This evening, thanks to Westport Writers Workshop, I will be leading a writing workshop at my local women’s shelter. It’s a workshop I’ve been wanting to lead for a long time, and I’m nervous about it.
I’ve been teaching writing for about 12 years now – to college students, to adults, to autistic and neurotypical teens. But tonight is different. Or maybe it isn’t at all.
Let me back up.
I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a survivor of generational domestic abuse. Over the years, for as long as I can remember, writing has saved me. Sometimes I turn my back on it, sometimes I forget about its healing power, or even fear it. But every time I go back to it, it saves me again.
I want to help other survivors learn how to access that lifeline, if it is the right one for them. I want to help them find and have confidence in their voice. I want to help them claim and declare their truth and find strength from the process that leads them there. I want them to have something that is entirely of them, and also magical and powerful, and also under their control.
From almost the moment I learned to write, writing kept me sane, kept me alive. Before that, imaginative and creative play, storytelling and story making kept me – or at least some vital part of me – emotionally safe in moments when I was not physically safe. In moments when I most needed it, in the aftermath of trauma, and sometimes even as trauma unfolded around me, I could always find it.
During times of illness or loss, writing has helped me heal, or at least salved the wounds and scabbed over the broken places well enough to help me survive. I want to guide others in their writing so they can access written expression and their writer’s voice for healing too.
Writing isn’t the only way I’ve worked to heal. More than twenty years ago, and after many years of therapy, I decided to become certified as a crisis counselor so I could work on a hotline for the local sexual assault crisis center in the city where I then lived. The therapeutic strategies we employed will be familiar to anyone trained to work with survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner abuse. We would strive from the first moments of interaction to give the survivor back her or his agency.
I’ll illustrate. If I was speaking to someone who had called the hotline, I might say: “I would like to talk to you for a while. Is that something you would like to do? My name is Lisa. Do you want to give me your name, or would you prefer not to?” If I was meeting a client at the hospital, I might say “Would you like a glass of water? I’m happy to try to get you anything I can. Would you like me to stay during the exam? It’s completely up to you.” This may seem counterintuitive. The person I was interacting with had called a hotline or had asked for a victim advocate to be with them. So why all the questions? Because intimate violence robs victims of their agency at the most basic level – at the threshold of the body. With every question we were repairing that rupture.
Years later, when I began taking writing workshops inspired by the Amherst method, I was struck by some key similarities. Writing group leaders using this methodology offer prompts, but also make clear to participants that they can choose to ignore the prompt and write about anything they want during the time allotted. They can choose to share or not share. They can write toward pain or back away from it, or shift topics at any point. The instructor guides, but the writer is in charge of their writing journey.
I’ll be employing a modified Amherst-inspired writing workshop with a half dozen survivors tonight, along with two certified counselors. There will be no “critique”; only supportive feedback about moments in the writing that spoke to us. This is another hallmark of the Amherst method: no tearing anyone else’s writing down when it is in its most vulnerable fledgling state. I want to keep the space safe and empowering. I want to guide the participants through the writing workshop I wish I had been able to attend when I was at my most raw moments of healing. It’s a tall order. I promise to do my best.