Monsters into words

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Alpha House. Photo credit:

“Write the hard stuff,” suggests the last line of a story in a writer’s magazine. That’s easy when the hard stuff is just basic hard stuff, like what to make for supper. But what if it’s like the hard stuff the people living at Alpha House are dealing with – the stuff that turns lives upside down and inside out and lures leviathans into battle.

I had just finished reading the writing tip after wrapping up a memoir writing workshop at Alpha House. Alpha House is a shelter in the city that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. I volunteer seminars there through a Calgary organization: This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status because art builds bridges and lessens differences.

On Tuesday I started teaching a class called “Write YOUR own story” at Alpha House. The participants were a lively bunch and seven people sat down with me at a table to write. There was a lot of talking and I had to start my class several times. I was expecting distractions and there were many but people were interested in what I was teaching and wrote down what I was saying.

Then, one by one, people began to leave. They needed a coffee. They needed a smoke. They needed a break.

A couple participants rejoined me and picked up their pens. In the end four people stayed to finish the class. With these four I had two writing exercises for them.

The first one was writing a legacy letter to themselves, a kind of note to remember a moment or an accomplishment. It’s meant to connect the person today with an experience or happy memory from yesterday. Participants were supposed to start the note with Dear Past Me but one man said he couldn’t write the letter.

He couldn’t write it because his past was too riddled by addiction. He had no recollections of joy and could only remember having a habit. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to release unwanted and bad memories but he didn’t want to use the writing exercise as catharsis.

Another one of my writing exercises was aimed at helping people use description in their pieces. I asked the participants to illustrate themselves in words.What colour is your hair? What are you wearing? How do you talk?

But one woman told me she couldn’t do it. She had just had surgery and wasn’t looking her best. I suggested she write about a friend or the dog she had told us about in another story, or even her mother.

“That’s bad,” she said. “I don’t want to ever go there.”

She ended up writing about someone else. Someone who wasn’t too terrible to remember.

So the hard stuff is out there. But it’s a lot easier for some of us to put down the words on paper. It’s a lot tougher when you’ve had a lifetime of the hard stuff. Especially when it means turning the monsters into words and releasing them.

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