My attempts to tell the truth about myself used to feel like describing foliage by studying a topographical map: I could guess what people expected to grow where, but I really couldn't tell what I was looking at.
My version of my life was a 30-second elevator pitch. It was nodding and smiling, smiling and nodding. It was a rant over the fifth drink in a smoky bar. A MySpace profile of endless links elsewhere.
Whatever form it took, I made sure to throw intruders and even invited guests off the trail of any real emotional landscape.
That applied to me, too. I couldn't talk about what I felt or what mattered to me even if I wanted to.
Sometimes I really did want to. Sometimes I was paying people to nudge me along while I tried.
Friends, family and lovers all called out to me. Though I had a voice, I just couldn't seem to speak the language.
It's not like that for me anymore, for a handful of reasons that include nearing the end of my twenties. The shift began around the time I met Mary Pierce Brosmer and first experienced the consciousness of her writing school.
My introduction to Women Writing for (a) Change — in shorthand, WWf(a)C — was through a CityBeat assignment to write about Brosmer's latest experiment, the WWf(a)C Feminist Leadership Academy. Like a good embedded reporter I sat quietly, watched and took notes. But I sat in a circle with other women, and that circle was a beginning.
I didn't cry until I was walking out so no one could see my face. I'd just seen a whole roomful of people being with each other and relating in ways I wanted desperately.
I'm not dying to confess all this to the more cynical factions of CityBeat's readership, but the timing of this year's Women's Issue (see page 23) jibes too well with a looming deadline for WWf(a)C's capital campaign to buy its new home in Silverton. I couldn't ignore the parallel.
"A place for women to tell the truth of their lives" is one way Brosmer likes to describe the school's mission. WWf(a)C is an organization offering weekly writing classes, writing retreats and other gathering opportunities — but it's also a school of thought and a community.
Now WWf(a)C becomes a destination, too. If it scrapes up $85,000 more by June 29, the Women Writing for (a) Change Resource Center Foundation will hand over money to buy a two-story building in Silverton. The capital campaign has raised almost $700,000 toward its total $1 million goal, which also sets up endowments for scholarships and building upkeep.
I took my first of three semester classes at WWf(a)C's former Madisonville location, where the school inhabited the second floor of the Ironworkers Hall.
When the community outgrew the space, WWf(a)C moved to the former Crazy Ladies Bookstore in Northside. From what I understand, there were accessibility issues, parking issues, safety issues and issues-issues.
Now my third class, "Living and Leading Like a Poet," meets at the Silverton location that Brosmer hopes will be WWf(a)C's permanent home.
The space feels right. Brosmer says its careful arrangement is a manifestation of the two things that guide all this work: intention and intuition.
The crystal I've noticed carefully placed in a corner of a stairwell was the work of Kathy Wade, a longtime WWf(a)C faculty member as well as a trained crystal healer. When Brosmer's grandsons first visited the space, they came back to her with their hands full: "Ma," they said, "there were rocks in your corners."
I'm now taking my first class, and one of the first offered, that's invited men to join. I realize with some shame that I never fully embraced the WWf(a)C model until I saw the effect it has on men, too.
I thought guys would screw up the class dynamic and upend the carefully crafted "container," as Brosmer likes to call the safe and intentional vibe of conscious gatherings. Not at all.
Still, I do think participating in WWf(a)C takes a certain kind of man — which is not at all to imply "an emasculated one," but one willing to feel and be honest and who isn't threatened by others' honesty, a man who can pass up the joke in favor of sitting still and listening. The carefully intentional process isn't for everyone, men or women.
Though word of WWf(a)C has gotten round in the 16 years since Brosmer started holding classes, she still runs up against resistance and misunderstandings.
"I think there's an assumption on the part of some people that if women are doing it together it must be something opposed to men, or not powerful or significant," she says. "Like a hobby or something."
Now its capital campaign banks on selling the vision convincingly enough to buck conventional fundraising wisdom by raising 10 times more than WWf(a)C ever has. (See details at womenwriting.org.)
Crafting the fundraising pitch often means having to explain in topographical terms a way of writing and being that pushes roots far below the surface. Such conscious writing usually hits water, but try explaining its value to people who don't know about thirst.
Even I struggle to get it sometimes. I know that vital writing isn't at all hobby-like. But in the three years since becoming involved with WWf(a)C, I've heard Brosmer repeat the phrase "telling the truth of women's lives" umpteen times without really understanding what it meant to me.
I've seen what it means to the grandmother speaking for the first time about childhood abuse, the divorcee learning to define and express herself outside the role of wife and mother, the emotionally drained teacher reclaiming her calling, the business professional letting down her guard or the shy teenager testing out her voice.
But I'm lucky enough to have been a paid writer already, I've acted and waited tables long enough to fake confidence when the real thing ran dry and I'm a "young professional." Sometimes I trip over differences in stories instead of hearing the similarities.
Then two weeks ago Brosmer read aloud to us a poem in which she feels her way back through one protracted teenage moment as she clumsily soft-boiled eggs for her father.
"Not that you would hit, or even scold/ me for such a tiny failure/ but that you would smile/ that wry, sad, but somehow satisfied/ smile that said you were disappointed/ disappointed but not surprised, for/ already, Daddy, it was becoming clear/ as people used to say, that I was not/ the right kind of woman."
I hadn't known that emotion could be nailed the way I felt it puncture my chest when I heard those words. I didn't know that sharing that ephemeral moment could have a purpose beyond blaming, confronting or crying.
Sometimes just telling the story and being heard is enough. Sometimes hearing others' stories is enough. Sometimes it's nearly everything that's been missing.
I'm hoping that WWf(a)C gets everything it still needs to become a lasting haven for Cincinnati's women and men, to be a renewable source for what's been missing.
CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here in the second issue of each month.