Writers’ Program instructor Sharon Bray is no stranger to tragedy–nor is she a stranger to publishing. In a recent interview, Sharon shares with the Wp’ why life’s most difficult events can make us better storytellers, and why her summer course, Transformational Writing: Writing to Heal and Make Life into Art (Online) may be just the class you need to finally put pen to page (or fingers to keyboard).

Writers’ Program: We are really looking forward to offering Transformational Writing: Writing to Heal and Make Life into Art (Online) this summer. This course is so different from many of our others. Can you tell us why a writer may want (or even need!) to take this class before something like, perhaps, Novel Writing I: Writing the First Novel or Art of Creative Nonfiction?

Sharon Bray: I think it was Henry James who said that every writer begins from a “port of pain”—not that pain and suffering are the prerequisites to become a writer, but perhaps he was referring, in part, to the way in which our human experience, the raw material of our lives, not only informs what we write, but the work that being a writer demands: ability to plumb the depths of experience, to understand it and render it as a written and engaging narrative. I find that when people begin writing out of their painful experiences, they write with a more authentic voice and quickly discover the natural narrative arc in their stories: a triggering event, conflict, tension leading to some kind of climax, understanding, and resolution. They become better storytellers.

Wp’: In what way has the content covered in this course informed your own writing and publications?

SB: For many years, I’d written and published several articles, the odd poem, and even a children’s book, but it wasn’t until I was in the midst of the sudden death of a spouse and a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I stumbled onto the work of James Pennebaker, the psychologist best known for his body of work on writing and healing. A year or so later, I began a pilot project with cancer patients and survivors, and I’ve never looked back. Two books and an anthology resulted from those early experiences; several articles and many public presentations followed. Not only has the content covered in this course informed my writing life—it’s informed my teaching, influenced how and what I read, and my ability to be “present” in the world. All these years later, I continue to lead writing groups for cancer patients and others suffering from trauma, who need the safety and support to bring their stories into the open. I never tire of it.

Wp’: Is there anything you’d like to say to students considering taking your course this summer—particularly those who may be reading this course description and wondering how they can share such personal and difficult life events in an online course setting?

SB: I first began teaching a shorter online version of this course for the Writers’ Program in early 2007. I had concerns that an online course might not be as rich and satisfying for the participants as I witnessed in my ongoing groups. My concerns were unfounded. The honesty, vulnerability and community was as humbling and inspiring as what I experienced face-to-face. For some, online provided a kind of “anonymity” which allowed them to begin writing their painful stories that they had been previously fearful to expose. The support and safety we also sought to encourage in the online experience made it possible.

In the first weeks of this course, we don’t require critique of one another’s writing as we do in other writing classes I teach. It’s optional at first. The initial emphasis is on ensuring that students feel free to write as honestly and deeply as possible in an environment that is safe and supportive. Gradually, as we explore some of the research on writing and healing, we shift toward the work of crafting one’s narrative into a story that is intended to be read by others. As we do, critique becomes part of the weekly assignments. The camaraderie and community of the online class adds to the learning and the quality of everyone’s writing continues to improve, their voices become more distinctive, and the narratives take on power.

Wp’: And finally, we’re dying to know, what is one piece of advice you’d like to give our students who are currently tackling a writing project? We love passing along words of wisdom!

SB: It’s wisdom I learned from my favorite teachers many years ago, and it’s two-pronged. The first is discipline, what poet Ellen Bass calls “tush in seat.” The second is patience, slowing down. Even if you manage to spit out only a half-page of decent prose, writing demands you keep that date with your muse each day, seated at your computer or with pen and notebook open. But remember: eschew the tendency to rush. Give your writing time and space to breathe. Cultivate the discipline and the patience good writing demands.

Sharon Bray will be teaching Transformational Writing: Writing to Heal and Make Life into Art (Online) in summer 2014. Click here to enroll or call Registration at 310-825-9971.

Alicia Wheeler is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. Contact her at 310-794-1846 or awheeler@uclaextension.edu.

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