Risking again, that we can open and touch the mess and viscera, the hard blood, the stuff of loss and want, the trouble of impossible joy. The thing is that we resettle with these 26 letters and then some, and we try to make magic.
And what happens, in the middle of every workshop — when folks lift their heads from their writing, they tuck their pens behind their ears or keep clicking the ballpoint in and out, when we take a deep breath and say: OK. Who would like to read? — magic does happen. And it’s the simplest, most profound kind of magic: 1) someone has been willing (again! magic!) to risk finding the words to put to a truth that there are never enough words for, and 2) others receive that truth with kind eyes and strong hands (because, I’ll tell you, writing hands are strong hands). This is liberatory stuff: and not just for the writer. Witnessing is a difficult, necessary job. We write with the idea that there is a listener. We speak to the page as though it has ears. When there are ears, that’s a whole new game.
And then this: in the workshop, we don’t analyze the writer, we don’t pathologize the content. We praise the metaphor, the maybe untended use of rhyme, we notice the repetition, the use of detail, the descriptions. We describe what was strong for us about the writing, and those who came into the room believing that they could not write have a little more weight on the other side of the scale, re-tipping our understanding of ourselves toward ‘creative being.’ Those who came into the room believing they did not have the mettle to tell a particular story, they start to learn different.
But there’s more that I want to say about witnessing: witnessing is work. It requires attention, intention. In the workshops, we are sometimes witness to stories that have never before been spoken. We are sometimes witness to the awful, stunning details of trauma: we feel like we’re the birds who’ve slammed into a pane of glass. But we, every time someone reads, are witness to a brand new thing. Every time. And that is a place of extraordinary honor.
We were taught, maybe in school, maybe from something we read, maybe elsewhere, that we aren’t supposed to share first drafts — that they’re not worthy of a hearing. I don’t believe that. First drafts–even the stuff at the workshops that are the embryos of first drafts–these have a breath and a heartbeat and a thrumming energy. When we’re willing to share these with others, we begin to hear where we end and the poem, the writing, takes off on its own. We begin to hear where our magic lies. (And maybe I mean that in both ways.) We practice a deep trust. And our writing grows.
Something tender and tenuous that grows among the writers in every workshop — we learn the sorts of things that others notice, we learn, then, how to incorporate those things into our writing, if we want. We learn from each other’s witnessing, from what others remember and mention. Our writing grows under this care and feeding.
There are those who’d call this sort of writing space indulgent. I say, especially for survivors of trauma (and how many of us aren’t?), we get to indulge (if by that you mean, have treated kindly and with respect) the parts of us that haven’t yet been able to raise their natty, knotty voices.
In the workshops, we get to indulge the parts of our creative selves that went underground. Of course, we were/are endlessly creative in our survival — because survival is a creative act. Every decision we made, every new facet to our personality grown and honed to protect us: creative. Every yes yanked from our lips, every no danced around, every strategizing moment: creative.
Jane Hirschfield said, at the Healing Art of Writing conference, that she thinks agency is the antidote to depression. “When you are being creative, you are free,” she said.
Yes, exactly. And being free, in community, with others enacting the same risky freedom: that’s liberatory practice. That’s freedom in action.
A new workshop begins tonight. I’ll be there with poems and exercises, tea and snacks and notebooks and pens, ready for the revolution (yours, my own, yes: ours), again and again and again.