When her daughter had cancer, author Abigail Thomas began teaching memoir writing to cancer patients at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston. Inspired by a visit to the oncology support program, Thomas offered to give a five-week writing workshop. Four years later, the workshop is still going strong.
Craig Mawhirt, one of the original students, felt isolated while recovering from cancer on his vocal cords. Joining the group helped him rejoin the world. “What saved me was writing and everything that goes with that,” he said. “You feel like you’re creating, you’re doing something, you’re important.” Now cancer-free, he continues to attend the workshop every week.
Mawhirt, an artist and an art historian, had had what he termed “a beautiful, deep Gregory Peck voice.” Family and friends abandoned him after his diagnosis, he felt.
When his vocal cords were removed, he had to relearn how to speak and how to swallow. The workshop members have become his family. “We became a solid bloc, helping each other,” he explained. “You’re listening to people read what they wrote. You read something, and people say, How amazing! It makes you feel close.”
Illness is not always the subject of the writing. When new students come into the class, Thomas asks them to pick any ten years of their life and reduce that period to two pages of three-word sentences. “It’s like an initiation,” she explained. “There’s nowhere to hide behind a three-word sentence. The sentences can be funny, horrifying, interesting. There’ll be a sentence that has a little hum. I want to know about that. I have them take this sentence and turn it into a memoir.”
Mawhirt wrote a piece, called Hush-a-Bye Island, about his mother singing to him when he was three years old. “I can remember climbing down from my high chair, my mom bathing me, putting me to bed, singing to me,” he muses in his scratchy, hollow, post-tracheotomy voice. “My mother’s gone, her voice is stilled, and my voice was lost to cancer. But I still think about that song and hear it. And I’m just as scared as when I was three — but I’m scared of different things.”
In 2013, Thomas’ students published an anthology of short writings, Holding On, Letting Go, edited by several of the writers, including Mawhirt. He found the experience to be part of his healing process. “I worked on it 16 hours a day,” he said. “The book demanded that I get involved. I had a job, discussing what should go in, arranging the stories.”
After years of struggling to find employment, Mawhirt now works as an archivist at the Ulster County Veterans Service Agency.
Anique Taylor teaches a weekly poetry class for the oncology support program, as well as prose classes for the Bard College Lifetime Learning Institute and the Roxbury-based collective Writers in the Mountains. At Benedictine, said Taylor, “We don’t talk about healing, but in all my classes that’s an underlying influence. Poetry can save your life.”
Poet Annie LaBarge, who has been in both Taylor’s and Thomas’ workshops, is a head-injury survivor, a volunteer at the oncology support program, and a former teacher. “I don’t know many other groups of people who’ve experienced as much loss as in my life,” she said. “I’ve had two suicides in my family, lost my career and my functioning. Coming back from a head injury was hard to do as a solitary person.” Group members have taken her into their families, and she feels Thomas knows her better than anyone in her own family does.
Jerrice Baptiste, who has published a book of poetry, Wintry Mix, and two children’s books, joined Taylor’s workshop because it helped her cope with having close relatives affected by cancer. “In the group, you don’’t have to pretend that everything is well,” she said. “You can talk about the devastation. And then putting something on paper makes it more real, more tangible. It speeds up the healing process.”
When Taylor started her class last fall, she was planning to read well-known poets, analyze their work, and give assignments. “I soon realized that people were coming in with different needs,” she said. “Recently we’ve been carefully workshopping poems that students bring in from their work between classes. Through that we discuss character, voice, diction, flow — the most important always being ‘heart’ and what is most deeply affecting. With very few changes, we can turn a poem that isn’t quite working into something wonderful.”
Poetry takes on a particular power because it’s non-linear, said Taylor. “When we give ourselves over to writing poetry, we open up a flow that is partly ours and partly something uncharted, that flows through us, unlocking the unknown,” she explained. “In connecting with this and expressing it, we welcome in a kind of healing that we hadn’t known existed.”
Some of the students have writing experience. Others are beginners. “People who haven’t written before have really found ways to express all kinds of things,” noted Thomas. “It’s not always cathartic, but it makes something else out of what’s otherwise impossible to live with.”
Taylor has watched newcomers blossom. “People start, and after a few weeks, they seem completely different — more accepting, glad to be here, glad to do some writing.”
Thomas offers writing prompts in her classes. For example, said Mawhirt, “She’ll say, write two pages on the day you knew you were an adult. Actually, not everyone does every prompt. We’re writers now; we have our own agendas.”
The hardest part of being in the groups is that people die. Five members of the memoir class have been lost to cancer, and one was in hospice as of this writing. “It’s heartbreaking,” said LaBarge, “but it makes the bonds deeper.”
“It’s very hard,” agreed Thomas. “But they’re always there. We know where everyone sat, and we have writing from them. We’ve all been part of what has been an important part of their lives. So it’s both a loss and a gift to have been part of.”
Thomas feels that teaching the workshop has almost been more healing for her than for her students. “It gives you a wider lens to view life,” she said. “For two hours a week, people bear witness to one another’s lives. It’s so clear that all we have is right here. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Even if it’s awful, try and let it in.” Thomas’ recently published memoir is entitled, appropriately enough, What Happens Next and How to Like It.
Baptiste, musing on the healing power of writing, said of the poetry group, “The work is out there to be seen and be heard — and to be held. Anique’s class does that. It’s sacred space.”
For more information about workshops and events at Benedictine Hospital’s oncology support program, call 339-2071, email [email protected], or see http://www.hahv.org/service/osp-programs-groups-events.