Rhode Island series unlocks the healing power of writing

‘When I think of restorative narratives, I think of the power to connect and heal through narrative storytelling’ says LitArts RI’s Jodie Noel Vinson

PROVIDENCE — Holly Powell has always been a writer. Even when her full-time careers — as an artist, and now a realtor — have placed considerable demands on her time, she found time to put words to page.

But her relationship to writing has recently deepened, as she has begun to explore how writing about difficult experiences in her life can be a form of healing — and a source of strength.

“When you write about difficulties and trauma, it is in and of itself a healing process,” she said. “Sometimes, we think we know what we’re thinking — but when you write it out, and you put it into words, you take it outside of your body … It’s now something outside you, and it loses its power over you.”

The relief that this process brings is both emotional and physical, she said: “Sometimes you write this heavy stuff, and before you know it, you feel like you’ve taken a load off your shoulders.”

Powell is among the many local creatives participating in “Cultivating Care through Restorative Narratives,” a year-long programming series at LitArts RI that explores how the practice of writing can promote personal wellbeing and community care. The series — which is supported by grants from the Rhode Island State Council of the Art (RISCA), the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism — offers a range of programming for local writers, illustrators, and podcasters, including a panel discussion featuring medical practitioners and writers, craft workshops for caregivers, and an upcoming resource fair connecting literary artists to local organizations that support their work and wellbeing.

“When I think of restorative narratives, I think of the power to connect and heal through narrative storytelling — through putting your experience into a shape of some sort, and then using that shape as a venue to share with other folks,” said Jodie Noel Vinson, program director for LitArts RI. “And I think that practice in itself is quite restorative — it cultivates empathy and care between people with different experiences.”

Writing and sharing restorative narratives also deepens resilience within communities, added Jillian Winters, operations director at LitArts RI.

“Because you’ve had the chance to sit with and think about whatever you need to process, you can cast out a wider web to your community, and you can become more involved, and more understanding of things that you may not have paid attention to before,” she said. “It allows for further presence and stronger presence as a community member.”

The restorative narrative process can hold even deeper healing value for those navigating physical and mental health concerns in the medical system, Vinson said.

“Something that came to broader social consciousness during the pandemic were some of the inequities and issues in the medical field,” she said. “We are not the first to think of this, but it seems like bringing the arts into healthcare and medicine is one way to address those gaps in care, gaps in communication.”

For Anisa Raoof — program manager for the RISCA Arts + Health Grant that co-funds the series — LitArts RI’s series offers an “excellent” example of the integral role the arts play in a holistic view of health and wellbeing.

“Creative care and responding to the community through writing and narrative storytelling can have therapeutic benefits,” she said. “It can be an individual that will benefit, someone who was a patient, someone who is in the healthcare industry who might bring it back to their own work in a hospital — or someone who might bring it on back to their own creative practice, where it affects how they feel in their personal and professional life, and how they can be seen and heard.”

Vinson said, “I think that something amazing and magical can happen when the arts are applied to fields outside of what we normally think of as where the arts belong.”

Meeting a Community Need

Creating community has been at the core of LitArts RI’s mission since it was founded in 2018, then under the name What Cheer Writers Club: “Our programs started around community — recognizing that writers needed a space to work … but that they [also] wanted to meet each other and needed something to draw them out of the isolation of the creative process,” Vinson said.

Jodie Noel Vinson – Submitted phot

The “Cultivating Care through Restorative Narratives” series was an opportunity to lean into this core mission, while also responding to a growing community desire for opportunities to cultivate conversations and practices that fostered healing.

“As we were conceiving of this program, people were still kind of reemerging from lives that were a little bit more shut down during the worst of the pandemic,” Vinson said. “And as we were reconnecting with folks and seeing them in person again, stories were coming out of what they’d been through the past couple of years — difficult things, and traumas, and illness, and isolation.” These stories encompassed many layers of experiences — including physical and mental health, and the social injustices and systemic inequities that negatively impact them.

These stories of deep personal challenges, coupled with LitArts RI’s established investment in these areas, made the series a natural fit, Winters said. “When this theme bubbled up, it felt like we could really lean into it.”

In its first months, the series featured panel discussions, professional development practicums, and workshops where writers could draft, share, and refine restorative narratives of their own.

The series kicked off in September with an interactive online event that considered the role narrative plays in care work and community building across medical, educational, and personal spheres. “Restorative Narratives: Care, Power + Visibility” included a panel discussion featuring Dr. Suzanne Koven, who is writer-in-residence at Massachusetts General Hospital, and local teaching artists Corinne McKamey and Victoria Restler. The discussion culminated in a collective writing exercise: attendees’ reflected on their own experiences giving and receiving care, and their observations were used to create a communal poem.

This fall also featured professional development events that focused on helping writers build creative practices that are sustainable and self-compassionate. “Care in Community: Exploring Artist Residences,” co-sponsored by Artists Communities Alliance, introduced participants to the ways that artistic residencies can provide financial and community support to creatives, while “Care in Publishing: Resilience in the Face of Rejection” featured local authors Rebekah Bergman, Nada Samih-Rotondo, and Candace Williams leading a community discussion on how writers can care for themselves while navigating the highly competitive publishing market.

