Molly Fisk’s Writing to Heal workshop for the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Community Cancer Center doesn’t cure cancer, but it has probably mended some souls.
“Something profound happens,” she said, while participants write and then share what they have written. “I think it has to do with the growth of compassion. We get people in here who are furious at their circumstances, or sometimes just furious in general. I’ve seen it happen over and over, how a few months with this group starts to soften people, and they let go of their anger, they start to listen more carefully to others. They open up; they start laughing with us, not just crying. It’s astonishing and wonderful.”
Fisk has been conducting her writing program since May 2000 as part of the Center’s support group system, and estimates that over 400 people – cancer patients, caregivers, or anyone whose lives have been touched by cancer -- have taken part. Some have remained in the program for years.
It’s not designed to teach people how to write, she cautioned.
“I’m not trying to improve anyone’s writing here,” Fisk said. “This is a class for self-expression and its benefits, so we don’t deal with grammar, spelling, or anything you might have once hated in high school.”
Even so, Deborah Hollier, of Nevada City, said the classes have given her a new sense of confidence in herself and her writing.
“People are responding to everything I write,” she said. “I didn’t know before this that the things I write make people laugh and react to me.”
Hollier signed up last October because after cancer surgery and radiation treatments in the summer of 2013, she felt the need to sort out and express her feelings.
“The classes help because we are a group of people who bare our souls,” she said. “It’s an intimate group. You hear stories that make you realize there are things inside us all that nobody talks about, until we write about them. Sometimes Molly’s writing prompts are light, but can take us to a very deep place. I’ve discovered both courage and wisdom in what we share.”
Jill Young, of Nevada City, is another participant, having been a cancer patient herself in 1990 and a caregiver for a friend she lost only several years ago.
“The group is kind of an open venue, where we just share honestly,” Young said. “We share our experiences in life, whether dealing with cancer ourselves, or taking care of a person with cancer, or even losing people we love to cancer. And it’s not always about that; we cover a wide range of topics.”
Fisk’s own writing career was born out of a need to express painful childhood memories.
“I became a poet when I was 35, after experiencing repressed memories of child abuse returning to my conscious mind,” she said. “I never intended to be a poet; it wasn’t on my radar in any way.”
Besides, John Updike was her uncle.
“When you have someone like that in the family the job of ‘writer’ is kind of already taken,” she said. “But becoming a writer literally saved my life.”
She credits the writing process with preventing several planned suicide attempts.
“I was interested enough in how writing worked and in what had happened to me — the way your brain can hide things from you for so long and then open the door,” she said. “I wanted to find out how the story ended.”
She said the poet Mary Oliver and writer Anne Lamott helped her along the way. Oliver’s book, “American Primitive,” introduced her to contemporary poetry and Lamott taught the first writing class Fisk took, in a church in Tiburon, Calif.
Now, Fisk is the author of two poetry collections, “The More Difficult Beauty,” and “Listening to Winter,” along with a volume of her public radio commentary, “Blow-Drying a Chicken.” She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She also teaches on line and runs the Poetry Boot Camp.
“I wouldn’t say that teaching this Cancer Center class has affected my own writing in a direct way,” she said. “But being around people who are facing or have recently faced death is a wonderful way to stay honest. Cancer patients, domestic trauma survivors, political refugees, Viet Nam vets – these people are my preferred teaching demographic both because I feel as though I can be a good witness for them, having experienced a lot of trauma myself, as well as cancer, and because they’re not pulling any punches. They help me stay honest and – for lack of a better word – ‘raw.’ It’s because they are in such a vulnerable and raw state themselves. When you dispense with all the surface nattering and are real with people, your life just fills up, it’s a wonderful thing.”
Shanti Emerson, of Lake of the Pines, has also been taking Fisk’s workshop.
“There’s healing in doing the writing I want to do,” she said. “And it’s healing just to get together with a group of women and share, and laugh. It’s a safe place.”
While most participants are women, men are welcome and have participated, Fisk noted.
The Writing to Heal series is held five times every year, with most sessions lasting eight weeks and meeting every Thursday afternoon for two hours. Fisk provides writing prompts, allots writing time, then invites everyone to share what he or she has written. The workshop series costs $20. For information, contact Debby Kirk at 530-274-6872.
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.