Archives for posts with tag: writing

Mary Anne Mohanraj doesn’t need a shout-out on my blog, but I have to give it. To me, Mary Anne is the epitome of the working creative writer. Engagement is her way of life.

I first met her at the orientation for new graduate students at the U of U lo, these many (almost 15) years ago. For me, getting through our doctoral program required an unsustainable level of focus (hence an extended leave of absence between coursework and exams). I felt a bit of envy and also the hope of new possibilities when I saw that she had a different way of doing our program, one that included weekend jaunts to California, time to make music and crafts, and a generally easier (but no less determined) vibe all around. I kept her in mind as I returned to prepare for my exams, making sure I made room in my week and my mind to take pleasure in the process.

We swapped stories in Fiction workshops and ideas over coffee & the occasional lemon bar at Cucina’s. The giant ficus she couldn’t take to Chicago still flourishes in my house. And I will always be grateful to her for lending me a stack of Harry Potter novels when I really, really needed to remember what I loved about Story.

She’s had an impact on my life, in other words, and I’m grateful for it.

Now this creative force for good has cancer and, like the writer she is, she’s writing about it here. I love that she’s turning her light on this experience–brave! brave! brave!–and sharing her insights with the world.

I encourage you to check it out.

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Part of the joy of recently completing my doctoral exams (and I passed! yea!) is having more time for fun service projects, like team-teaching a Third Grade class with my lovely husband, poet Dave Hawkins. On Tuesday, we got the kids to write haiku poems focusing on an image or mood they associated with a winter holiday. Dave did a great job introducing the writing project, and we each took on helping a different half of the class as they drafted their poems.

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On Thursday, we returned to the class to help the kids turn their poems into teddy bear ornaments. It took me a short time (and several versions) to develop the design, then about two hours to hand-copy and cut enough bears and bows for the whole class. Dave helped me prep the kits, including stringing the yarn through the bears’ heads. It was well worth the effort: the kids had a great time with the activity and, at the end, were eager to stand up and read their poems to the class.

To save time by reducing the need for clean-up, we used glue dots and sticker-backed embellishments (gem stickers) for the eyes. To improve the longevity of the projects, I sprung for acid-free papers. It helped that I found the acid-free brown cardstock on clearance, but in any case, I know I’ll use the extra. That said, this project can easily be done less expensively with construction paper or even repurposed chipboard (i.e., a cereal box).

INSTRUCTIONS

Materials & such to create 1 kit:

Black permanent marker

Cardstock

Light-colored, patterned paper

Gem stickers

Glitter paper (or any contrasting paper)

Glue dots (very helpful for classroom)

Hole punch

Plastic/paper bag, small

Scissors

Yarn

Steps:

  1. Trace the outline of a bear onto cardstock. (Feel free to copy/adapt mine if you’d like.)
  2. With the black marker, outline the bear’s body and draw features such as the face, ears, and paws.
  3. Cut out the bear, including cuts under the bear’s front paws.
  4. Punch a hole at the top of the bear’s head and thread it with a loop of yarn. Set aside.
  5. To create the placard for the poem, cut a rectangle of decorative paper (large enough to hold a haiku, small enough to fit when tucked under the bear’s arms). Make enough so that kids can have a new one if they mess up. Set aside.
  6. Cut a bow out of glitter paper. (Hint: Make sure the center of the bow is a little larger than the size of your glue dots.) Set aside.
  7. Assemble the kits: one bear, one placard, one bow. Add sticker sheets if you have them. My gem stickers were on such small sheets, I couldn’t cut them up and I couldn’t afford a whole sheet per kit.

Xmas Bear Ornament

INSTRUCTIONS – DURING THE EVENT

Materials and such:

Kit

Crayons/markers for coloring

Marker for writing (fine-tipped, dark-colored ink)

Scrap paper

Stickers (optional)

Steps

  1. Show a completed version of the project, pointing out that the bow can be on the bear’s head or at the bear’s neck, or anywhere else the kids want to put it or nowhere at all. It’s their bear.
  2. Get the kids to practice writing their poems with their markers on scrap paper as you pass out the kits. Assure the nervous ones that legibility, not perfection, is the aim. When the kids are ready, direct them to write their poems on the decorative paper.
  3. As the kids complete their poems, have them decorate their bears using crayons, markers, and stickers. I walked around delivering gem stickers for the bears’ eyes while Dave walked around doling out glue dots for the bows and to hold the placards in place once the bears were all done. Watch out for kids who want more than their share of stickers to put on their earlobes, unless you have plenty, in which case, who cares?
  4. Hold a rapid-fire holiday haiku reading party!
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When Angie dug her fingers into my shoulders, I sighed. When she found the knots of my levator scapulae, even her hands, which were large and corded with muscles, couldn’t press too hard or go too deep. But when it was time for me to lie on my back and she brushed the skin over my clavicle lightly as a dragonfly, I bucked off the table as if she’d jabbed me with a lit match.

