I am currently sitting in a branch of the Hamilton Public Library awaiting a workshop on expressive writing. I’m not attending this session, I am running it.
*record scratch* Yeah, that’s me near the window making some last minute notes. And you’re probably wondering, much like David Byrne did, “How did I get here?”
A couple of years ago when I was working at the cancer centre, I was approached by the programs librarian from the Concession Branch, who asked if I had any programs I would be willing to run for their patrons. She was trying to build programs from organizations in the neighbourhood, which was – and is – a pretty solid idea. Got a wicked coffee shop nearby? Invite the owner or barista in to talk coffee – complete with samples! Have a yoga studio on the street? Bring the practitioner in to talk yoga for an hour! It’s a super cool initiative, getting ultra-local peeps to come and run a workshop or information session.
When the librarian reached out, I was all “Oh hell yes, I would love to do this!” And then she asked what kinds of programming I could do. And…well, shit. What could I offer? My job was lending books and finding information for cancer patients and their families. It was equal parts library work and counselor/bartender work, honestly. I listened to lots of troubles, handed out lots of tissues, was there for happy endings, and endings that weren’t going to be quite so happy. I had a brain full of information about cancer, its treatment, available community resources…but what did I have for the general public?
I took a look around my library at the books that were popular, the ones that flew off the shelves and had to be replaced frequently because they wore out or didn’t come back. Books on nutrition – what to eat when you’re undergoing cancer treatment – were hella popular. Movement therapy for cancer patients was always a big thing, exercises for getting your strength back. Yoga for cancer patients. Mindfulness – trying to calm your brain and find strength and peace. Journaling your way through cancer, writing your story, writing your feelings. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
If you look at all those things combined, they can all fall under one big umbrella called Cancer Patients Trying to Take Control Over a Situation They Basically Have Zero Control Over. When you show up at the cancer centre, you pretty much have to give yourself over to it. You’ll be told where to go for treatment, when that treatment is, what to do, and when to do it. It’s all part of the centre’s big ol’ plan they like to call Keeping You Alive, and honestly? They do a pretty great job of it up there.
But if you’re an independent grown-ass human like the majority of the patients, you’re probably used to NOT being told what to do on a regular basis, your life is your life and you make your own decisions, so this regimen of appointments, scans, treatments, and dos and don’ts of cancer life can really bring you down.
That’s where a lot of my resources came into play. There are so many things they can’t control, a lot of patients latch on to the things they CAN control – diet and exercise, meditation, yoga, spirituality, writing to make sense of things. And this is where I got my programming idea.
The writing/journaling piece was the one I felt the most qualified to speak on, but still not entirely qualified, you know? So I did a LOT of research and then sent my proposal to the librarian at Concession. I offered to run a one-hour workshop on the benefits of expressive writing on health and well-being. She loved it, scheduled me for a session, and I got started planning. The workshop became known as Writing Through Illness and Crisis. I led a few and the feedback was terrific, so they signed me up for another session – this time a two-parter, with the first part being the theory behind expressive writing, and in part two we put some of the theories into practice through with several writing exercises and discussion.
Last year I was invited to run a similar workshop, now as a part of the Hamilton Reads program. The pick for this year’s Hamilton Reads was Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, and HPL staff thought that could be a good fit for a workshop, so I tweaked it a little bit and it became known as Healing With Words: How Writing Can Help in Times of Crisis. For this, I was able to take my workshop on the road to several library branches, and I expanded it to include workshops for teens and preteens, for a total of 9 sessions altogether.
In a year that had some shitty moments, these workshops were such a wonderful highlight for me. Running the workshops in a variety of HPL branches, getting to know some of the staff, meeting incredibly inspiring adults, teens, and kids…it’s been an absolute privilege, and I am a bit sad that today was the last one.
Happily, I have been invited back (!!!) for spring programming to present workshops on journaling and memoir writing and I am super excited. This means more research (yay!) and more planning (double yay!) meeting more inspiring Hamiltonians and helping them find their personal writing voice.
I will honestly do this as long as they ask me to do it, and if they stop asking me, I will find another place to do it. I’m already considering taking it to the next level and running some workshops on my own, so if you’re someone who might be interested in this kind of thing, hit me up, we should definitely talk.
Huge thanks to HPL for this opportunity. And Hamiltonians, check out the HPL’s program guide when it comes out, there is some fantastic programming happening. And me!