Friday, June 19, 2009

Narrative Medicine Workshop, Day One

The first day of the workshop was great. Rita Charon greeted me at the door of the conference room and, when I introduced myself, said, "We're so glad you're here! We were just talking about your blog!" Evidently some of the Narrative Medicine faculty at Columbia read it; Rita told me later, "You're our PR person." That's a bit of an overstatement, but the recognition was still flattering.

During the registration meet-and-greet, I mentioned to Rita that I'm doing a Narratve Med freshman-comp course in the fall. She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to a young woman who's at the workshop to figure out if she wants to go to medical school, but whose faculty mentor from college has done a lot of work with both Narrative Med and composition. "You," Rita said to the young woman, "have to introduce Susan to Ann," and then walked off to let us get acquainted.

The participants are diverse and fascinating. There's a psychotherapist who specializes in clients with chronic and terminal illness; a writer who started a volunteer program pairing professional writers with cancer patients, who work on a writing project of their choice; an oral historian who specializes in trauma narrative; a massage therapist who treats patients with chronic pain; and a family physician practicing refugee medicine in Canada. And that's just a few of the thirty-odd people at the workshop. Quite a bit of geographical diversity, too, with attendees from Canada, the UK, Israel, and South Korea, not to mention from all over the U.S.

And, of course, three of us are chaplains (although I'm really there more as university faculty). The other two chaplains are lovely people, and the one in my small group is an amazing close reader.

It was a busy afternoon. We registered, attended two plenary sessions in an auditorium, moved back to the main conference room to sit in a large circle and introduce ourselves, and then broke into small groups (we'll be working with the same peers all weekend, although faculty will rotate) to do a bit of writing. My group's leader for the first session was Rita Charon herself, and the writing prompt was: "Tell me the story of your name." We had four minutes to write, and she asked us to read aloud exactly what we'd written. We could opt out of reading aloud if we chose, but no one did.

You can't write much in four minutes, and the prompt didn't especially interest me. I was amazed by the results, though. The group analyzed each person's short text in great detail, and in my case, at least, the results were remarkably perceptive. The other group members came out knowing a bit more about my psychology than I'd have chosen to reveal to strangers!

The point of this, of course, was that all writing reveals self, but that the writer him or herself often doesn't see what a reader will. I could have told you that from twelve years of teaching fiction workshops, but being on the receiving end from a group -- rather than one or two individuals -- was both fascinating and unnerving. (Another, even more basic point is that we learn who we are only by narrating our histories, by being our own witnesses to the creation of our own stories.)

After the small-group session, we all went out for a buffet dinner at a nearby Dominican restaurant, and then I walked the fifteen minutes home to Larry and Laura's. I'm hoping to get to sleep early tonight. For one thing, the workshop resumes at 8:30 tomorrow morning (luckily, there's a place across the street that sells very strong coffee!), and for another, I wrote a few pages of a New Secret Project today before the workshop started, and hope to write another few tomorrow.

All will be revealed when I'm able, but it's too soon now.


  1. Anonymous7:46 AM

    We loves us some Secret Projects!

    Jeff P.

  2. Glad for the update. Can't wait to hear more about the workshop and the project.

  3. How interesting to read another participant's perspective!


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