As good with the intangible side of massage therapy as with the rest, Angie remained neutral and let me settle back. She asked me about the pressure and we continued: chest, arms, hands, feet, and all the while I was marveling at the sensitivity of such an erstwhile part of my body. It occurred to me I had no memory of anyone having touched my clavicle before. My neck, yes, my boobs, sure. But that unassuming span between the public and private areas of my upper body? At that point in my then-young life, no lover had been inventive enough to be inspired and no medico had cause to linger there. The mere weight of Angie’s attention, expressed by fingertips, had been enough to elicit shock from the cells of my skin.

Another reason I was surprised by my reaction was that the massage therapy was part of a project: I was on-purpose healing a trauma that was both emotional and physical and that (I thought) had nothing whatsoever to do with my upper chest. I’d worked through the emotional stuff—writing, painting and dancing had been instrumental in that—but it’d become clear I’d developed what bodyworkers call holding patterns—habits of movement and tension that develop from a defensive response to a specific situation, like an injury, and become so ingrained, they can ultimately impair the body’s functioning. And so I expected Angie to find numerous imbalances in my back muscles, to advise me on ways to realign my off-kilter hips. I didn’t expect her to give to me a part of myself that had escaped my notice, perhaps for the very reason that it had not been the site of damage.

Over the years, Angie and I have talked about the role of the witness in healing. As a bodyworker, a large part of her job is to create and hold a safe space in which another person can unfold and make discoveries like the one I had.

“Most of my clients would benefit from simply lying down for an hour in the middle of the day but won’t let themselves do it unless they’re paying someone a hundred bucks,” she once said, only half joking.

Her quip made me think of my many experiences on her table. We both knew the value of her skill, which combined hard-earned knowledge of anatomy and physical processes with a deep intuition and excellent training. Without taking anything away from that, I could see what she meant about the simple act of being there for yourself. But I’d done so much of that already, I’d reached a point where I needed to do some of my healing work in the presence of another person, someone I could trust.

She agreed that sometimes having a witness is in itself valuable and went on to describe the labor involved in facilitating a healing experience for someone. Her philosophy, not uncommon in bodyworking, is that her job is to help people get unblocked so their body’s natural process of recovering health can proceed.

I can relate: as a writing instructor, a great deal of my labor goes into setting up a situation in which people feel they have a reason to write, which often includes having a live, present audience for their work. There’s an exchange of energy between the witness and the author; sometimes, that exchange is needed more than suggestions and elaborate discussions of “what’s working” in a given piece.

In the writing workshop for cancer survivors, I’m the Angie. And it’s such a simple thing, the job of a witness. To be there. To listen, not simply hear. To watch. To hold for time, in your consciousness and, in this case, in a collective, a space in which some else can unfold.

Simple, but not always easy.

As I told the group at our first meeting last Saturday, ours isn’t the kind of workshop where we’re pushing each other to reach some external standard, some Platonic ideal of literary production. Those classes exist and can be tremendously useful depending on your goals, but that’s not our agenda. Our aim is to explore, to share, to witness. I know that “good” work can emerge in this context. More importantly for our aims, I know that even if the author is writing about some little happenstance, an image or a moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with their trauma, something very good for them might happen. Through sharing their work with a roomful of compassionate witnesses, they may find a forgotten part of themselves.

When winter—figurative or literal—presses you to the ground, what fires you up to take your next helping of life? What’s your invisible sun?

For me, the answer is art—which I define very broadly, by the way. Writing is my trade as well as my main artistic squeeze, but sometimes words are both too much and not enough, so I paint or dance or (lately) knit odd-looking hats and mittens. I cook. Why you make a thing is sometimes more important than what you make or whether it’s useful afterward.

The why of art-making is on my mind today as I plan a writing workshop for cancer survivors and their families. Too many people miss out on the raw energy they gain when they engage in the labor of making a thing just for the satisfaction of making it, so in this case, my aim is a workshop that helps people recharge. To bask in the glow of their respective invisible suns.

G., my contact at the wellness center for which I’m running the workshop, tells me we have 12 registered. I look forward to hearing from each one of them their why for joining the class, and we’ll take the what from there… Over the coming weeks, I’ll be using this blog space to share posts that may be of interest to these participants. If you’re not in the class, you’re still invited to check in too; if you have any insights, suggestions or questions about how writing and other art-making can bank the creative fire that makes life worth living, drop me a line.

All my best,

JG

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