Swimming in a Pool of Words: Community Writing Workshops

When I was 14, out of instinct and desperation, I jumped into a pool of words and started writing. I didn’t know that I would become a writer, only that I needed language to help me find my way, and I needed poetry to save my life. As a teenager filling journals at the speed of sound, I found writing helped me discover, reveal, process, dissect, rebuild and face whatever experiences, situations and perceptions came my way.

Over the next decade, a round-about journey through several other careers led me back to poetry. By the time I was deeply immersed in earning my doctorate in English, I realized that as a veteran of many creative writing classes, I had developed a wide set of skills as a reader, a writer, and a life-long student of revision. I also knew many people outside the university who wanted to learn more about inventing, drafting, polishing and publishing. So I started offering community writing workshops, thinking people would come to me to study the craft of writing.

People came – not to learn about character development or poetic imagery – but to discover, unearth, explore, recover and often heal something in themselves through writing. Like any good teacher, I followed the lead of my students, and in following, I returned to the source that had made me a writer in the first place: the pool of language where one could seek clarity, understanding, vitality and peace of mind.

I started facilitating community writing workshops in 1992, and since that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to further explore the therapeutic and transformative potential of writing. I’ve had the honor of facilitating workshops in clinics, writing centers, community centers, schools, universities and colleges, museums, retirement homes, libraries, camps, health centers, and even in the middle of tall-grass prairie.

I’ve facilitated life writing in the Kansas City Latino community as well as poetry classes for Native American students. A year-long series in Ottawa brought together at-risk teenage girls and elderly women to write, share stories and help one another. For three years, I’ve worked with a group of women in recovery from addiction and abuse at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, where I’ve also facilitated “Poetry Camp” for low-income kids, and will soon start “MotherWrites” for young mothers. Through a Native American center, I developed and administered the Midnight Poetry League, which helped teens write, perform and play poetry. I’ve also conducted women’s and men’s workshops as well as sessions for kids from ages five to eighteen. And I’ve presented talks and workshops at conferences and gatherings on how mythology, ecology, history and culture relate to writing for social and personal growth.

In recent years, my circle has widened through founding and directing the Transformative Language Arts (TLA) graduate program at Goddard College. TLA draws students from all over the country who are bringing writing, storytelling, drama and other expressive arts to community centers, cancer centers, mental health clinics, businesses, prisons, schools, shelters and hospitals.

Each workshop session, each exercise always begins with a blank piece of paper and the myriad possibilities of what may come when participants feel safe and encouraged enough to bring to the surface what they have to say in their own voice and their own language. To facilitate this process, all my exercises and approaches are both structured and open-ended, giving participants enough support to take healthy risks and enough freedom to create what comes to them. Most of all, I encourage participants to join together in a supportive community where witnessing the words of others is as important as being witnessed. In learning to listen to each other, participants find common ground and cultivate greater insight, confidence, faith and strength. The creative process itself – with its spirit of experimentation, value of risk-taking, and discovery of new ways to see the world – ripples out into the lives of each and into the community at large.