A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Writing Workshop

Yesterday I went to the first of five autobiographical writing workshop classes. The instructor, a woman in her mid fifties, is named Linda Underhill and she's written a collection of essays (which I have not yet read) called The Unequal Hours: Moments of Being in the Natural World (1999). She was also the director of the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh for 12 years and has taught many creative writing classes. For this class she neatly arranged about 13 writing desks in a semi-circle. On each desk was an 18" x 24" piece of white drawing paper with line drawn horizontally down the length of it. There was also a standard sized sheet of paper with a list of what she plans to cover during each of the five classes. For yesterday's class she listed: "Timetables / Great Beginnings / Sense/Memory Exercises". The large piece of drawing paper was for the timetable.

Truly a great idea and I reccommend it to anyone who wants to write a memoir. At the beginning of the line you put your birthdate and at the end of the line you put the present date, then you divide the line into decades of your life. Above the line you list important facts and/or memories of your life during that particular decade and below the line you put list important historical/cultural/social facts for that same time period. So far I've found making these lists this way is visually pleasing and motivational. When I got home I continued working on this personalized timeline and did some research on the time period using my computer encyclopedia. I just never made the connection before between my life and the world at large, so this procedure is opening my eyes, drawing my interest and placing my life in a greater context all at once. And I thought about it some more that, of course, you'd need a large sheet of paper to do this. So simple yet quite effective. So this is my first thank you to Ms. Underhill.

The class is made up of 12 women (myself included) and 1 man. I'd say most of the women are in their fifties or older and the man is around that age as well. Ms. Underhill had us each tell the class our name, where we were from and what we want to get out of the workshop. I was the first one to do this and I was brief but many of the women were quite forthcoming about themselves and their writing experiences and hopes for the future. Several of them had done writing for children and wanted to write for their children and grandchildren the stories of their lives.

After our introductions, our teacher said that she would welcome people reading their work but that it wasn't a requirement. I know if I do read any of my work I will have to push myself because my tendency now is to hold back, especially in group situations. The class is just large enough though that there is not enough time for everyone to read their work and do the in class exercises at the same time. And I wondered, who will be willing to read? Well, we did two writing exercises and when the time came for people to share there were several woman who had no problems reading what they had written. One woman in particular wrote quite well about a particular memory and in such a sort time. I was fumbling with my own words and had little desire to share and so I didn't, but I was pleased that others were willing and I found what they had to say interesting.

Going to this writing class made me think of another writing class I took in my town about ten years ago before I became psychotic. It was much smaller (maybe six people) and more intimate and we each got to read our work aloud for others to respond to and critique. The teacher, also a published writer, was great and I had felt welcomed and comfortable. Of course, this class was held over the span of three months instead of just one which allowed us all to relax and become familiar with each other. In this workshop the dynamics will necessarily be different and I know I'll only get out of it what I put into it.

The teacher had recommended that we come with loose leaf paper, binder and pencils (or pens) which I did. This is the first time I've used an old fashioned loose leaf notebook in a very long time and I'm really enjoying it so far. It has two side pockets (where I put the three handouts she gave us) and it has a smooth hard writing surface like a clip board. What's cool about the loose leaf binder is that I can remove or add pages at will, something I can't do in a spiral notebook (which is what I have been using for years now). So the two new things, the timeline and the new notebook, are making an impression on me and I feel ready to continue working.

I did some writing today and began remembering people from my past who I haven't thought of for years. The process is not painless though because in retrospect I see where I made my mistakes and I feel some regret along with the pleasure. But now I have a lot of material to work with whereas when I was young I was sort of lost and inexperienced with life. The trick will be getting the memories down and trying to organize them. Ms. Underhill says that it's fine to start from anytime in your life, instead of the traditional start from the very beginning and work to the present. It's too soon to know which approach I'll ultimately take but it's good to know that there's no strict procedure.

All in all, a good first class.
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