An hour from now, a taxi will show up outside the lobby of my hotel to take me the bus that will take me, the organizers from the Incest Trauma Center and all 20+ participants of my workshop to the Hotel Villa Breg, “located on green slopes of the mountains” of Vrsac.
There will be women service providers from Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Romania, and of course, Serbia. All ten of the original founders of The Incest Trauma Center will be in attendance. I’ve already met a fair number of the women who will be there, and if they are any indication of the caliber of women attending, I’m already in awe of the participants. These are women who have been in the trenches, deeply committed for many, many years.
I always feel humbled (and a bit nervous) before I begin teaching a new group, and I feel that way even more so starting a workshop in Serbia for the first time, when factors of cultural difference, history and language will be new ones for me to navigate as a teacher.
I’ve spent this morning quietly, gathering my own forces, praying for the kind of clarity and strength I need to draw upon so I can be the best teacher I can be. Although I have decades of experience and expertise, and have taught thousands of people, in some ways, the best thing I can do as a teacher, as a healer, as a facilitator, is to get out of the way–to let a deeper creative force and “the healing powers of the universe use me.” I don’t mean to get all “woo-woo California on you, but that’s how it feels. That’s exactly how I experience it. When I teach, and when I write the most powerful pieces, it’s not from my personality. It’s not from my imperfect, flawed human self. It comes from a higher, deeper place.
For me, sitting in the teacher seat at a workshop is about gathering presence and letting a much more eloquent, receptive and wise energy come through me.
I just happen to have a lot of practice shaping that energy and being nimble–adapting in the moment to what the moment calls for. I will need to do that more in this circumstance that in teaching venues I’m more familiar with–and I can already feel myself drawing on that inner quiet to still my own mind so I can step into the teacher I want to be for this amazing group of women.
Although I plan to keep my blog going throughout the workshop, I obviously will not be sharing any of the work the women do or any photographs of them, unless they give me direct permission. I will focus instead on sharing some of the exercises I’m teaching, some of my own growth edges as a teacher, and possibly on some of the fun we’ll have around the edges of the more serious purpose for which we are gathering. One thing I’ve learned in my first few days here is that Serbians love to laugh and relax and have fun.
Here’s the letter I sent out to all the attendees last week to help them prepare for our time together:
Dear Friends to Be,
I’m so happy that I’ll be meeting all of you this coming week. It will be my first time in Serbia and I’m very excited to meet all of you. I’m sure you will have as much to teach me about your countries and the challenges you face in your work as I have to teach you.
My hope for our days together is that I will be able to teach you about the power of writing as a tool for healing. Creative expression can be an effective, transformative way to: express things that can’t be shared directly, work through trauma, discover the truth, connect with inner strength, and find clarity and resolution.
We will have one short session where I will go over some specific guidelines for using writing with your clients, but most of what we will do together will be having you go through the process of writing and sharing your own words with each other, so you can have a first-hand experience of the impact of writing–and know what it is you will be asking your clients to do.
My hope is that you will come away with some new tools, but also have a chance to work through some of your own secondary trauma from being a caregiver, to find some healing for issues in your own life. Having the direct experience of these techniques is the best possible preparation you can have for using them with others.
Confidentiality: Confidentiality is essential to creating a safe environment in which we all feel free to share our feelings and personal stories. It is crucial that each of us feels confident that the words we write at the retreat will not be repeated or reported elsewhere. Even if you carefully disguise someone’s identity, don’t use their real name, or change the details of their story, there is a chance that someone else (even in another country) may recognize the person you’re talking about. Even though we come from different places, people are connected with each other in ways that are not always readily apparent.
After the retreat, feel free to talk about anything you said, wrote, shared or learned in our sessions, but please refrain from talking about anybody else unless you have that person’s direct permission. When in doubt, remember: What is said in group stays in group.
A second aspect of confidentiality involves the way we speak to each other outside of class sessions—when we sit together at breakfast, wait for the bathroom, run into each other at the pool, or see each other days, weeks or months after the retreat is over. Although someone may choose to write about their history or struggles in the safety of our group, it doesn’t mean they’re inviting you to bring up those same topics at another time and place. Participants choose what they want to share at a particular moment in time; that doesn’t mean they want to discuss it later. If another group member doesn’t choose to bring up a topic they wrote about in group, ask permission before raising it yourself. And if someone asks you about something you wrote, “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer. It’s essential that people control how, when, (or if) they discuss what they write. Sometimes you want to put it behind you, and talk about something else.
The Difference Between a Writing Group and a Support Group: When people are given permission to explore their past, their present, their hopes, their dreams, and to put it all on paper, it’s inevitable that they write about everything under the sun: including some of the difficult challenges they have faced in life. If this were to happen in the context of a therapy group, the focus of the group would be on the person’s feelings and how best to support them through hard times.
In a writing group, our focus is different. Rather than respond directly to the struggles each writer is going through, our attention remains fixed on the writing—the honesty of the expression, the integrity of the piece, the vividness of the language. This gives participants tremendous freedom to write about taboo subjects—knowing they won’t have to discuss them later.
Sometimes, when group members write or read their words aloud, strong feelings or tears arise. Rather than rushing in with sympathy or concern, it’s important to listen with respect and caring, without trying to “fix” things or make the writer “feel better.” This gives each person the opportunity to fully write or read the pieces inside her that are longing for expression. Creating a place where people can “write through” difficult feelings in an unencumbered way provides an extraordinary sense of freedom and is an essential part of creating a safe writing environment.
Working across Languages: The spoken aspects of our workshop will be conducted in English with translation as needed. Unless you are extremely fluent in written English, however, I suggest that you do the writing exercises in your mother tongue. This means that I won’t be able to understand what you are writing and sharing with each other, so you will be each other’s witnesses.
This is the first time I’ve taught a workshop where the majority of participants will be writing in a language other than English. I’m very open to trying some things and seeing what works best. I realize that some of what I try may fall flat. If that happens, we’ll just try something else. I’m sure we’ll figure out how to create a meaningful workshop together. Since working together will be new to all of us, I suggest we greet each with openness, patience, creativity and humor—as we discover the best way to find meaning together.
The Importance of Networking: Although I am coming to share my skills with you, much of the benefit of these days together will be in all that you share with each other. A big part of what I do is create a safe community to work within—so I fully expect that the connections you make and deepen with each other will be a major benefit of our time together.
It’s Natural to Be Nervous: It’s natural to feel some trepidation when attending a workshop like this. You don’t know what will come up for you, what you might be asked to share, or what will happen. That’s a normal part of coming to a writing workshop. It will all be okay! And I will never force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. I encourage people to step out of their comfort zone, but just a few steps out—not a mile. And just so you know, I’m nervous, too. This is a new experience for me. I like to call that nervousness excitement. Let’s be excited together!
I’m very much looking forward to meeting you all very soon.
In the spirit of healing,