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Creative Writing Opens Doors for Mentally Ill

Wednesday, July 12, 2000 at 8:23 AM

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Having a mental illness can be tough enough without confronting the stigma that society places on the diseases. Medical science has made great strides in the past decade finding treatments for these conditions and there are new strategies introduced all the time for use in the therapist's office. But one tool often overlooked is creative writing. 90.3's Lorna Jordan attended a workshop on the subject and filed this report.

Lee- Writing poetry is orchestrating the recovery by submission to the power of I, I, I captain.

Lorna Jordan- This poet was one of ten people squeezed around a table surrounded by books, floor to ceiling, in the basement of Mac’s Backs paperbacks in Coventry. Crayons, paper and notebooks of all kinds are spread out all over the table. A vase of flowers sits on a bookcase ready for a writing exercise. Opening Doors: The Experience of Mental Illness is a four-week series of poetry and writing workshops. The exercises for the first day included drawing pictures of the kitchen in the house where you grew up with your mother cooking something on the stove, then writing about it. Then, each person picked a live flower from a bouquet and wrote about that. Linda Goodman-Robiner is a workshop leader.

Linda Goodman-Robiner- The idea is to write as quickly as they can so that they don’t interrupt themselves with shoulds and is this the right tense of the word and they can do their editing later. The idea is to draw from their unconscious - they have so much wisdom they don’t even know how much they have.

LJ- After their writing exercises, the workshop leaders ask if anyone wants to share their writing. While the participants didn’t want the session recorded, a big burley man we’ll call Lee reads the poems he’s composed afterwards.

Lee- Writing poetry is orchestrating the recovery by submission to the power of I, I, I captain. Infinite intelligence. Tell me a story and the violins play. The trumpets sound, the piano tittles and the organ is singing a Biblically melodic genius in my ears.

LJ- Goodman-Robiner gives a lot of writing workshops around town. But she says this one is different. It helps people come to grips with different problems in their lives through writing.

LG-R- The focus is really getting to know yourself. And being as honest with yourself as you can and I think they’ll be less criticism - although when people ask for criticism, we will certainly help them with their craft.

LJ- Lee says the program helped to validate his thoughts.

Lee- One of the challenges for people with mental illnesses is part of the definition of schizophrenia is that what you’re thinking is not real, so when you write poetry, people can say, wow I can really see where you’re coming from, so in a sense that was a validation that what you’re thinking is real and that it is valid and that it’s valuable and that its worthy of attention.

LJ- This is Lee’s second time in the workshop. He’s found writing to be very cathartic and it actually help him looked at himself and actually like himself.

Beth Russell- Writing is going to be my gift to myself.

LJ- Beth Russell suffers from schizophrenia. She’s worked her whole life and belies her illness. This is her first time in a workshop like this.

BR- I’m not quite sure what the outcome will be, but I think that’s life, isn’t it?

LJ- Beth says she’s lost jobs, apartments and friends because of her illness - but writing is something no one can take away from her.

In a conversation at a local coffee shop, Project Coordinator Cindy Washabaugh says the program is for anyone fighting this disease. In particular, she says it’s designed to help people deal with the stigma of having a mental illness.

Cindy Washabaugh- Which are kinda a place where people to go and be in (the) community with each other and explore that experience through their writing and discussions with each other. So those are going on for four weeks. We also have a poetry contest and a memoir contest which is statewide.

LJ- She says those suffering from mental illness have stories to tell and this is an ideal outlet. The result is a small booklet which contains the winning entries and contributions for each person in the workshops. Washabaugh says she gets about 700 entries for the contest.

Washabaugh is also a faculty member in Cleveland State’s creative writing program. She says that program is more literary in nature, while Opening Doors: The Experience of Mental Illness is more a nuts-and-bolts kind of program, not designed to refine a writing style, but to help people learn more about themselves.

Awards will be given for the best entries in the second annual state-wide poetry and memoir contest. The awards will be given out September 30th.

In Cleveland, Lorna Jordan, 90.3 WCPN 90.3 FM.

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