Pioneer Valley Poets: Writer describes process as ‘a spiritual practice’

  • Shelburne Falls writer and workshop leader Pam Roberts believes in the power of writing to transform experience. Three new series of her Spirit of the Written Word workshops, two of them free for those affected by cancer, start soon. FOR THE RECORDER/TRISH CRAPO

For The Recorder
Published: 9/6/2017 1:21:38 PM

Shelburne Falls writer and workshop leader Pam Roberts remembers vividly the first writing workshop she took after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis in 1993. She was a fairly new member of one of beloved writing mentor Genie Zeiger’s workshops and used the safe setting to write about the shock and loneliness of learning she had cancer. Roberts was so nervous as she waited for her turn to read aloud that she could barely hear what the other participants were reading.

In an essay about the experience, published by TLA Press in the anthology, “The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader,” in 2007, Roberts wrote that she “blanked in and out” as the reader right before her read about his cousin’s wedding. She felt nervous that her piece would be too depressing as she listened to the man describe the event as loving and joyous, “…blessed with family from both sides and a sunny day. The bride, of course was beautiful, wearing a flowing white dress and a radiant smile beneath her bald head.

“Bald head?” Roberts wrote. “He had my full attention now.”

Listening to the comments on her fellow workshop participant’s piece and then her own, Roberts realized that she was not alone in her experience of cancer. And she began to understand the transformative power of writing.

“The act of writing feels like a spiritual practice to me,” Roberts says. She describes “writing myself into a place of stillness” that feels similar to what she experiences when she meditates or does yoga.

Though she can often reach this still place when writing alone, there’s something especially valuable about writing in a group, Roberts believes.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’re in this safe space, this little nest of the group, it holds you all in a way that enables you to go deeper and write about something that might be scary for you to write about or think about, or to express verbally in spoken words.”

Roberts now offers two free series of “Spirit of the Written Word” workshops each spring and fall for people who have received cancer diagnoses and their caregivers. One series is offered through the support organization Cancer Connection and meets at their facility in Northampton; the other, which meets at Artspace Community Art Center in Greenfield, is a program of the Baystate Franklin Medical Center Oncology department, with funding support from Wheeling for Healing. Roberts also offers a third series in Shelburne Falls for the general public, for which is there is a fee, and a free Gentle Yoga for Cancer Survivors class at the Greenfield YMCA.

Writing prompts for the workshops are varied, Roberts says. While some might help participants absorb the reality of their cancer diagnoses, others might aim to get writers in touch with their childhood memories, family traditions, or access much-welcome humor. Well-established rules for how work is talked about after it’s read — for instance, the “I” in a piece of writing is always referred to by others as “the narrator,” not as “you” — help to define boundaries and maintain the safety of the group.

“One thing that’s so interesting about these groups is that — and I remember this from being in Genie’s workshops — that often I wouldn’t know the kinds of superficial things that we usually know about people, like where they live or what their job is,” Roberts says. “But I would learn their really deep thoughts and feelings about aspects of life. You really get to know someone very deeply. And it’s a fabulous gift, especially when you’re going through cancer, which is, even if you have all the support in the world, a lonely experience.”

People don’t have to already think of themselves as writers, Roberts emphasizes. She recounts the story of one man who, in the beginning, was only writing a few sentences in response to each prompt.

“Very soon he was writing long pieces about his childhood and other experiences,” Roberts says. “So it was really gratifying to see that happen.”

Others have used the writings generated in the workshops as jumping off points for more polished work. One participant, Laurel Turk, used some of her “Spirit of the Written Word” material to create a one-hour, one-woman show, “Breastless,” that she first performed at the Double Take Fringe Festival in Greenfield in 2015. In November of 2016, “Breastless” won an award as highest-grossing show in the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City.

“I always tell people, ‘Just follow your pen. Just see where it takes you,’” Roberts says.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at


Tuesdays, 2 to 4 p.m.

September 26 – December 5 (skipping November 21)

Cancer Connection

41 Locust Street, Northampton

Must pre-register with Cancer Connection, 413-586-1642

Free for people affected by cancer

Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m.

September 28 – December 7 (skipping November 23)

Artspace Community Art Center

15 Mills Street, Greenfield

Must pre-register with Pam Roberts, 413-625-2402

Free for people affected by cancer

Mondays, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

September 18 – November 27 (skipping October 9)

Please contact Pam Roberts for more information, 413-625-2402


Wednesdays, Noon to 1:30 p.m.

Weekly classes begin September 13

Greenfield YMCA

451 Main Street, Greenfield

A program of BFMC Oncology Department with funding support from Wheeling for Healing. Please contact Pam Roberts for more information, 413-625-2402

Free for people affected by cancer

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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