Back in November, 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. I took a bit of a break at the end of Dec, but I’m back on track. Here’s my answer for day 8!
8. What advice do you have for a writer who wants to use writing for their own healing, or to facilitate healing in others?
This is such a big question – I actually feel I need to break it down into two: Thoughts for folks who want to use writing around their own healing/transformation, and thoughts for those who wish to use writing to facilitate healing with others.
Want to write yourself whole? Pick up the pen and start now. Just let the words come. Don’t pick the pen up off the page, don’t censor, don’t make sense. Don’t stop to worry about whether your grammar works there or if you ought to use a comma or a semi-colon or if it’s time for a new paragraph. Give yourself these 5 minutes, maybe 15. Give yourself a lunch half-hour. Give yourself a morning hour, an evening hour. Shut off the phone and turn away from the computer. Follow the flow, the pull of your writing. Set down in ink or pencil whatever words come up, non sequiturs and nonsense and to-do-list reminders alike, stories and complaints, wishes and dreams and frustrations and remembrances. Let it all come and comingle on your page. Let it flow through the boundaries and the bridges that we build within and around ourselves, the containments and separations, the work stuff and play stuff, the now stuff and then stuff. This writing is just for you. It doesn’t have to be shared or read aloud or posted anywhere, unless *you* want to do so.
Start it now. Do it again tomorrow. Keep up this pattern as many consecutive days as possible, over several years. Continue for a lifetime.
I’m just repeating what I’ve been told, what’s worked for me, what I’ve read. This is the kind of urging that Natalie Goldberg makes in Writing Down the Bones, that Anne Lamott sets before us in Bird by Bird, that Pat Schneider lets us consider in Writing Alone and With Others. Trusting yourself enough to write freely and broadly and openly and deeply — it creates change.
This kind of freewriting has introduced me to my thought patterns, allowed me to trace out language for experiences that I thought were unnamable, given me meditation and play time. And over time, I’ve learned again to trust whatever my writing wants me to put on the page, to generate material first and then edit later, and to only share my writing when I’m ready, and with folks whose opinions I trust and appreciate. Pat Schneider has an awful lot of good stuff to say about transformative writing when working alone in her book (Writing Alone and With Others).
On the one hand, I think anyone ought to be able to do this work. I think to myself, Look, I haven’t had any special training and I did it. I don’t have an MSW or experience as a therapist. But here’s what I do have: personal experience of surviving sexual abuse; training and experience as a volunteer listener for youth and battered women and men; certification as an Amherst Artists and Writers writing workshop facilitator; training as a crisis/peer support group facilitator. All of these skills came in handy during the writing groups I’ve facilitated.
Can you do it without any of this training? It’s hard for me to say, because I have it and the folks I know doing the work have it. Desire is important, as is intuition—both of these are essential, even—but so is experience. It’s important to have the skills necessary such that a group of folks handling volatile material together can engage safely and ethically in the work they need to do. By safely, I mean without psychologically imploding in the group, and assisting others in their struggles not to implode. It’s my experience that the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method provides a strong and ethical container for the work of transformative writing in community. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t other methods – this is the one that has resonated most strongly for me, both as a participant-writer and as a facilitator-participant.
I have just recently, and finally, been reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and picked up The Vein of Gold to continue the work after I complete the initial 12-weeks of the Artist’s Way. Toward the back of The Vein of Gold, Cameron has a chapter dedicated to those who’d create and participate in creative Artist’s Way circles, and her focus on a non-hierarchical structure and the importance of shared risk (that if there’s a facilitator for the group, the facilitator must “do the work” along with everyone else) absolutely resonated with me as essential reminders for anyone who wishes to facilitate a non-clinical transformative/healing writing space.
Before I wa
s a writing group facilitator, I had training as a peer and crisis counselor–from queer youth service organizations and a domestic violence agency. This means that I had experience with listening to and empathizing with people. I had experience with the fact that, often, the most helpful thing you can do for another person is to listen to them, attentively and devotedly.
This lesson was reinforced via Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists workshop facilitator trainings: listen and hear, and model listening for others. It’s a hard lesson to really, deeply internalize.
Difficult things come up in a writing group, whether the group is focusing on erotic writing or sexual trauma or if there’s no particular focus at all. Despite the attention to all work as fiction, the experience of emotion is real: the terror, frustration, lust, anguish, pain, desire, desperation is real. As a facilitator, you’re not going to fix it. You’re not going to offer folks therapy and you’re not there to make it all better for them. That work will be work done by the writers themselves over time, with the help of those whom they choose, and when they choose.
In a transformative writing group, one thing (among others) folks seem to want, as survivors and particularly as writers, is a hearing. That’s what these groups can offer. The original AWA training, for example, helps you acquire a sense of how not to be blown away by heavy, hard, overwhelming emotions; how to ride through hard high intense roller coaster rides of emotion without getting thrown off or shutting down. Most times, you don’t need to do anything but listen, deeply hear and experience the words as they are offered to the group, and to give your personal individual feedback about the writing itself, while modeling for others how to do the same.
The ability to attend to your boundaries is also essential. And even so, even with this training myself, I want to bring each person who has participated in a group of mine into my life and care for them and make everything OK. It’s an empathetic challenge, and there’s nothing wrong with the draw, so long as I don’t act on it: I have to save my energy for the work I can do, the work of bringing together and facilitating these writing groups. It’s hard when all you can do is 1) offer a space, 2) keep the space safe, contained (as much as possible), and 3) listen well and respond personally, heartfelt and ethically–but it’s what I can do, and because it helps, it’s what I must do.
Learn how to take care of yourself. How do you get support and help after group? Do you write and get stuff down and out of you? Do you call a friend or another writing group facilitator? Do you call your mom or sister or uncle? Do you do nothing? Do something, ok? I’m still working on this one, myself, and it’s been six years since I started with this work! Go to the gym, go for a walk or a drive, sing hard, run, go dancing, do something. Let loose the energy that builds up during each group meeting.
If folks don’t have the chance to go through the original Amherst Writers and Artists training, then I absolutely encourage you to participate in an AWA-model writing group in your area, or other writing group. It’s helpful to be exposed to different facilitation styles, if only to learn what not to do, how you don’t want to facilitate (as well as to do the opposite!).
What do you think? What’s worked for you, if you’ve done transformative or healing writing on your own? What’s worked for you as someone participating in and/or facilitating a transformative/healing writing space?