Writing, Surviving, and Thriving

mollystarkweather2013by Molly Wright Starkweather

As a writing center tutor, I see how powerful writing can be for students as they learn and demonstrate learning throughout their college courses. Composing anything, whether a two-paragraph reflection or a twenty-page research paper, opens up opportunities to impact the world beyond the classroom.  Often a student can grow personally from the experience of writing for a class.

One of the most moving research papers I have ever read was from a student who wanted to learn more about an illness that was affecting his unborn daughter. When I found out that the illness had taken her, I made sure to meet with the student immediately. “You don’t have to write about this illness if you don’t want to,” I said. “I can give you as much time as you need to choose something else.”

“I have to write about this. It helps,” he said. And, he was right. Coming to class, working on the research, sharing his writing with peers and at the writing center—the process of writing helped this student through the process of surviving.  The writing was so real to him, and he used what he composed for class to reach out to others encountering the same situation. This man was an exceptional student who achieved strong, well-researched writing as part of his mission to survive and thrive after great loss.  I would never force a student to write about a particular topic, and now I know that I should never keep a student away from a particular topic he or she is prepared for and passionate about discussing.

After this impactful teaching experience, I looked into other ways survivors write. People going through any kind of healing can use journal therapy or poetry therapy in their journey to wellness. The writing can be multi-modal, meaning that the survivor can compose more than words on a page as part of the larger work of writing. One returning veteran from Afghanistan, Logan Stark, made an extraordinary documentary earlier this year in a professional writing course at Michigan State University.

There is a growing movement among these survivor-writers, called the Medical Humanities. This movement combines the purposes of healing the whole person (from medical studies) and exploring what it means to be human (from the Humanities).

The Medical Humanities has its roots in medical schools and universities, but it has grown to include contributions from survivors beyond campus. One outgrowth of this growing field of study, writing, and activism is the Survive and Thrive Conference and Festival in St. Cloud, Minnesota and online, coming up October 16-18, 2013.

survivethriveposterSurvive and Thrive is an academic conference, a music and art festival, and a survivor’s reunion, all in one.  Here, a music major, a tenured professor, and a local bartender might sit side by side and write to the same prompt for a journal entry and share how reflective writing helps effect real change and awareness in living an authentic, whole, and empathetic human experience. Here, writing is a powerful tool, process, and product in the experience of surviving and thriving.

How have you seen writing help heal? How has writing in your classroom or tutoring space impacted student writers as they survive and thrive?

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2 responses to “Writing, Surviving, and Thriving

  1. By writing about what ails us, we face our feelings head on. It is the only way I have found to fully heal. It’s a conversation with myself, past, present and future.
    Lindagail

  2. What a powerful experience! The possibility for discovery and healing is what I cherish about teaching writing. This experience you write about brings to mind one that I had years ago, before I knew of medical humanities (maybe even before it was a defined discipline). I wanted to give students analysis assignments about the literature we were studying that would make the lit. authentically useful for them. One of my students wrote an essay about the then recent death of a grandparent and another wrote one that she planned to save and give to her daughter when she was older. Regarding the former, when he told me about his situation after turning in his essay, I felt bad for putting him through what I thought was a negative experience. He assured me, however, that it helped him work through his grief.

    Wish I could be at the conference. I’ll be there digitally though!

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