Local authors Candace Williams, Nada Samih-Rotondo, and Rebekah Bergman, facing camera, lead “Care in Publishing: Resilience in the Face of Rejection.” – Submitted photo

Local writer Nancy Agabian attended the “Care in Publishing: Resilience in the Face of Rejection” workshop because of its emphasis on care when navigating rejection in the publishing world.

“One recent trend is that it’s just a numbers game— try to send out a hundred submissions, and think of accruing rejections as a positive [sign] that you’re putting your work out there,”

 said Agabian, whose most recent book, The Fear of Large and Small Nations, was a finalist for the 2023 PEN/Bellwether Prize.

This rejection-heavy climate can be particularly hard to manage for writers whose work addresses personal harms they have experienced: “When you’re writing creative nonfiction or memoir or autobiographical fiction, it’s coming from a place of wanting to heal, and of trying to find how your [story] connects to other stories and experiences, so sometimes the self can get wrapped up in how you meet the profession,” she said. “The rejection can feel very personal sometimes.”

The workshop offered a useful way to frame these experiences, she said. “We can look at rejection and try to learn from it and improve our work, but we can also look at the bigger picture and see what we’re up against, especially with some of the systemic barriers of racism and sexism,” she said. “It’s [about] being kind to ourselves as writers.”

This fall also featured workshops that created space for small groups of writers to create and share restorative writing, including “Writing for and about Bodies Onstage,” an afternoon event led by Providence-based playwright Kate Tarker, and “Writing to Repair: The Risky Personal Narrative,” a three-week workshop series led by author Ethan Gilsdorf that invited participants to reflect on the effects that painful experiences — including grief, illness, and trauma — have had on their lives.

“Writing to Repair: The Risky Personal Narrative” meets at LitArts RI’s center in Providence – Submitted photo

For Powell, “Writing to Repair” offered a secure space to delve into challenging experiences. “It’s so important to have a comfortable and safe environment where you feel you can be honest with yourself,” she said. “Just knowing the name of the class gave you permission to write about your trauma, and what you are trying to repair … [because] you’re in a setting where that’s what everyone is there for.”

Elle Shannon, who also participated in the workshop, agreed. “The workshop made me feel like it was ok to write about trauma, and unpleasant moments in our lives, and that it was safe to do so.”

For Shannon, hearing the work of others was also healing: “So often, we interact in mundane ways, but to actually hear these personal narratives and experiences that people have gone through, and to know that we really have a lot in common — even if our narratives and experiences don’t match up. That was really comforting to me in ways I was not expecting.”

The vulnerability and openness of these workshop spaces can also build supportive networks that continue long after the events themselves end. “As an adult I don’t often make new friends that I feel are intimate friends,” said Mike Ryan, a Westerly-based writer and participant in Gilsdorf’s workshop. But years of attending writing workshops has changed this. “To make a friend as an adult — as a 50, 60, or 70 year old — that you feel simpatico with and share interests and stories and life events with … that came about from these writers groups. And it’s a pretty wonderful thing.”

Sharing Resources, Celebrating Stories

The “Cultivating Care through Restorative Narratives” series will continue this spring, with small-group craft workshops and large public events intended to support and celebrate restorative narrative work in Rhode Island’s literary arts community.

Spring programming for the series will kick off with a Writing + Wellness Resource Fair, which will be held Saturday, February 10, from 11am-4pm at LitArts RI’s Providence center. The fair, which is free and open to the public, will feature 19 local vendors, including artists groups, social justice organizations, housing nonprofits, and organizations and businesses dedicated to health and wellness. It will also feature drop-in writing sessions with Justice Ameer and Kou Nyan of blackearth collective + lab, desk yoga with The Heal Room, oral history recordings with Rhode Island Latino Arts, and astrology readings with Luke Dani Blue Astrology.  

“The writer isn’t writing in a little bubble … You’re still tied to communities, and you’re also in a body that needs shelter, and food, and medical care, and support,” Vinson said. “All those things that are part of self-care — part of a holistic life — have to be in place for a creative practice to thrive.”

The resources fair is an opportunity to address these holistic needs, while “also recognizing all of the great community resources and organizations that already exist in Rhode Island that some people might now know about,” she said.

The spring line-up will also include several craft workshops, including Writing for Caregivers, a 6-week workshop — offered in partnership with Bay Path University and led by Providence-based writer Leigh Vincola — that offers participants a space to draft and share writing that reflects upon their individual and collective experiences caring for others.

The series will culminate in May with a final showcase. Focused on the theme of healing and restoration, this event will invite participants in the year’s programs to read aloud from the work that they have created — and to celebrate, in community, the healing work that they have achieved.

“It will be a chance for people to hear those actual restorative narratives that people have been working on and connect with one another over them,” Vinson said. “I think that in itself — the act of sharing work — can be kind of a healing process in itself.”