It would probably come as a surprise to those not actually involved in the writing industry to know just how much time and energy we writers invest in teaching others how to do what we do. Teach may be too strong a word to describe this activity. Perhaps it’s only guiding. Allowing, even.
I’m guided in this activity by a motto that comes from the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. I know that I can’t always reach every person in the room. I also know that despite their desire and hard work, some just won’t have what it takes. Fair enough, they will find that out with time. But at least I hope that nowhere in this process will I damper anyone’s love of writing and literature, or harm in any way their sense of self-worth.
People who enroll in any kind of class do so with a hope and a prayer, it seems to me. And no matter what they might seem, they are no doubt vulnerable and even fragile and I try to honour that. They may not learn to write as a result of their time with me, but at least they won’t feel any worse about themselves.
Do no harm. It’s a modest goal, but an important one. Sometimes more than others.
Recently, I was invited to talk to a group of aboriginal girls who are part of the Stardale Women’s Group Foundation, being run in Calgary by the indefatigable Helen McPhaden. Stardale, which began in Saskatchewan in 1997, offers a wide variety of services and programs specifically for aboriginal women and girls.
(More information can be found at their excellent website: http://www.nald.ca/stardale/vignette/who.htm)
I met with the girls in a small community centre in the west end of town early one evening. A light supper was provided for the girls (and their instructor for the evening) and after they had taken care of some business, they were introduced to the great author (moi) and our goal was to explore the writing process together in a reasonable manner.
As I say, my goal is to do no harm. I was aware that some of the girls in that room had been on very difficult journeys in their young lives. In fact, Helen told me that the underlying goal of the group is to restore, in some cases create in the first place, a sense of self-esteem.
Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows how easy it is to be wounded by a teacher. It can be deliberate or it can be accidental, but it happens. It has always struck me that some teachers, those we refer to as pedants, are in the habit of using their knowledge on a subject both as a weapon and as an extension of their huge but fragile egos. That is in fact the opposite philosophy of doing no harm.
I know that the idea of writing something doesn’t fill everyone with a feeling of radiant joy. In fact it scares the hell out of a lot of people. (Apparently public speaking is the greatest fear most people have.) And so I don’t ask much at these workshops. In fact, with these girls, I only ask for one word. I figure everyone has at least one word in them!
But that’s for starters. I had the girls write one word on a small recipe card and then I got them back and shuffled them and handed them out again so they could write a second word on a different card. Even a third or fourth or fifth if they felt up to it. And so in this manner we came up with the cards in the photo below.
“Love, hate, you only live and laugh once, hurt, happiness, I love you, I loooove you, joy.”
It’s just a beginning, of course. The cards can be added to, shared or taken over by one person. Two words together might be the basis for a poem, and from there it’s not too big a jump to open a notebook and start writing on one’s own.
The cards done by the girls at Stardale aren’t really a whole lot different from the cards generated by other students in other situations. Wherever we find ourselves, whatever hand we have been dealt in life, it seems to me we all hope for and fear pretty much the same things.
That these girls have grown to participate so well and so enthusiastically in workshops like the one I led and everything they do beyond this says a lot about their own courage and determination. It also says a lot about the volunteers and leaders of the Stardale Girls Program. It’s a very much needed and important program. It is changing the lives and expectations of these girls for the good.
I was honoured to be asked to take part in it.
Thanks for reading!