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Writing From the Heart

GilaWriters expressive writing group supports and encourages whole-being health.

 

Jeannie Miller places a handful of Chinese fortune cookies in the middle of the table. Six women sit with pads of paper before them, several eyeing the golden, cellophane-wrapped cookies with curiosity.

Group facilitator Jeannie Miller (l) and GilaWriters Project founder Elizabeth Baum prepare for a Thursday afternoon session at the Billy Casper Wellness Center. (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

"We haven't done this one in a while, and some of you are new to the group, so you've never done it," Miller says. "Well, at least not with us."

The "us" is the GilaWriters Writing Project, an expressive writing group begun by Elizabeth Baum, a recent transplant to the area, and sponsored by Silver City's Gila Regional Medical Center (GRMC) and the non-profit Planetree organization. Two separate groupings of the GilaWriters convene weekly, Tuesday nights in a conference room at the hospital and on Thursday afternoons here at the GRMC's Billy Casper Wellness Center.

Down the hall from the weight benches, before the big rehab room and the therapy pools, six women, including Miller, who is this group's facilitator, and Elizabeth Baum, the group's founder, have settled into the wellness center's Dreamland Room for a regular Thursday afternoon session.

Each participant has before her a light rose-colored table-tent-style card. On the front is each participant's name; on the back, facing the attendee, are the group's basic rules of order for responding to the written pieces that will be read aloud today.

"Since several of you are new, let's quickly go over the ground rules," Miller says with a disarming smile. "These are the things that help us feel safe to write whatever comes to us. And also, they help us keep focused on the work and what we're here to do."

She hands out a single page of instructions to each participant and reads over the highlights. The goal of expressive writing is to take the writers to a deeper level than they would reach in most group situations, Miller says. The facilitator will give starting points — like those waiting fortune cookies, glistening in their cellophane wrappers — and the participants will be given time to write about whatever is elicited by the "inspirations." The facilitator keeps time, the writing sessions running 10-20 minutes in length.

Miller goes on explaining to the group that the writers will read their pieces aloud after the timed writing exercise concludes. "But you can pass on reading at any time," she says deliberately, to which a few furrowed brows relax. A few more rules: All feedback is to be positive, nothing should be dished up or taken personally, all work is assumed to be fiction to keep participants from feeling too vulnerable, and the focus is on the writing — not the writers.

Ground rules covered, Miller invites each writer to choose a cookie, take a moment to read the fortune written on the slip of paper inside, and then write whatever comes to mind — for 10 minutes.

"No self-editing, no crossing out, just go with the flow and let come what comes," Miller reminds them with a smile. She will write a piece herself, while also watching the clock for the group. "Go!" she calls out.

The participants choose their cookies, some giving a laugh or snorting out an "oh, no!" to the messages they find inside, and then tuck into their pads of paper.

 

The creator and coordinator of the writing program, Elizabeth Baum, says she got the idea for GilaWriters from a writers' group in which she participated in Sacramento, Calif., before moving to the Silver City area in early 2006.

"I just loved it and got so much out of it," Baum says of the Sutter Writers, the California group. "When I came here, I knew I wanted to have another group like that." So she talked with administrators at GRMC and the Planetree program and received an immediate green light to start up the GilaWriters Project. "I moved here February of 2006 and we were off the ground that April," she says.

The sessions are offered at no charge, and are facilitated by regular volunteers — Trish Heck, RN, at GRMC and Miller at the Billy Casper center. Facilitators have a copy of and follow the model of Pat Schneider's book, Writing Alone and With Others, a reference Baum also recommends to group participants. Both men and women are welcome, and there are core participants who return weekly, as well as drop-ins.

Billed as "Expressive Writing Workshops for People of All Writing Abilities," the project is designed to support "whole-being health," Baum says.

While the group is under a hospital's auspices and the creative expression through the writing is designed to enhance whole health, Baum says, the participants are given free rein in their expression. They can write on whatever topic or image is inspired in them.

"We want to give people dealing with illness, in themselves or in a loved one, a place where they can write about that in a safe environment," she says. "We don't keep a focus on illness, but this is a place where people can bring those things that they are tripping over in life. But the subject matter is wide open."

 

Back in the wellness center writing session, Miller has given the writers warnings of "two more minutes," followed by "okay, let's finish up now," and then the pens are laid down.

All six participants read their works aloud, with topics ranging from death and pain to love, independence, beauty and email. No commenting on these "warm-up" pieces.

Miller checks in with the participants regarding their group process, then passes out today's "class materials" — five-page collections of snippets of poetry, quotes and short paragraphs. Three people read short selections for potential starting points, and then the group is off writing again, this time for 20 minutes.

Again, Miller calls time, and even though it is not required that all writers read their pieces, all do. After each piece is read, the others are invited to respond to it. All comments must be positive, Miller reminds everyone. The tent-table cards assist the participants with guiding questions: What did you like? What stayed with you? What was strong?

One responder goes off on a tangent, recounting an experience she had of which the piece just read reminded her. Facilitator Miller listens and waits just a bit, then says with a kind smile, "Okay, honey, I'm reeling you in. Comment on the writing only, please!"

The woman of tangential comments laughs good-naturedly at herself and gives one final comment — this one expressly related to the piece.

Over the course of the two-hour session, the group participates in three timed writings, commenting on each other's work. Readers have the right to ask for no comments, Miller reminds the group, and a listener can forgo commenting.

As the participants gather their pens and papers — all expressing appreciation for "the chance to open up," for "kind listening ears," for the opportunity to discipline themselves into getting something from their hearts out on paper — Miller reminds them of their agreement to confidentiality.

"Like they say on that TV show, 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!' What we do here stays in the room, right?" Miller says.

All in the group nod.

"Okay, good," she says, again with that disarming smile. "I hope you'll all come back!"

— Donna Clayton Lawder

 

The GilaWriters Writing Project groups meet Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gila Regional Medical Center's conference or boardroom, 1313 E. 32nd St., and Thursdays, 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Billy Casper Wellness Center, 300 N. 16th St., both in Silver City. No charge, no pre-registration required. For more information, call Elizabeth Baum at 537-3975 or email elizardbreath8@aol.com.

 

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