Op-Eds and guest columns present an effective way to make your voice heard on issues you care about. If you are a paid or volunteer marketing coordinator for an agency or institution, Op-Eds are great (free!) way to increase your organization’s reach to potential donors, volunteers, and clients.
This Saturday, May 1, I’ll be leading a one-day remote workshop from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Westport Writers Workshop on Op-Eds. I’ll be going over how to get the word out about your favorite causes, or write a reflective column about something you care about. I’ll also teach you how to work with editors, write well-crafted, convincing arguments that adhere to publications’ guidelines and word counts, and how to leverage information about your favorite agency’s mission to increase your chances of gaining publication and expanding your audience.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, I published a column based on a conversation with fellow Newtown mom Carol Ann Davis about creative writing workshops and their power to address trauma. Davis is a poet and essayist, and a colleague of mine at Fairfield University, where I am an adjunct and she is currently director of the school’s MFA in Writing Program.
My column, along with an excerpt from Davis’s 2020 book of essays reflecting on the Sandy Hook tragedy and the effect it has had on her family and community, can be found at Hearst Connecticut Media web sites, including this link.
As I crafted the column, there was so much to wrap my words around and inevitably I could feel some of what I had intended to say slipping away. It’s perhaps the nature of a day as overwhelming as Dec. 14 always is for people in the wider community here. A pervasive sense of loss haunts all of Fairfield County in relation to the day. Its public spaces are dotted with many of the playgrounds built in remembrance of the 20 children of Sandy Hoo who were lost that day, a string of colorful and safe play areas that extend past the one my family used to frequent, set on a sandy beach in Stamford, into play spaces in neighboring New York and New Jersey, each with featuring a motif or element designed to honor the children the spaces are named for – a butterfly, a firemen’s bell.
View of Lake Lillinonah, Newtown, Conn.
When I walk my dog to the lake down the street from my house, I often rest on a bench dedicated to Jessica Rekos, who, like my son, enjoyed horseback riding, and who also loved whales and water, and who never reached her 10th birthday, the age her parents had promised to buy her a longed-for horse of her own. Last night as my family returned in the evening dusk from the grocery store, on the lookout for light displays, appreciative as we always are, of both the understated and the outrageous, we also drove past the 26 lanterns lit each of the past several years on the town green in remembrance of the 20 children and six educators who lost their lives that awful day in Sandy Hook.
This is just to say that the whispers of loss are everywhere in Newtown, as they were throughout the county of Fairfield the year of the tragedy. We lived in Stamford then, but I remember driving to Jones Family Farm in Shelton to cut down our tree that year and wondering for only a moment what important personage was being conveyed in the funeral procession driving slowly along the highway with heavy police escort. Then I realized it was almost certainly for Jesse Lewis, 6, who earned his hero status by shouting for his peers to run, by being so brave in the presence of horror.
It’s too much for the heart to bear some days, and I am so peripheral to the core tragedy. Davis, whose children attended Hawley Elementary School in 2012 – the school nearest Sandy Hook and the school my son would attend if her were not transported to a special needs school each day – has written about her own family’s grief and efforts to shoulder it in her new essay collection The Nail in the Tree. Davis notes that her family’s story, heavy with pain as it is, is the “not-suffering, happy-ending story.” What the level of pain inside the center of the story is, we can imagine, if we are empathetic and try. Certainly, it seems to me, that our most rudimentary ethical bonds as fellow members of the human family call on us to try. But we can never know.
How can creative writing help? How does poetry and writing workshop help? Davis says it brings us back to the original poetry circle, the sharing of personal and collective history around the fire.
“Poetry is supposed to be builder of community, a way to convey history,” she says. “When we share it, we remember.” And in remembering, in the unison of our voices, even when those voices are speaking our pain, we draw strength.
This evening, thanks to Westport Writers Workshop, I will be leading a writing workshop at my local women’s shelter. It’s a workshop I’ve been wanting to lead for a long time, and I’m nervous about it.
I’ve been teaching writing for about 12 years now – to college students, to adults, to autistic and neurotypical teens. But tonight is different. Or maybe it isn’t at all.
Let me back up.
I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a survivor of generational domestic abuse. Over the years, for as long as I can remember, writing has saved me. Sometimes I turn my back on it, sometimes I forget about its healing power, or even fear it. But every time I go back to it, it saves me again.
I want to help other survivors learn how to access that lifeline, if it is the right one for them. I want to help them find and have confidence in their voice. I want to help them claim and declare their truth and find strength from the process that leads them there. I want them to have something that is entirely of them, and also magical and powerful, and also under their control.
From almost the moment I learned to write, writing kept me sane, kept me alive. Before that, imaginative and creative play, storytelling and story making kept me – or at least some vital part of me – emotionally safe in moments when I was not physically safe. In moments when I most needed it, in the aftermath of trauma, and sometimes even as trauma unfolded around me, I could always find it.
During times of illness or loss, writing has helped me heal, or at least salved the wounds and scabbed over the broken places well enough to help me survive. I want to guide others in their writing so they can access written expression and their writer’s voice for healing too.
Writing isn’t the only way I’ve worked to heal. More than twenty years ago, and after many years of therapy, I decided to become certified as a crisis counselor so I could work on a hotline for the local sexual assault crisis center in the city where I then lived. The therapeutic strategies we employed will be familiar to anyone trained to work with survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner abuse. We would strive from the first moments of interaction to give the survivor back her or his agency.
I’ll illustrate. If I was speaking to someone who had called the hotline, I might say: “I would like to talk to you for a while. Is that something you would like to do? My name is Lisa. Do you want to give me your name, or would you prefer not to?” If I was meeting a client at the hospital, I might say “Would you like a glass of water? I’m happy to try to get you anything I can. Would you like me to stay during the exam? It’s completely up to you.” This may seem counterintuitive. The person I was interacting with had called a hotline or had asked for a victim advocate to be with them. So why all the questions? Because intimate violence robs victims of their agency at the most basic level – at the threshold of the body. With every question we were repairing that rupture.
Years later, when I began taking writing workshops inspired by the Amherst method, I was struck by some key similarities. Writing group leaders using this methodology offer prompts, but also make clear to participants that they can choose to ignore the prompt and write about anything they want during the time allotted. They can choose to share or not share. They can write toward pain or back away from it, or shift topics at any point. The instructor guides, but the writer is in charge of their writing journey.
I’ll be employing a modified Amherst-inspired writing workshop with a half dozen survivors tonight, along with two certified counselors. There will be no “critique”; only supportive feedback about moments in the writing that spoke to us. This is another hallmark of the Amherst method: no tearing anyone else’s writing down when it is in its most vulnerable fledgling state. I want to keep the space safe and empowering. I want to guide the participants through the writing workshop I wish I had been able to attend when I was at my most raw moments of healing. It’s a tall order. I promise to do my best.