Feb. 23 2011 12:00 AM

Participants share stories and experiences in a writing workshop at the Womens Center

The women of the Embodying Our Words workshop sat down for their last dinner together, enjoying truffle macaroni. They danced to Julie London, while laughing with each other. They had been together for two days, inspiring each other and inspiring themselves to write and to explore the relationship between words and the body. The first day of the workshop had been at Michigan State University, the second at the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing.

Cindie Alwood, the director of the Women’s Center, had opened up the center to these seven women and the roughly 20 others that had come to sessions throughout the weekend. As dinner came to a close, participant Dawn Comer stood up.

“I have something for you,” she said to Alwood, and walked over to pull something out of her backpack. It was a blue clay cave that she had made as part of the workshop. She explained it to Alwood, how it reminded her of the Women’s Center. She had written “a safe place” inside, and scrawled out the words “a way through” on a path through the inside that led to a small hole out the back of the cave.

“One of our clients wrote that this is her feminine sanctuary,” Alwood said of the center. “It’s great that people feel safe here and they can come here to learn how to express themselves however fits for them.”

Comer and many other women experienced the sanctuary that is the Women’s Center over the weekend, gathering together for an event that is part of the HerStories Project, launched by Melissa Dey Hasbrook. She started the project as a way to celebrate stories about women and gender expression.

“Events like this open up a space in a certain amount of time where people might go places and express things that they normally wouldn’t in day-to-day life,” Hasbrook said.

“It’s like a little warp of time and space that opens up some interesting possibilities. The women’s center is doing all these practical things, like helping women with finding work, and at the same time they’re being supportive to creative opportunities like this program.”

The weekend was inspired by an essay by Gloria E. Anzaldua called “now let us shift…the path of conocimiento…inner work, public acts.” Anzaldua writes: “Conocimiento comes from opening all your senses, consciously inhabiting your body and decoding its symptoms. … Attention is multileveled and includes your surroundings, bodily sensations and responses.”

The workshop participants represented a range of women, from MSU writing students to writing professors, including a group from Defiance College in Ohio. Hasbrook said it was an interesting dynamic when students and teachers were placed on the same level. The weekend opened with a circle gathering, where women passed an object to each other and took turns speaking of their life experiences and their connection to writing.

“When you sit in a circle like that you are regarding each other as equals,” Hasbrook said. “It was interesting to have students sitting alongside with teachers in an equal circle. All the people who spoke were very open about a range of life experiences and everyone was very thoughtful about what they had to express.”

Jerri Courtney was one of the writing professors from Defiance College. She said Comer invited her and some of their friends from the college to come to the event, and she was intrigued by the idea of learning to connect words and body.

“I’ve always been interested in yoga,” she said. “I enjoyed the idea of physically expressing with our bodies our words, and also experiencing words with our bodies. I started thinking about that. I started thinking about a couple of experiences I had in my life and decided to write about that being very conscious of the body while I wrote about it.”

For one workshop, people read one of Courtney’s unfinished poems and shared their interpretation by acting out the poem with movement or sounds. She said seeing the way others experienced and interpreted her work was a “very powerful experience” and is something she will take home with her and will inform the way she writes and finishes the poem.

In the end, the workshop was a place for people to open up — about their writing or their lives — and connect with other women. Alwood said she recognizes the connection between creative expression and empowering women the way the Women’s Center works to do every day.

“We understand here the power of healing words,” Alwood said. “Words are very powerful, whether they’re hurting or healing, and we’d much rather they be of the healing sort.

"Our mission is to help women realize their potential, so in essence all the women that are here writing today are making that step toward realizing their potential, through the act of writing, through the act of reading or sharing it out loud, through the study of writing, just being together with other women.”