Around the Writers’ Table – The Martha’s Vineyard Times

Last Thursday morning, I emailed Nancy Slonim Aronie and told her I wanted to interview her about dealing with grief through writing. Aronie is a wise friend, whose inspiring new book, “Memoir as Medicine,” is as much about dealing with pain and grief as it is about writing her memoirs.

At the time I reached out to Aronie, the question many of us were asking was: how can we make sure this never happens again? And how can we make this time never mean never again, and never again for the next 10 years, or the next 10 days, or the next 10 hours? We started asking this question on Tuesday when news broke of yet another incredibly gruesome school shooting, this one in Uvalde, Texas. No. Edit that. It’s been asked since Saturday, May 14, when 10 people shopping at a Buffalo supermarket were murdered by an 18-year-old with a semi-automatic. Expect. It’s not fair either. We’ve been asking since Sandy Hook 10 long years ago. No. We’ve been asking the question since before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Didn’t we start asking this question on April 20, 1999, the day 12 students and a teacher were killed by two students at Columbine High School?

How to make sure this doesn’t happen again? We’ve been asking this question for so long that it seems rhetorical at this point.

So I emailed Aronie to discuss dealing with the universal grief we’ve faced through writing, and she immediately replied, “Come on now.”

I jumped in my car and drove to Chilmark, her home, and the site where she’s been running Chilmark’s writing workshops for 40 years. Aronie realized decades ago that creativity is unleashed when people recognize they are in a safe space. During her workshops, where the reviews are positive rather than heartbreaking, people feel empowered to reveal their stories, often for the first time. People are starting to understand that their stories matter, that we all have a story that matters.

“The only rule is when you’re done reading, we’ll tell you what we like,” says Aronie. “We’re not really looking for the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer here, but the thing is, what I’ve noticed is that when people are safe, they write brilliantly.”

After witnessing the transformation that occurs in person after person for years leading writing workshops, Aronie formed an idea that she believes could help fundamentally alter this cycle of rage, pain and carnage in which we are.

“What if we had some kind of Peace Corps that looks like a StoryCorps in this country?” Aronie asks. “If millions of people could tell what happened to them and not be judged by it, and could be heard, it could have a huge impact, and it could happen very quickly.”

She explains, “I’ve always thought that shame is the biggest cause of brokenness, and everyone has been shamed, but when someone tells their story and it’s heard, it literally starts to heal. And once you’ve had that healing, you don’t want to hurt anybody else.

His idea is for a national program where groups of 12 to 14 people come together with a trained leader. “You don’t talk about politics. You don’t talk about religion, or your disagreements. You talk about your common humanity – that is, when you were 9 and your grandfather came in and hit your mother, how was that? Can you come back to that and feel it? If we can give people who have closed themselves off and stopped feeling, because they’ve been through too much trauma, a safe place to tell what happened to them, and that they don’t feel shame and can express who they are, and to be heard and not judged – if they can tell their stories – then they can begin to heal. She adds, “What happens is people are going to take the risk of saying, Jthis is who i am, this is what happened to me. And they are heard, and not just heard, but honored to have taken the risk of being so honest.

Aronie clarifies: “Of course, there are very sick people, and you cannot think that you will cure everyone, but I would say that many people were listened to and respected for their history, instead of being judged, would soften, and we would find compassion for people, which absolutely does not happen here anymore.

Before leaving to return to Oak Bluffs, Aronie said these words that I thought of as I passed farms with grazing cows on Middle Road, and near the airport which was preparing for the weekend of Memorial Day, and across the roundabout that would direct me home. “Most of us grew up thinking that vulnerability was a weakness. Why weren’t people told that vulnerability is actually a strength?”

Nancy Aronie will participate in a panel on grief writing at Islanders Write. She will also be signing copies of “Memoir as Medicine” on June 5, 3-5 p.m., at Edgartown Books and June 8, 5 p.m., at the Chilmark Library.

As we count down to the MV Times Islanders Write event, which begins Saturday night July 30 and runs through July 31 and August 1, event producer Kate Feiffer will send out weekly dispatches from the table Writers. For more information on Islanders Write, visit islanderswrite.com.

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