Writers’ Workshop Online: Sessions III & IV

Last fall, AIR created a new bi-monthly writing series! Aptly titled, Writers’ Workshop, this program aims to expose teens to professional writers and by proxy, various forms and approaches to writing. Each session is facilitated by a different guest writer(s), which has a number of benefits for our teens. For one, our guests impart insight into the creative process. They share with our teens varied approaches to and perspectives on writing, and in doing so, reflect on the rewards and struggles of artmaking. Our guest writers also reinforce the notion that there aren’t any requirements for becoming a writer; there’s no “one way” or “right way” to earn that identity- you become a writer by engaging in the act of writing and making it a practice.

The global pandemic made our spring writing sessions virtual ones, but that didn’t get in the way of our teens’ creative connection and exploration of language. Here is a look into sessions III and IV… 

Session III: “My Mental Health Reminds Me of…”

Session III guest poet, Maya Williams, performing a piece for our group

We were grateful to feature performance poet Maya Williams for Writers’ Workshop III, held earlier this spring. Maya has a background in creative writing and community-based social work, and they also have a strong connection to Arts In Reach. Each summer, Maya holds a poetry workshop for participants in our SongWorks program, and in the fall, they invite AIR teens to Cambridge for the FEMS poetry slam, an organization of which they are youth coordinator. 

Maya’s session was focused around the theme of mental health, which was especially timely given its scheduling on the cusp of Mental Health Awareness month. To get our group warmed up, we began with a collaborative storytelling exercise. We improvised three short stories as a group and examined recurring themes. Next, Maya asked us to reflect on stories in popular culture, specifically those around mental health. Teens shared poignant and spot-on responses about the portrayal of mental health in the media: “It’s not normalized.” “You don’t see a lot of high-functioning depressed people.” 

Maya then shared one of their own pieces titled, “My Depression Is…” It was compelling and meaningful to see Maya perform their work. Their vulnerability and openness around their own challenges with mental health set the tone for our group, and reaffirmed the safe space of our session. “My Depression Is…” also alluded to the healing power of art – in Maya’s case, using writing and performing poetry as a means to “address and combat” depression – which was powerful for our group to hear. 

Next, Maya assigned us each a word with which to complete the phrase, “My mental health reminds me of…” We worked individually to create a short piece and reconvened for an optional share-back of work and/or the writing process. Maya closed by sharing local mental health resources to strengthen our awareness of free services available in our area. 

Session IV: Cultivating Mindfulness, Embracing Process, and Developing Voice

Session IV guests, Amanda Holt and Alicia Spates, introduce themselves and our projects

We were thrilled to feature two guest writers at our last session: artist and educator, Alicia Spates, and LMT and holistic healing practitioner, Amanda Holt! Amanda and Alicia converged their backgrounds to bring us three techniques for developing and strengthening voice via mindfulness and writing. 

Our session began with an activity to give voice to our bodies. Amanda led us through a body scan and 4-7-8 breath pattern exercise, and we were encouraged to try a few cycles on our own. On the exhale we were asked to play with the idea that “our voice is our power.” Although this statement was geared toward the breathwork, it truly foreshadowed and encapsulated the theme of our session. We wrote a few lines about our experience in the quiet and gave ourselves the grace to embrace challenges that occurred. Amanda and Alicia underscored the ability of this tool to help us name what we feel and experience in our body. They also noted that we all have the ability to practice and engage this technique whenever we have the need. 

Next, we shifted focus to identity. We began with a brief discussion around the stillness and pause imposed by Covid-19, and silver linings that have emerged, particularly around self-reflection. From the shift in living a connected life, to a virtual one, Covid has forced us to relook at who we are and what drives us. Alicia asked, “what creative spaces do we have when we don’t have those fillers coming at us everyday?” Alicia and Amanda led us through an exercise that allowed us to create a word splash of our identities. We were asked to record who we are and who we want to be, and to reflect on how others see us, because those external perspectives become woven into our identities, whether we want them to, or not. 

We had about 5-10 minutes to work on this activity; we were instructed to begin at the very surface level (i.e. daughter, friend, student) and to let the exercise take us where we needed to go- there was no right or wrong direction. We talked about the process afterward, which revealed the very human tendency to focus on negatives. Amanda noted that it’s okay and natural to look at the negatives within; we manifest what comes forward in our lives and by acknowledging our shadow sides, we begin to shift things within. This exploration of self emphasized the power of “writing it down.” When we give voice to our identities, we start to identify personal goals and establish a course of action for change. Amanda and Alicia ardently expressed that we are always changing and that it is never too late to be who we want to be. 

We ended our session by giving voice to strong emotions within us via an open letter project.  Alicia introduced the exercise and defined an open letter as a targeted message geared toward a wide audience.  Amanda spoke to the holistic benefits of this exercise, noting the intelligence of the body and impact of internal monologue on physical health. Alicia expounded that when we eradicate strong emotion from the body, it needs to go somewhere; transmuting it into words and putting it on paper is a powerful and healthy means of release, even if the correspondence isn’t shared with its intended audience, or anyone. Our group brainstormed potential open letter audiences in the Zoom chat, and were given time and space to freewrite. Upon reconvening, our teens had the option to share excerpts from their letters, or to disclose their target audience. Addressees included the tangible and intangible: younger selves, disapproving family members, narcissists, and the media perpetration of erroneous news. We also discussed bodily sensations that surfaced during the process. 

At AIR, we emphasize process over product- those intuitive moments of creative engagement. Amanda, Alicia, and Maya amplified that notion in their Writers’ Workshop sessions and reinforced creativity’s powerful benefits to mental, emotional, and physical health and wellness. We would like to thank them for their thoughtful work with our teens, for adapting their curriculum to the online format, and for acknowledging the vulnerability involved in creating and sharing art! Writers’ Workshop is taking a pause for summer, but we’ll be back this fall with a very special guest. For more information about this program or our fall session, please contact [email protected]

Our group listening intently to guest poet, Maya Williams, during session III

Our group utilizing strong nonverbal listening cues during Micaila’s share back at session IV

Open letter writing at session IV