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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Writing workshops as group therapy

Steve Almond's essay Why Talk Therapy Is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise (NY Times Magazine 3-23-12) is about the rise of MFA programs. It ignores a huge not-so-snootily-literary group: people who take life writing workshops because writing "true" stories is a great way to gain perspective on one's life.

Having taught a life writing course for adults at the Bethesda Writer's Center for a few years now, I can testify that the process is not just for navel-gazing. It is a valid and refreshing way to see and gain insight into the patterns of one's life (among other mature adults doing the same thing). It constantly amazes my students and me how satisfying it is to tell stories from our lives to a group of people who were previously mostly strangers to each other. In a sense, it is refreshing to read your story aloud to a group of people who are listening and commenting (and who aren't saying, "Oh not that story again, Dad!" -- and of course the story is often told in fuller, more honest detail than it might have been told to one's children).

The bonding that takes place in these life writing groups surprised me. Once the stories are previewed, so to speak, with this group of strangers, sometimes they're shared with family and friends. (But sometimes they AREN'T shared right away. Sometimes workshop participants are worried that their frankness may shock or hurt family members.)

Certain sentences in Almond's essay resonated with what I've learned from these workshops: “We were writing to confront what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” And not just any hearts. Our hearts.” One advantage of the writing workshop is that you have a deadline to write so you write. And you have a built-in audience. So you have a motive to face old issues.

Writes Almond: “But the Internet, while it might excite the desire for creative self-expression and sudden acclaim, does little to slake our deeper yearnings. What we want in our heart of hearts is not distraction but just the opposite, the chance to experience what Saul Bellow called ‘the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.’ We want to be heard and acknowledged. It’s the difference between someone 'liking' our latest Facebook update versus agreeing to listen to our story, the whole bloody thing, even and especially when it runs up against bruising revelations.”

Almond is talking about MFA students. Many of my students are well beyond degree programs--they're looking back on full, often happy, sometimes partly troubled, lives. "Being heard" during the process of exploring those lives is deeply satisfying. Yes, I'll say it: it feels therapeutic, in the best sense of the word. (I once heard a student who was taking the workshop a third time tell a new participant, "This is like therapy, but more fun.")

It's more fun partly because the emphasis is on storytelling -- partly because story is what we love to hear, but also, as Almond writes, “What they’re seeking is exactly what I wanted: the refuge of stories, which remain the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species.”

For some the writing group is a refuge; for others it is a place to try one's wings. In my groups and similar groups--such as reminiscence and Guided Autobiography (GAB) groups--it is explicitly an invitation to explore one's own life, not for publication by firms like Random House, but just to gain understanding--to remember the ups and downs in one's own particular life and to see them in perspective, with tenderness and humor and forgiveness and usually a new degree of acceptance.

Of possible interest on the same subject: The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (originally published in Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009)

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