Writing for (a) Change

A workshop presented at the Second Annual Peace Educators’ Conference October 22-24, 2004

Athabasca University , Athabasca , Alberta

Conceived and Presented by Carolyn Pogue

 

This workshop was presented to 16 men and women in one short hour.

 

Welcome

My name is Carolyn  Pogue, I’m a writer, a member of the Woman in Black peace group and I want to change the world. Welcome to this hour. I am one who believes that writing can change your life. When it is shared, it can change the lives of others, and therefore, a little bit of the world. In this hour, I want to give you the opportunity to write, to talk about perspective and to introduce you to 2 wonderful books I’ve come across lately. We each introduced ourselves and gave the name of a film, book, article, play, speech or poem that changed or expanded the way we thought about something. This resulted in a solid list of influential works.

 

Free Fall Writing

Here we’ll be using free fall writing – circumventing the editor. This is a technique that W.O. Mitchell used to get to the heart of the writing. The theory is that we have two sides to our brains and that the left is the side that wants things in logical order, straight lines and without much fuzziness. The right side is the poetic side that longs for beauty, wants to skip through the daisy field and enjoys making wavy lines with fat paint brushes. In free fall writing we use our intuitive, right side. By writing as fast as our hands can travel, we circumvent the bossy left side and so write with our hearts. We aren’t concerned about grammar or if it’s “good” or not. We just go! I read aloud Natalie Goldberg’s “Rules for Writing” from her book Wildmind.

 

Exercise 1

We are at the mid point in this peace conference and have taken in a lot of information, images and ideas. This is a moment to pause for breath. In this exercise, begin to write where you are right now. You may write in the first or third person. Describe how you are mentally, physically, spiritually. You will not share this with anyone unless you wish. Begin and don’t stop writing for 5 minutes. Go.

 

A Few Words about Perspective

Art instructors teach people to see again. They teach them to look at an object and see the negative space around it. They teach students to see relationships between things and people, show them how to see distance between objects on a flat plane, and how to observe colour and shadow. Writers need to learn and keep relearning to see again. We can then make our writing richer, and bring to the forefront the emotions, insights and freshness that lie dormant within us.

 

It is good to play with perspective whether we are writing, voting, reading a newspaper or maybe…. looking at trees:  One day my husband and I were in San Salvador . It was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero. We went to the Jesuit Seminary where 6 priests, their housekeeper and her daughter had been murdered. It was a courtyard, now planted with roses. The housekeeper’s husband tends the garden now. It was brutal and terrible event among many such events in those days in that country. While I stood there in the sunshine, I looked at the old tree with its gentle, graceful branches. I thought about what trees witness in their lifetimes.

 

My friend Diane D’Souza lives in Hyderabad India . She is a peacemaker of wild imagination, a visual artist, dancer and writer. She thought about a tree, too. After a journey in Sri Lanka , where the country held its breath in a fragile peace, Diane wrote “Ode”. Here is an excerpt:

Ode

I didn’t notice you

Didn’t really see you

At least, not at first.

 

Is it any wonder?

So much was new

The fields wildly flowering

The shells of homes

Like unkempt gravestones.

 

The signs blood red with

Skulls and crossed bones

Warning in a language more universal than

Sinhala or English or Tamil:

Stick to the road

We assume no responsibility

For casual whims

Which take you into beckoning fields

Never mind the cattle now wild

The peacocks with swaying unfurled tails

The grasses flowering into seed.

Stick to the road

Away from danger

Buried metal, designed to maim.

 

Is it any wonder I missed your dignified presence

In this shouting silence

This too loud echo of gunfire recently stilled.

 

When I saw you

Really saw you

I was jolted awake

Questions tumbling

Suddenly into light:

Did the bullets hurt?

Did the shells lodged without your flesh

Cripple?

Or did you simply receive them

With a thud, a shake and a shudder

A terrified bird fleeing nest and young

With a frightened cry.

 

How many bullets

Does it take

To kill tree?

 

Play with perspective. Write from one perspective and then switch to another. Read a newspaper story and ask, “How would this story be told from the perspective of the victim? The judge? A river?”

 

This summer I discovered a delightful book by Paul Fleischman called Seedfolks. Fleischman uses 13 perspectives to tell the story of the flowering of a vacant city lot. Old, young, Haitian, Korean, Hispanic. Tough, haunted, hopeful people all get the idea from a little girl who begins with lima beans, that they too, can take away garbage, dig the dirt and plant a few seeds. Seedfolks is a book for children, teens or adults that will lift your spirit and plant all kinds of ideas for planting peace, too.

 

 Exercise 2

As I read the following words, take a moment to make free associations. Later or at home, you might realize that you have the framework for a poem.

 

Tree – Story – River – Child – News – Government – Peace – Earth – Seeds – Love

 

Freedom Writers Diary

This summer I found a glorious book written by 150 kids and a teacher in California . Twelve years ago this rookie teacher walked into a class of kids labeled “losers.” Early on, she intercepted a racial caricature. She was furious and told the class that this was exactly the kind of propaganda that the Nazis used during the Holocaust. The kids were silent for a moment, then one asked what the Holocaust was. None of them had ever heard of it. And this is what makes this story unique. The teacher asked another question. “How many of you have been shot at?” Nearly every hand went up. And so this white yuppie-looking teacher threw out all her lessons and introduced the kids to The Diary of Anne Frank and then to Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic about her time during the war in Bosnia . To make this story short, the books changed the lives of the kids. They continued their education, many went on to post secondary institutions and now they are working to change the lives of other kids as they continue to write, go on speaking tours and host a website.

 

We have kids in this country and in this province who live with violence or fear of violence in their homes, communities and on the school yard, too. I found great hope in this book and have bought a copy for a young friend whose dad is dead and whose mother is a drug addict. She keeps a journal and sometimes I think that it helps keeps her alive and sane. She is 15.

 

If you work with young people, there is another book that gives me great hope and that is Craig and Marc Keilburger’s  Take Action: A Guide to Active Citizenship. These young men (Craig founded “Kids Can Free the Children” and Marc is co-founder of “Leaders Today”. Both organizations empower youth.)

 

Exercise 3

You are walking down a street in Edmonton . It is night or day, winter or summer, you’re alone or with someone - you decide. A young man steps in front of you. “Got change?” he asks. Write as fast as you can for 5 minutes. (Some other time, you might switch to the pov of the young man and write another scene.)

 

Four brave people read their stories aloud to wild applause!

 

Thank you!

End of Session