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This piece is reposted from UNC Health and UNC School of Medicine’s Newsroom:

Narratives That Are Shared: Writing for Resilience

 For five years, Writing for Resilience has met most Tuesdays, offering a place for caregivers, patients, providers and the community at large a place to quietly reflect, and the chance to discover what shifts in perspective might sneak up on them while they put pen to paper.
Narratives That Are Shared: Writing for Resilienceclick to enlargeCarol Henderson (left) and Heidi Gessner

by Matt Englund, matthew.englund@unchealth.unc.edu

It’s noon on a Tuesday. A dozen chairs are arranged in a circle near the altar in the John Reeves Chapel in Memorial Hospital. A few people are already settled into seats and have started writing. A prompt is written on a large pad leaning against the far wall. It is stanza from a poem by Jorie Graham that poses a question:

Who is
this nervous spirit
of this world
that it must go over and over
what it already knows?

This is Writing for Resilience, a group that has met most Tuesdays for the better part of the last five years. Carol Henderson, a local writer and writing coach who facilitates the program with Heidi Gessner, MDiv, the UNC Hospitals Palliative Care Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator, is quick to emphasize that Writing for Resilience is not just for writers.

“It’s not a writing workshop or anything like that. We’re not looking for polish, and you certainly don’t need to feel like a writer to come here,” says Henderson.

People continue to trickle in for a few minutes after the session has begun. The hush in the room is comforting, punctuated occasionally with the rustle and scrape of a page turning, or a body shifting position.

They write for about 20 minutes and are then given the chance to share their thoughts. After someone shares, everyone is invited to reflect for a few minutes and write a little more.  Sometimes what they share grows out of the prompt or what they’ve heard, but not always.

“You can ignore the prompt completely if you want to,” says Henderson. “If there is something really pressing that you’d like to write about, of course you should write about that.”

Gessner says that this sense of community and the sharing of ideas it can foster is an important part of the program. “It’s a place to gather and reflect.”

The act of writing itself can be a palliative and provides an opportunity for shifts in perspective that may not otherwise be forthcoming.

“Sometimes your thought pattern can become a hamster wheel and you just go around and around, especially during periods of emotional distress” says Henderson, “but if you are given a prompt that allows you to come at your situation slantwise, you may suddenly find yourself writing something that leads to that “aha!” moment. We see that all the time. Writing like this is quite powerful stuff”

Gessner offers an example of how such a shift might occur: “When someone is grieving or they’re sick, they might think back to a time, for example, when they were six, and happy, and carefree. It gives them a chance to remember that they haven’t always felt the way that they’re currently feeling and that gives them hope. It gives them a chance to remember that there is more.”

Gessner and Henderson had talked about starting a writing group at UNC Hospitals for years, but when one of Gessner’s friends started radiation therapy she started to see the people – caregivers especially – who might benefit from a program like this.

“My friend was undergoing daily treatments in the basement of the Cancer Hospital. I would walk over with her and I would see the same people every day. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if they had something to do instead of leafing through magazines and waiting.”

Writing for Resilience originally met in the Starbucks conference room, but the space was often crowded and too noisy to provide a place for meaningful reflection.

“The chapel is a quiet space, centrally located and easy to find, which makes it especially nice if you are coming to a session from outside of the hospital,” says Gessner. “And we like doing that because it’s a community service.”

Life at the hospital can be busy – sometimes people are paged and have to leave halfway through, other times someone may not arrive until 12:30. Gessner and Henderson accommodate this as well as they are able.

“Most of our regulars know that the second prompt will start about halfway through,” says Gessner.

After everyone who wants to share has shared, the second prompt is read. Today, it’s a narrative poem by Brian Doyle, a disarmingly funny reminiscence involving a parent’s ashes and a cookie jar. The humor of the second prompt, Henderson says, is by design.

“A sense of levity can help free people up from the huge responsibility to be deep. We never really know what the prompts are going to evoke so we try not to tread too heavily or have anything too bleak. Most of all we want prompts to be accessible and evocative, so we tend to favor things that are quite imagistic.”

Finding a balance between the two prompts is part of what Henderson and Gessner are aiming for – if one is a bit heavier or more ruminative, they may emphasize humor in the second prompt. And the prompts are not always passages from texts either. It may be an object or a group of objects; it may be as simple as a word.

After 20 minutes of writing on the second, those gathered are again invited to share.

When the session ends, the group that had gathered in silence becomes boisterous. Participants greet each other by their first name. A hug is shared here and there around the room. People approach faces they don’t recognize and introduce themselves.

Some might come for a few sessions; others have been coming off and on for years.

“These Tuesday sessions can be an antidote to emotional distress,” says Gessner. “I always feel calmer at the end of a session and others have told me that they feel the same way. There is a strong sense of community that has developed here.”

“We’ve had some very sick people here who write about what they are experiencing,” says Henderson, “and we have people who just enjoy the time they get to come and reflect. People who come to Writing for Resilience share with the group exactly as much as they are willing to – and some choose not to share at all – but we get little pieces, a little tapestry of people’s lives. People have so much in them to share and we are happy they choose to share some of it here in this chapel with us.”

Writing for Resilience meets most Tuesdays from noon – 1 p.m. in the John Reeves Chapel in Memorial Hospital. Contact Heidi Gessner at Heidi.Gessner@unchealth.unc.edu for more information.

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