We’re back!!

Consider the two essays we’ve read so far this semester (Gold on writing with at-risk youth and Myers on writing family stories) and the many ideas they suggest about working with writers.  Choose one concept from either text (e.g. the Pongo method or mentoring or healing or…) and briefly describe and respond to it.  How might it resonate with the writers you work with?  How might you adapt it? 

 Please respond in 300 words or so by Feb. 8–and give a brief response to a peer.

8 thoughts on “We’re back!!

  1. As an aspiring nonfiction writer, Myers “The Healing Power of Writing Family Story” is a topic near and dear to my heart. Unlike Myers, I have mixed feelings about the power we wield as family storytellers. Is delving into family history compelling? Yes. Is it necessary for memoir-type writing? Most likely. Is it dangerous? Absolutely.

    Regardless of the therapeutic value for the writer, there is real danger of causing family rifts or emotional damage to individuals in our stories. Granted, Myers assumes the writer will “stand in their [family members’] shoes” and begin to see the story “more dimensionally, with greater compassion and understanding” – but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the writer lacks the maturity or empathy or willingness to see another perspective. In those cases, the family members are portrayed lopsided, whether positively or negatively. If a family member reads this caricaturized version of themselves it can cause real problems.

    Now, to speak more specifically about the youth in Turning Point, I think writing about the family could certainly be cathartic. Writing was a turning point in my own life story, and counselors in my drug and alcohol program had me write specifically about traumatic family moments in my life. What happened? My dad became the story’s villain. The perpetual bad guy. One-side. No redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, this reframing of childhood memories left me feeling more anger toward my father, not less. Only now, years later, am I able to “put myself in his shoes,” as Myers suggests. The result has indeed been healing because I see him in a more balanced light. But it wasn’t always like that.

    To the point: I think the Turning Point kids may benefit from family storytelling because they can be “seen, heard, and supported for the first time.” The jury is still out, however, on how healing these written stories will be in the long run.

    1. Ryan, this is such a good point – that we have to be careful in how we engage our writers on sensitive topics that are so often laden with trauma. Especially because we are not taking on the role of a counselor when we go into these workshops, we are not in control of how writers are able to process the emotions that come up when asked to write about family. And as much as we might encourage our writers to think about incorporating the good alongside the bad when they write about their family members, you’re right that not everyone will be able to access that balance easily. I wonder, then, about what we can do to give writers permission to write about family matters in an emotional and authentic way, without forcing the topic on them or leaving them completely without tools to cope with/process what it’s like for them. Maybe there is a way we can build positive and negative memories into prompts about family, or always giving alternative prompts in cases like that, to make the process of engaging with family trauma more consensual.

  2. Though most of the writers that attend my workshop are not youth or adolescent writers, I found that many of the suggestions from Gold’s “Expressive Writing with Teens at Risk” resonated with my experience with adults as well. While many of his suggestions are built into how we are already trained as SpeakOut! facilitators, there were a few I wanted to highlight that sparked my imagination for future workshops.

    The first was the use of poetry written by writers’ peers to spur inspiration and make emotions more accessible. While I bring older editions of SpeakOut! journals to hand out to new writers at each session, we haven’t used them as a tool to guide workshop before. Indeed, one of the concerns I’ve had about some of the material that I have brought in is too archaic, too irrelevant, and altogether inaccessible to my writers (by virtue of both content and style, at times). This has been a downfall of planning workshops around a theme, then searching for relevant pieces to share. Using pieces from the SpeakOut! journals – then possibly building a theme around that – would reverse the order in such a way that the poems read in workshop are more resonant, and hopefully more inspiring, for the writers than some of what we have previously read together.

    A second idea that caught my eye was that of providing writing structure as a starting point for prompts. So often, the prompts I have used have been open-ended, with endless ways to interpret them and endless ways to begin them. I have certainly noticed writers appearing stuck on how to start their piece, who move from brainstorming to actually writing with just a minute or so before the writing time ends and only end up with a sentence, or a line or two. At least for some prompts, then, it may be helpful to introduce more concrete structure so that the difficult work of writing on a blank page is taken care of for them. There are, of course, times when it would make most sense – and likely yield more creative and authentic writing – to leave prompts open for interpretation. But when I think of the mission of SpeakOut!, it is not just about the production of creative writing – it is also about supporting writers in developing a sense of competence and self-efficacy around writing. If they are constantly feeling overwhelmed by the countless possibilities nested in each prompt, that seems more likely to hinder certain writers than help them in that goal.

    1. Hi, Shelby–

      Like you, I tend to bring open-ended prompts. I don’t want to limit their experience and try to create a space in which they can guide their own healing. My writers, though, often feel stuck as you mentioned. I can’t speak for you, but I think that because I’m so used to writing I forget how foreign it can be for others. I tend to avoid specific instructions because it feels a bit patronizing (and makes the experience more like school), but maybe I should narrow my focus a bit more. I agree that a little nudge, especially in the first weeks of SpeakOut, could really help to get the ball rolling. It’s easier to work through a few clear objectives than to be left completely alone.

    2. Shelby,

      I like these lines: “… it is not just about the production of creative writing – it is also about supporting writers in developing a sense of competence and self-efficacy around writing. If they are constantly feeling overwhelmed by the countless possibilities nested in each prompt, that seems more likely to hinder certain writers than help them in that goal.” I think that it’s easy to focus more on the idea of producing creative work and less on the feeling of competence surrounding writing, and I like the idea of trying to shift those two goals out to balance more. Writers in my group also seem to struggle when prompts are too open-ended, and while I’m hesitant to place too many barriers on the process, I know there have been times that I’ve been trying to write a paper and wished that the prompt provided was more concrete. Sometimes I think that those sorts of prompts can actually yield more creativity, because it gives you a few key components to work with right off the bat.

