“Expressive writing is a release. It can move people to express what has meaning for them and those listening.”
Sharon Bray has taught Writing Through Cancer at Gilda’s Toronto for six years. We are pleased to congratulate her on her success as she moves on to write about her life, a memoir for her grandchildren.
It’s been a wonderful experience for Sharon; she calls it inspirational and humbling. For her, teaching isn’t a job; it’s a vocation. “It touches my heart to hear people’s stories not only of illness but where illness takes them,” she said. “They get it out in the open to deal with, understand and begin to make sense of it. Community is formed through story.”
It’s important to Sharon to make a safe space for people to explore their cancer diagnosis, the treatment and what the fear of death has done to them. She speaks from personal experience, as she’s had her own cancer diagnosis. “Writing has been valuable personally and is a joy to see.
“I’ve always written. That was the way I got through hard things. I stumbled on research by a psychologist named James Pennebaker. His work was on expressive or therapeutic writing. I modified his approach for the groups because it creates the emphasis, impetus and safety to write. That spurred me to try it for myself after my breast cancer treatment.”
After her treatment, Sharon went to a Californian nonprofit support organization for breast cancer patients and proposed a course on writing after a cancer diagnosis. She has since presented to healthcare conferences and cancer centres in the United States and Canada. When she returned to Canada six years ago, she hated leaving her work behind.
“I interviewed at Gilda’s Toronto in 2016, and the group workshops took off.”
Sharon brought an innovation to Gilda’s Toronto Writing Through Cancer workshop when she compiled booklets of participants’ writing.
“It’s important for people to have a printed remembrance of the group, the people and the writing in it. Gilda’s Toronto has copies for potential donors and new members.”
But sometimes, participants are reluctant to write. “Some say, ‘How could I possibly write about the worst thing that’s ever happened to me?’They say they aren’t writers. The implicit message is they don’t want to read anything aloud. That’s never a requirement. You can spend the six weeks writing and never share it with the group.”
It’s vitally important, says Sharon, to build in support to help those who are reluctant and shy to at least read once in the group. “I’ll say, ‘What are you grateful for?’ That pulls them out. I see that timid hand go up from somebody who hasn’t read yet. I’ll call on them, and I can see the nervousness. Then, I comment on some beautiful aspects of their writing.”
Sharon is strict about the feedback process. “It’s only positive. It’s specific to what the writer has written. You don’t respond with your experience. I keep the feedback focused on the writing and not on the person. It’s vital that people who’ve dared to read feel affirmed and heard. We respond to what we liked or found powerful in another’s writing.”
Privacy is essential in the class. “Some things they write haven’t been shared with their family. There are a lot of things that you can say on paper that you won’t say out loud. I often say, “You will write creatively, possibly more beautifully than you could write in creative writing class because you’re freed up.”
Sharon gets participants to write by responding to a prompt. She uses the cycle of cancer: diagnosis, treatment, surgery, and by the end, looking at life again, gratitude, and embracing the life we have left, however long that is.
“One of my favourite prompts is about what we carry in our hearts. We carry people, places and events. I ask participants to make a list because that exercise helps them see they have enough material to last a lifetime. You don’t have to be in a workshop; You’ve got your material.
Expressive writing is a release. It’s messy. It’s not a story or a poem. It’s rare that what is read aloud is not powerful and emotional. It can move people to express what has meaning for them and those listening. People don’t know what they’re capable of.”
The Writing Through Cancer workshop will continue with Dani Taylor at the helm. Sharon mentored Dani, who she had her eye on early so she could “pass the baton” and have this work continue.
“I cleaned out my bookshelf and sent Dani off with books on cancer, poetry, and handouts so that she could take this and run with it. And I think she’ll be lovely.”
Sharon is writing a book called Growing Up Gramma for her three grandchildren. She lives near her eldest daughter and one grandchild, but her younger daughter and two grandchildren live in Florida, only recently returned from a decade living in Japan.
“My grandchildren are missing what I had as a kid, growing up in a small town with several aunts, uncles and cousins. Every holiday, I got to sit at the adult table because I was a little older than the other cousins. I’d be regaled by the humour and stories that were part of the family legacy. I learned about my ancestors and where I came from. I wanted to give them a sense of part of their heritage.”
“My early adulthood was shaped by what was happening in society: The Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, the Kennedy assassinations and so on. The radicalization of youth consumed my college life. It was a great time to be a woman and a young university student. That’s part of my story that tells them not only about me but about the changes and events in our larger history and how it shaped who I am. Everyone has stories that need to be told.”
Everyone at Gilda’s Toronto wishes Sharon well as she embarks on the next phase of her life. Thank you, Sharon!
Image Source – Wring the Heart, Ted Rogers Centre