September 28, 2014

Writing and Healing: Arts Express

On October 11, I'll be in Grand Rapids to lead a writing workshop for people with cancer, family members, friends, and caregivers.  October 4, visual artist Elizabeth Kuth will conduct a drawing and art workshop.  A creative community is already forming. If you are interested, please sign up at Project Lulu. Grand Rapids Arts Express  We would love to have you join us!

The Writing Workshop

Creativity, at heart, is serious play. If you come to this writing workshop, expect that you will do guided writing exercises in an encouraging environment.  Participants might ask: "Must I write about the illness?"  The answer is you can write about whatever you want to!  The focus is positive. Whether beginning or experienced writers, participants will have the opportunity to explore their own images, memories, and landscape. Writing exercises are structured but provide artistic freedom and can help writers find their own material. In session, we experiment with forms, like this definition form, used in the poem "Anxieties" by Donna Masin:

It’s like ants
and more ants.

West, east
their little axes

hack and tease.
Your sins. Your back taxes.

Each person has a unique writing voice, and this workshop is aimed at helping identify and strengthen it. Nobody will be required to share his or her personal writing, but we will have time at the end to read work if he or she desires. We will also talk about ways to revise and answer questions that the participants might have about sharing their writing with family or friends, privacy, and other concerns.

As a writer, I rely on my own daily writing practice. I edited a collection of poetry and prose, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. This book brought together the writing of seventy-five Lake Superior region writers and it encompasses changes of many kinds: relationships, health, home, work, aging, relocation, dislocation, environmental changes, and migrations. In order to collect work for the anthology, I brought my writing skills together with my social work skills in this project. As Poet Laureate of Duluth, over a period of a year, I conducted 45 writing workshops and support groups. I visited the Women's Shelter, Family Justice Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, high schools, YWCA's Girl Power, and community groups. I have a lot of experience with teaching, helping people find their strengths, and fostering a supportive community of writers. And personally, my mother suffered acute myeloid leukemia. Serious illness and other significant life events mark us.

Writing about place yields good material. The body is also a landscape. In writing practice, we turn on all of the five senses to both stir and soothe. Here's a poem of mine, "Shore," (from Echo and Lightning) that transcribes or inscribes a feeling into the landscape:

it wasn’t pain but waves
pounding on shore
rolling of small stones
up the slope and back again
breaking waves
with their spatter of white foam
all night long re-living 
that peak or pitch
recognizing, reorganizing
building up and dissipating
all night long
it was the world
creating, recreating, retreating
and waves capitulating

Lately, I've been very interested in exploring layers - history, spirituality, geography, landscape, music, and dreams. Each person has marvelous sources that can become wellsprings for creative work.

I ask participants to give permission to the self to be a beginner. More prompts: Write about a remedy or healing food that was used by somebody in your family. Write about an important object or tool that you received from another person. Sometimes, I ask participants to reach back another generation: Write about what political or social events or life situations affected a grandparent. How did these affect their relationships in the family?  These provide opportunities for exploration and reflection, and the first draft may want to turn into a poem or story.

Journaling Improves Health

Several research studies have demonstrated that writing practice improves health outcomes, helps regulate emotion, increases problem-solving skills, and reduces stress. Journaling is considered a complementary therapy in cancer treatment.  Here is an excerpt of a Rita Dove's "Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;

This type of poem is called a "persona poem."  The poet wears a mask, becomes another person, and examines another's story.  In these two lines from the poem, Dove uses interesting vowel and consonant sounds, to explore the experience of an accomplished composer and musician who becomes deaf.

Project Lulu is a nonprofit organization founded by the artist Lisa McKhann after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She helps others go through being "a patient" to becoming actively creative. Some of the former participants went on to develop scripts for staged readings and performances. Art is transformation!

So bring a notebook and pen. Prepare to have fun and relaxation. Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu writes, "art can both elevate and communicate life's simple hardships in a way that deepens our common humanity. Our motto is Reflect - Create - Expand."

Go to Project Lulu to learn more, and to find out more about Elizabeth Kuth and her art workshop. Come and be a part of the healing community.


Purcell, M. (2006). The Health Benefits of Journaling. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2014, from

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