  3. Richard Gold’s article, “Expressive Writing with Teens at Risk,” was the reading that stuck out the most to me for obvious reasons. Specifically, I was drawn to how he laid out the definitions/descriptions of a Reader, Appreciator, and Poetry Coach in the “Not Criticizing” portion of the Accepting Self-Expression section. The Listening, Valuing, and Sharing portions of this section seemed straightforward and intuitive – as well as the Not Criticizing – but this last portion put the role of the mentor’s response strategy into a more detailed and structured perspective. The Reader shows curiosity about the piece and the poet’s feelings as well as support for articulating feelings. The Appreciator expresses inquiry as to the examples in the poem as well as a desire for more poems from the writer. The Poetry Coach connects the writer’s style and poetry to specific poetic devices – like language, rhythm, weight, form, etc. – for the writer’s understanding of what/how they are doing. To the experienced writer, responding in all three of these ways would come naturally, and to some varying degree(s), these seems to happen conversationally in verbal responding within workshops. I think I would like to take these responsive styles into how my volunteers and I respond in writing to our kids’ poetry – as sort of an alternating designated role, that we can respond to the poems in a manner that fits well for us individually, but we must also adopt one of these perspectives each for the poems so that our kids receive a wide range of responsive types.

    In general, I plan to spend some time on Pongo’s website during the next week exploring some of the other strategies – or writing prompts/ideas – that they offer and see what might work well with our kids, obviously once we get to know them and their interests a little better. Similarly, when I read Gold’s portion on “Providing a Writing Structure” under the Jump-Starting Creative Flow section, I definitely recognized the promise/value in utilizing simplistic fill-in-the-black writing prompts for writers who may be uncomfortable writing in the beginning of their workshop experience. If I were to adapt it, I think I would like to do a project in that instead of using generalizing phrases/prompts as Pongo does, we would comb through a SpeakOut! journal for lines that are dependent clauses, questions, uncompleted statements, etc. and then use those as the starting phrases that the kids would complete. At the end of the exercise, we would tell them that the beginning lines came from writers like them from within the published journal in the hope that it would create some level of connection between the writers and encourage them to publish as well.

    1. Hi Matthew. I applaud your willingness to adopt some of Gold’s strategies and to find ways of integrating those ideas into your workshop. Since I have not attended any of your workshops, and since I’m not familiar with how your volunteers respond to the work produced, I will you give you my initial reaction to assigning particular feedback roles to individual group members: it seems, to me, like it could have positive and negative outcomes.

      The positive would be that the range of roles would be covered, and that all the elements of good, robust feedback would be given.

      The negative, of course, is that people don’t respond to art is such formulaic ways. For one piece, I may have a visceral reaction and would best be Appreciator. For another, I may have useful suggestions for tone or pacing or voice and would best be Poetry Coach.

      While the intent is on-point, I wonder how about the execution. And I certainly don’t want to discourage you from this approach; these are just my initial reactions. Perhaps you’ll have fantastic results and then I’ll have to give it a try myself.

  4. I feel similarly to Ryan here in the discussion of “Writing Your Family Story”. It is so powerful but at the same time so dangerous– I feel like a therapist, or someone who works one on one with clients, could feel much more assured in the suggestion to write family stories for each individual that they work with, whereas we are working with rooms full of people, and none of us truly know how helpful that may be for each of them, or whether they’re ready to delve into that quite yet.

    Though I’m not a therapist, I have a lot of experience with them. My mother was a therapist for many years, and I myself saw my first therapist at age 9 (I was very scared of climate change. Someone in my third grade class told me about it and I didn’t sleep for weeks). I’ve grown up engulfed in the idea of healing, and I’ve grown up exploring the different ways that someone might approach this. On the personal side of things, I’ve found writing my family (and friend, and other relationship) stories to be both painful and necessary. I don’t want to deprive the writers at commcorr of this therapeutic gem, but I also don’t want to force it on them.

    What’s so odd about trying to write a family story is all the pieces that your functional day-to-day memory has missed. I find often that if I sit down and attempt to really piece together a moment from my childhood or adolescence that new explanations emerge for me, or I remember details that now make sense but that I once brushed off, when I did not understand them. I want to be able to share this with the other writers if they haven’t worked through things like this already, because our family situations shape us in so, so many ways. I especially want to think more about integrating this practice into workshops because of the aim for intentionality that has recently been stressed in meetings.

    However, as Ryan said, I want to be careful. I want to first ask the writers what they would think about prompts in that area, and I want to leave the prompts open-ended enough that they don’t feel cornered into writing about something painful that they’re not ready to explore yet. It’s not my job to force them into that. I do not know what’s best for them in that way. I think that Adams provides some useful prompt-like questions page 167 of the reading, which I have tweaked a little, such as “What was the most important date in the lives of your mother-figure and/or father-figure?”, or “What are your family’s food traditions? How did the traditions get created? How long have they been in place?” These feel like relatively safe places to start. I remember vividly, on the second week of my year in Speakout!, I had a prompt about mothers and fathers which a particular writer said she could not write about. The same writer had expressed earlier in the workshop that she knew that it was going to be a good day when she came downstairs and her father was making tamales and listening to music. We asked her to write about that instead, and it turned out okay.

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