August 22nd, 2011
We end our Summer Writing Blogstitute with an entry by teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.
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We hope you enjoyed our Blogstitute and that the posts helped you prepare for a new year of writing and teaching writing. We hope you will join us for future blog events — until then keep commenting and keep writing!
Expect the Unexpected: An Unlikely Writing Group
Years ago, when I moved away from New Hampshire, Donald Graves made me a promise: “Wherever you go,” he said, “you’ll find other literate people.” Sure enough, in Cleveland, South Carolina, and New York City, I was blessed with friends who loved what I love.
When I came back to New England in 2008, it was heart wrenching to leave my job at NYU. My husband had retired, and, as a result of what turned out to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, full-time work eluded me. During those months of adjusting, there was one constant in my life: daily exercise at a local women’s gym. In a small room, women worked the machines in a circuit, so it was hard to avoid other people. But surely these women’s lives were unlike my own. Many spent winters in Florida, while others spoke of playing golf, quilting, or gardening. I kept my head down and did my exercises in silence.
One day I overheard a woman named Kerry describe how much she admired her mother for raising four children alone. When Kerry turned thirty, she had hired a private detective and tracked her father down. Fascinated with her story, I blurted out, “You really should write about that.”
“Write?” she asked. “I’m not really a writer.”
“Well,” I told her, “I had a teacher who used to say, ‘Everyone should write her own story.’” My friend Don Murray believed that writing lets us discover meaning in experience.
A week later, another one of the women at the gym was eager to tell me she had found Murray’s Boston Globe columns online. “He’s a great writer,” she said. I gave her his books My Twice-Lived Life and The Lively Shadow. Thus began my friendship with Beth, sharing reactions to books, chatting about our families.
Slowly, the gym took on new dimensions. A year passed, we continued to talk books on a regular basis, and then several things seemed to coalesce. Beth was itching to try writing. Kerry’s mom became ill, her memory faltered, and Kerry lamented stories left untold. She wondered if she should write down some of her own recollections for her daughter. Nancy, an accomplished journalist, wanted to try memoir and was looking for advice. Michelle, the mother of two boys, one severely handicapped, wanted to write about them.
We began our writing group with trepidation, holding our first meeting at the local library where Beth was a trustee. New to writing for an audience, the women were nervous and unsure of what to expect. Though I’ve taught writing and worked with new writers for years, I felt rusty, not having written anything personal in a while. What if I had nothing to say? I remembered that Murray always saw himself as a student at the writer’s desk, ready to be surprised by whatever appeared on the page. His spirit propelled me forward. Kerry’s husband baked madeleines for our first meeting and—partly because good food builds community and helps break down barriers—the tension eased. We spoke about what we wanted from the group: an audience for our stories; gentle, supportive feedback; questions.
Now we gather at each other’s houses once a month. The anxiety has lessened with each meeting, and stories have emerged: the courage of sick friends; memories of parents, siblings, and teachers; the heartache of first jobs, leaving home, and the rigors of getting older. Sometimes we try prompts, but mostly we write for our own purposes: Kerry, a eulogy for a beloved friend and a tribute to a colleague of twenty-five years; Michelle, blog posts about motherhood; Nancy, reflections on being a bone marrow donor for her brother.
Our meetings run late. Friends now, we hate to say goodnight, but there’s something else. The stories have become richer, more textured, and replete with the “revealing specifics” Murray prized. Because we consider each other “audience,” we respect deadlines and strive to be more effective.
As I spend time with grandchildren, students, or my husband, part of me assumes the role of spectator-participant, and the writing yields new attention to ordinary days. A boy I worked with in Chinatown years ago observed, “Most of the things that happen in your everyday life aren’t very important, but when you write about them, you make them important.”
We tell students that writing is a way to communicate, but it is so much more. Writing allows us to discover what our lives have been, are now, and may yet be. What would happen if busy teachers made time for this kind of exploration on a regular basis? To write about life and work, and then to meet with people eager to listen, seems a worthy endeavor. Literate people find each other, yes; and, in the sharing of stories, we sustain each other too.
Entry Filed under: Writing