Years ago, when I first started teaching writing, a woman signed up for my class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the N.C. mountains because her doctor told her that if she didn’t do something for herself soon, she’d die. She wasn’t looking for a writing class. She didn’t think of writing at all. She was just looking to do something for herself, doctor’s orders, and she ended up in my group. I will call her Gladys.
In this class we wrote from prompts, and read back to each other, and received each others’ writing by recalling what we liked. We weren’t trying to create anything specific – no novels or poems or essays, although we ended up with parts of all of those things. The purpose, though, was to get used to writing as a way of expressing ourselves, and to get comfortable telling stories.
As the week went on, the class became a community, and we became important to each other, and we all found out more about each other. We found out about Gladys’s alcoholic husband. Her demanding adult children. The dishes in the sink and the laundry on the floor. The smack across her face. The black eye she covered with makeup.
We didn’t try to fix these things for her. We didn’t offer advice or even comfort. We didn’t judge in any way. We just responded to the writing, as we did with each person’s work. Write, read, receive, let go, repeat. By doing this we held space for Gladys to speak her truth. That was all.
Gladys wrote the scenes of her life that week. The scenes spooled from her pen and stitched themselves into story. Her story. It may have been the first time she ever told her story, even to herself. Stories are about pattern, and as Gladys wrote she saw the pattern of her life without the distractions of daily drama her situation kept her in.
After that week Gladys went home and left her husband. She rented a small apartment and lived alone. She wrote me a few times about how peaceful her life was now. She thanked me. What had I done? Had I broken up a marriage? No, of course not. I’d only held space with a group of writers for a person to hear her own thoughts. In the burning times, the times when women were being prosecuted as witches and killed, this might have been considered the work of a witch.
Powerful women, smart women, women with property, women who healed others with herbs and deep knowledge, women who were not married, women who lived outside the “norm” were accused of practicing witchcraft. The accused was often tested physically for witchcraft by various means. Some women were put in a chair and dunked in water. If she was a witch, she wouldn’t drown. If she was a normal human being, which she was, she would drown. Another test was called needling, a woman’s skin was pricked and pricked and pricked and pricked with a needle, all over her body, because somewhere on a witch was a bit of flesh that would not bleed. And if she bled, which she did, she was not a witch. And likely dead.
Isn’t it interesting how the tests for witch always leave a woman dead. And isn’t it interesting how Gladys was told she was at death’s door if she didn’t do something for herself.
I think that before the writing class, Gladys’s life was the equivalent to being needled. She was pricked and pricked and pricked and pricked by an abusive husband. Pricked too by a society that didn’t care about her as a human being. Likely pricked by things she’d learned and absorbed as a child, about how a woman needs to make sacrifices, stand by her man, have dinner on the table at a certain time, etc. etc. etc. Thankfully Gladys had someone in her life, a doctor, who could see beyond immediate medical needs into the soul of a woman who needed, simply, to do something for herself. And thankfully the thing she chose to do was attend my writing class. And thankfully, even though I was new to teaching, I was able to create an environment where, for one week, Gladys could be with her story. She could tell it and have it received. As the week went on she began to understand the concept of emotional safety, and she began to see that she didn’t have that at home.
At the end of the week Gladys wrote a piece about coming down off the mountain and ending her marriage. We responded to it as we had responded to everything else. Without judgement. None of us knew if Gladys would leave her husband or not, but we could see that the week had affected her, and that she was stronger for it. The space we provided for writing gave her space to trust herself.
This is the alchemy of writing. In my work as a teacher, I’ve witnessed this alchemy again and again, women and men coming back to themselves, hearing themselves, hearing each other, becoming stronger. I’ve seen the tough and guarded made vulnerable. I’ve seen the meek and voiceless start to speak up for themselves. I’ve seen barriers break down and humanity show through. I’ve seen tears burst forth from my writing prompts, not because my prompts are so great, but because the process and the safe space I create in my workshops allow people to reach deep inside themselves and bring forth their truth. Be it fiction, memoir, poetry, essay – writing is always about truth. Art is always about relationship to self.
And frankly, if bringing people to writing, bring people to themselves, is the work of witch then I accept it. Even in these burning times.