This semester I taught two creative writing workshops—one for cancer patients and one for healthcare practitioners. I went into them knowing I would have something to share on the creative writing side, but I felt completely unequipped to teach a group presumably coming to the workshop for reasons I had no skills or experience to speak into. All participants would be older than me, all with greater senses of suffering and the world and living through it.
I chose the curriculum based on the poems that have changed my life, hoping the words that reached me on my soul level would reach them, too. That was all I had to give—poems that made me cry in France, single word choices that make me wonder how the poems that hold them were ever still tucked inside an actual person’s mind.
And I fed each group dinner every week. I read catering menus and took down dietary restrictions and preferences. I briefly (and insanely) considered just cooking for them myself. I gathered plates and utensils and opened plastic containers of hummus and fruit and lettuce. I laid the table and watched as my people filled their plates, sat down, and readied their notebooks and pens.
Each week they wrote so well, breaking their own hearts open, bringing their truest selves to the table. They went for seconds and wrote some more. They taught me with their wisdom, offering the truths they’d come to believe deep in their bones. They sat up straighter when things made sense and were willing to admit when they didn’t. They gave what they had.
And in that space—which we set apart during the first meeting as safe and inherently valuable—what I brought and what they gave came together to make something that keeps me up at night, something that makes me sit back and take deep breaths. One of my participants, on her post-workshop assessment, wrote about how our five meetings brought healing after a loved one’s death. Together, we dealt with past hurts and present ones. We were changed.
And I was leveled. To bring healing to another person is no small thing, and to say that knowing I did that for someone humbled me is an understatement. Why was it me? How did it happen? What did I actually do?
I gave them poems, and I laid the table. (I made copies and I shopped.) But I believe that something happens beyond us, beyond logistics, when we bring words and food together—that space gives us a chance to be healed. When we nourish our bodies and nourish our souls at the same time, when we sit down at the table and open a notebook, our souls start to stir.
Ultimately, I tend to think we all come to writing and the written word for the same reason—to feel deeply and meaningfully, and with clarity, and differently than we have been. I taught people who needed that as a result of experiences that differ from my own, but we all needed it. We needed to be met and known and fed. To bring our open hearts, to be healed where we are broken. To pull up a chair at the table.