January 9, 2011

Writing is My Shelter

Writing has a way of transforming experience.  There is evidence that keeping a journal improves one's health and immunity, and that it speeds recovery from illness.  Writing is a tool of the mind, but I also think it is a tool of the soul. Through writing, we can explore life's events and changes. The page offers a place to put the things that are difficult to bear; once it's has been placed there, one can shift roles from victim or witness to one that is more active. Instead of being done onto, one is a doer.  Psychologically, the change is profound. 

The New Yorker magazine featured an article written by Joan Acocella about the Swedish mystery writer, Stieg Larsson.   It's a peek behind the scenes, a look at the writer who seemed to have started writing recently, in his mid-forties.   The article examines some questions around authorship and editorial changes of the three manuscripts, but I was also interested in the connection between his fiction and his real life.   He founded a magazine, Expo, that is similar to the one, the Millenium, in his trilogy.  The Expo office, like Millenium, was threatened and vandalized.  As a young man, Larsson witnessed a gang rape of a young girl.  He never forgot it.  He insisted the first book of the trilogy be titled, Men Who Hate Women (as it was, in Sweden).  Larsson was able to transform the act of violence that he witnessed into a story about a strong, female character who survives, even wins.   Read the article.

This week, I facilitated a writing group at the women's shelter for women who have survived domestic abuse. I'm very glad to have the opportunity to create a time and place for writing for them; in my twenties, I experienced violence in my first marriage.  Writing helped me. Not only did I have the opportunity to find and develop my voice, but my writing connected me with people who gave me strength and support. It changed my life for the better.  I know it will do the same for these women.

We sat down and did three timed writing exercises in session.  First I read a brief example, and then we begin the exercise.   The first assignment, after Sandra Cisneros chapter called "Names" in her novel, The House on Mango Street, I asked the women to write about their name.  I never demand that participants read their work aloud, but they all volunteered.  Each one wrote a moving piece.   The next assignment was to write an anaphora (a poem whose lines begin with the same word or phrase) based on the poem, "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon. The last exercise was after Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, "I Am Waiting."   I was interested in exercises that could be either poem or memoir.   Writing about identity helps to strengthen one's identity.   Writing about place helps us to understood our roots.   The last allows us to name our desires, not just for ourselves, but for the larger world.   We spent about an hour and a half in session, and I left there feeling grateful to the women for sharing their stories, and to the art of writing for the gifts it brings. 

I've asked my friends to donate extra journals and notebooks that I can offer women at the shelter and at the Family Justice Center.   Many writers teach writing classes at homeless shelters, jails, women's shelters, and other places.  To allow a place and time for writing is to honor the experiences and lives of others.   I found a blog entry on Mira's List about her project, "My Words Are My Shelter." Read the article here

I've also made a call for submissions for writers in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota to send me poems or short pieces about transitions.* I want to publish the work on placemats that can be used at the Empty Bowl community dinner (a fundraiser for the local food bank) and at the Thanksgiving Dinner at the DECC (both events are in Duluth, MN).  I will help the women at the shelter share their experiences in a small publication (published in October 2011) with other poems of transition. Changes in life are often difficult; it's heartening to hear about others who have gone through similar changes, or even more difficult ones.  Writing is my shelter, and with others, we can make the world a better place.

*Blessings & Transitions
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS:   Invitation to writers in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota to send poems, prose poems, flash fiction, or brief essays  (500 words max) that illuminate life transitions and/or that are blessings.   This is a project of the 2010-2012 Duluth Poet Laureate, Sheila Packa.  These will be considered for a poster & placemats (to be created for April poetry month and for an anthology of work to be published by Wildwood River Press in the fall of 2011.   Email submissions are okay.  5 page limit.   Deadline March 31, 2011.  Paste into an email to sheila@sheilapacka.com or mail up to 5 pages to Wildwood River, 1748 Wildwood Road, Duluth, MN 55804.