“Every one has a story inside them just BURSTING to get out!”
-State of the South Tour. Montgomery, AL. 2018.
I got the most incredible email today, right before I started working on my blog. To tell you the truth, it shook me a little. In the best possible way. It actually made me change the topic of my blog. Today’s post was originally going to be a think piece about when people emphasize text messages. You know what I’m talking about? When you send someone a message and instead of responding with, you know, words, they respond with a heart or an exclamation point or a “HaHa” on the text itself. Is it called emphasizing? I have no idea. No one else seems to know either because I spent about 30 minutes online trying to figure out it but couldn’t find anything.
That’ll be for tomorrow. Today was for something else.
I’m always amazed by the power of writing. By the power of words. By the power of our stories to change the course of our lives and to challenge whatever narratives we find ourselves trapped within.
I’ve had the opportunity recently to teach writing workshops to cancer patients. I had one this week, I have a couple next week. I always leave them feeling humbled and inspired.
It’s an honor to give people the space to put words to their experiences. That’s what I feel like these workshops do. They give people the space and the permission to write about their lives. Most people are under the delusion that their lives aren’t that interesting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The things people go through in this life are incredible. The strength people find to meet the challenges they face…most of the time I’m like, “How do you do it?”
They’re like, “I just do.”
That’s all there is to it, really.
Most of my one time workshops look something like this—A week before it starts, I give them a prompt. They have to write two pages focusing on this prompt. They can write whatever this prompt inspires them to write, they just have to follow one simple rule: DO NOT BE GOOD!
This is usually followed by half the group saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not gonna be” like I’ve never heard it before.
I laugh regardless.
I’m serous about the Not Being Good part. And they usually take it to heart. What I am trying to do is free them from the tyranny of expectations. No matter what our skill level, the second we are told to write something we want to make it as good. It’s totally natural. The problem is that it places product over process, and the result is usually disappointing, not matter how long you’ve been writing.
The prompt for this past Tuesday night was this: What is the strangest thing that’s happened to you during the quarantine. They have to write two pages. And it needs to be done before the workshop begins.
At 7:30 we all got on Zoom and said our hellos. We each went around and told the group what kind of cancer we had, and what our favorite comfort food was. The comfort food question depressed me, because for the past month I haven’t had much interest in food. When it got to me I said I had colon cancer and made up something about big bowls of ice cream, mainly because Ginger Ale over ice didn’t exactly have a nice ring to it.
After we said our hellos, I gave them phase two of the assignment. They had to take fifteen minutes, and cut the two pages they had written down to one. I told them not to think about it too hard, and before they had time to protest I was counting down, 3, 2, 1 and we were off.
This cutting down from two pages to one in a short amount of time gives them a chance to clean up what they wrote without thinking too much about it. I just want to get them to the heart of what they’re feeling. I always tell them if no one likes it they can blame it on me, but invariably all the pieces are lovely and ring of the truth of their own experiences, which allows it to ring with the truth of mine.
After the twenty minutes was up we started reading. We chuckled at people’s experience with failed to do lists. We laughed at failed attempts at social distancing, and how our glasses fogged up from the masks.
This one woman, however, wasn’t able to laugh.
She apologized at the beginning of her piece. She told us all that is wasn’t very good. I reminded her that if that’s the case then she did exactly what I asked of her. She then proceeded to shred us to the core about her experience of being all alone during the lockdown. You see, she was in a part of the hospital that couldn’t have visitors, so for almost a month, getting inpatient chemo, she had been totally and completely alone. She wrote about how she missed her husband and her daughter. About how she felt like home was slipping away from her.
Her words, simple, unadorned, carried all the feeling and pain for her. And it cut through us like a hot knife through cold butter. Is that the expression? It is now.
If there is anything I’ve learned from a lifetime of writing and theatre making, it’s that stories matter.
It’s very hard to hear the story of a fellow human and not be drawn into action.
The email I got before I started today’s blog was letting me know that because of what she wrote, people had started advocating on her behalf. Because of what she wrote, she might get to see her family. The reason this shook me is that anyone who has been through treatment knows that yes, this is a physical battle, but it’s a mental one as well. Sometimes a hug, or a kiss, or a trip to the movies, or a talk with a friend, is the best medicine we have at our disposal.
So go ahead. Stand up. Get your story out there. Because like I tell all my students at the beginning of each semester:
The world has got plenty of stories. But it still needs yours.