Monday, April 18, 2011

When it gets personal, writers have to dig deeper

I don't need to be invited to write.

But it helps.

Last week, I was invited to attend a writing workshop by Sandra Root-Elledge, associate director of program development for the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND) at the University of Wyoming. Sandy and I serve together on the UPLIFT board. So I took Friday off and drove over the pass ("blowing snow, icy roads, turn off cruise control") to Laramie. Springtime in the Rockies.

On campus, a collegial group gathered to talk -- and write -- about their children with disabilities. One of us had physical disabilities, and she was accompanied by a scribe. Not all of us were parents -- several of the attendees work with populations with special needs and have many stories to tell.

Workshop leader was Kathy Roberson who, in 2008, started a writers' group for family caregivers at the Boggs Center in New Jersey. She has master's degrees in creative writing and social work. She also has a 20-year-old daughter with developmental disabilities. Kathy as in town with her husband, a fisheries biologist, who was attending a conference. She connected with Sandy at WIND and a workshop was created.

It is difficult to write well and honestly about those closest to you. Way back in the last century, I pitched several publishers and agents about my manuscript about our family's struggles with our son who has ADHD. I received little encouragement but many comments. "Dig deeper," one editor told me. "I don't want to dig any deeper," I told myself, and kept sending out the manuscript. Looking at it now, I realize that the critique was correct. There was lots of good stuff on the page. Nifty sentences, some insights, a bit of humor. But it was heady, my story as told by some person at a remove from my story -- and that person was me.

I've been able to publish some of the book's chapters, often after a lot of revising. One of the essays will appear this September in the anthology Easy to Love by Hard to Raise. That has prompted me to go back and look at the rest of the manuscript and dig deeper. That is at least partly what writing is about -- digging until the writer hits the mother lode.

Kathy Roberson's writers' group in New Jersey has bred some amazing poems and essays and stories. She shared some of them with us last Friday at the WIND workshop. Kathy uses a number of prompts as writing exercises. One was "Write about an article of clothing that holds a distinct memory or meaning." She tells the caregivers that they can follow the prompt or not. Most do, and come up with some amazing writing about quirky bathing suits or Navy blue Converse sneakers or a baby outfit with this script across the chest: "Thank Heaven for Little Boys." As you read this short memoir, you can't help thinking about the challenges as this little boy with disabilities grows up.

To read the prompts and some of the finished work, go to "Writing Our Journey: Poems and Essays by Family Caregivers."

On Friday, Kathy gave us this prompt: "Write about the word ambivalence."

I had to think about this one. Usually I just jump into the writing. Ambivalence, I think, is a term that many of us face daily. I love my children but they drive me to distraction. My wife and I have been a caregiving team for what seems like forever -- we just want to be a couple again. I try to be supportive with my daughter as she wrestles with homework and now tests for her G.E.D. At the same time I'm wondering why she has so much trouble with work that is so easy. I know the answer -- learning disabilities and ADD and a school career filled with failures. Still, I can't get over the fact that neither of my children graduated from high school. My son is on the lifetime plan at a community college. I'm not sure that my daughter will succeed in college or even get there.

This is the time of year when the graduation announcements arrive. The other day we received one from my nephew in Florida graduating from University of North Florida. I'm proud of him but his notice reminds me that I won't be attending a high school graduation this fall. I recall saying this the day my daughter was born: "When she graduates from high school, I'll be 60." Well, I'm 60 and she's not graduating. She'll have her G.E.D. But no diploma.

Where does my ambivalence lie? All over the damn place. I'll try to sum it up: "Enough already with the damn graduation announcements." That's what I wrote about.

Other workshop participants have children with severe developmental disabilities. These children and young adults cannot speak or take care of themselves. They have autism or Down Syndrome or very rare disorders of the brain and spine. They live in group homes and spend their days at the Ark, one of the best centers for the developmentally disabled in the region.

Faced with this, I remember one of my mother's favorite sayings: "Count your blessings, Michael." My mother had to count her blessings often -- she had nine of them, she said, with me the oldest. This didn't count my father, who would be the tenth blessing if you're trying to keep up. My mother was wise but I rarely counted what was good and dwelled instead on the negative. That was part of my depression, this inner turmoil. This is more curse than blessing, but I may not have become a writer without it.

Ambivalence is life. To see life in black and white is to be blind to the colors and shades of gray.

The poems and essays by the workshop participants were sad and funny. Filled with ambivalence.

Kathy left us with one of her poems. It's entitled "Ambivalent Living." It's very personal and does a terrific job of summing up the title.

Ambivalent Living
Kathy Roberson

It's October and the fluttering,
garish, dazzling display of color
defies the unmistakable scent of
melancholy settling; this time of
change resists easy conclusions.

Inside, on the warm couch, her long,
adolescent limbs curl along side me
while she contentedly sucks that one
calloused thumb; fear and faith in
the far future vie for voice, rise in
my throat and are swallowed just
as swiftly as I stand to plan the
fleeting details of our day.

A drawing called Love: a child
poised in mid-air, and a woman,
both arms stretched forward, ready
to catch, enfold, or else hold still,
risk release into open sky. I've mused
since about which way the story was
supposed to go and see now, in this
season of uncertainty, how either way
the name remains the same.


RobertP said...


We know by now that we will always be concerned for our children. Thing about being a parent is it never goes away.

Going to a funeral Thursday for a friend's 18 year old son who died in an auto accident over the weekend. I am feeling very fortunate that my 2 kids are ok, but I try to never take anything for granted. And yeah, your mom was right.


Michael Shay said...

Bob: My mom was always right. I didn't always listen. So sorry to hear about your friend's son.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Loved the post, loved the poem! It sounds like a great workshop.