Summertime is the perfect time for picnics, peaches, and pool parties, long days outside, and lingering with a good novel.
Not everyone, though, is spending the summer so leisurely. Creative writing instructor Judith Prager, who often co-teaches with her husband Harry Youtt, jetted to Beijing, China this summer to aid the recovery efforts following the devastating earthquakes. Not only did she give her time and compassion to the cause, but she blogged about the big adventure, too.
We caught up with this world traveler, now back in Los Angeles, and bring you her story below.
Writers’ Program: You recently returned from Beijing where you shared your expertise, helping people cope with the recent earthquakes and floods in the area. Tell us about what drew you there. How did you become involved in this?
Judith Prager: How I became involved in this China project is a good Writers’ Program story, because it began with a book. I had co-authored a book called The Worst Is Over: What To Say When Every Moment Counts. The protocol it teaches, for medical emergencies and crises, is called Verbal First Aid™ and it has been called “the ‘bible’ for crisis communications” by the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health. Dr. Helena Guo, a doctor from China who was living in the US but about to return, found the book, loved the ideas in it, and asked if she could translate and publish it there. She told me she would bring me to China to teach it, but we didn’t know when that would be arranged. Then the earthquake happened, and the Chinese, whose culture hadn’t given much credence to psychology, suddenly had to deal with a traumatized population as well as suicidal mothers who had lost their only child–in a country where couples were only allowed to have one child.
WP: You blogged about your days (both on the Writers’ Program Blog and your own, judithchinatrip.blogspot.com). What was the blogging process like for you? When did you write? How difficult was it to get the experience down on paper?
JP: I found myself making notes while sitting in long meetings in which everyone spoke in fast and animated Chinese around me. I keyed in the blog late at night, e-mailed it to Harry, and let him look it over (I was bleary eyed by that point) and send it out for me.
WP: What advice would you give to writers hoping to blog about their experiences? Does blogging change the way you as a writer look at your work and/or the world?
JP: As a writing teacher, I suggest that the writer of a blog be aware of his/her voice and of the audience. This is not a diary, not notes to ourselves, both of which are good and important. This is a communique, if you’re doing it to share wisdom or for posterity, so thought must go into questions like: what is your point, what is your point of view, and what do you hope readers will walk away with? Because with e-mail it’s so easy for all of us to dash something off, to just run off at the keyboard. As a result, we may become careless. But as writers we are obliged to consider both our choice of words and images, and the impact our observations will have on others. Some people say “thoughts are things,” and I do believe that thoughts live in the world with us, so care must be taken to put into the world “things” that we would want to persist and prevail.
I loved having done the blog, partly because all the while I was stepping outside, noting, connecting, framing the experience, and getting beautiful feedback, and partly because the moment I returned, it all seemed a dream, and the blog and the pictures were the only concrete evidence of its grandeur.
WP: Did the blog make you feel connected over thousands of miles? What was the response like from your readers?
JP: I have friends and colleagues in England, in India, and across the US, and they all chimed in, loving to be with me on this journey. It has been an emotional excursion of the heart, and on Day Seven, when I was the only American left there and was asked to demonstrate my methods in an auditorium before hundreds of people in a scenario in which the counselors pretended to be their clients had lost loved ones, I saw hearts breaking open, and tears flowing. I saw hearts lighting up. The room was electric.
Some of my readers thanked me for including them, some sent me blessings, some cheered me on. My friend Janis wrote, “I knew that, even if it never ‘showed up’ on third dimensional radar, even if it remained invisible to our eyes, I knew the work was being done…after all we can’t ‘see’ love, can we, and yet it will change the world.”
WP: What did you learn about yourself during your time in China? How did the experience change or enhance or stretch the way you look at communication?
JP: After the International Critical Stress Incident Symposium, the other American experts left. I was the only American in our group for about a week. Not speaking Chinese, I often felt like a chair in the room, completely deaf and dumb, awakened from an odd state only when my name, “Judiss” or “Verbal First Aid” was mentioned. What I found –although I was there to teach the words to say to make things better–was that my heart communicated beyond any words. Chinese crisis counselors would come up to me and say of themselves, “My heart feels com-fort-a-ble,” to connect with me and the work I brought.
I couldn’t share my personality because of the language barrier. I couldn’t be clever or witty, couldn’t be philosophical or rely on any of the traits we tend to trade on when meeting new people. I could only nod, smile, touch an arm. I learned that we are something so much beyond our personality and our ego. We are a vessel of divine love, when we choose to be.
Corey Campbell is the Program Representative in Creative Writing (Online) and Events.