Harnessing the healing power of words through writing helped Deborah Mayaan recover from serious illness. Her essays and poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including Woman of Power, Sin Fronteras, Maize, Unstrung, and Rattlesnake Review, and anthologies including Sister/Stranger and She Who Was Lost Is Remembered. Her journalism articles on health and spirituality topics have appeared in Spirituality & Health Magazine, the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Lifestyle, the Tucson Weekly, and the Arizona Jewish Post. She loves teaching writing workshops and earned an MA in educational psychology. She also brings writing opportunities to people through art installations in public spaces. The Tucson Pima Arts Council awarded a grant for her installation “Fountain of Peace” in which participants write about what they need to release or strengthen to be at peace. Mayaan has led P&W-sponsored workshops with the Tucson Medical Center, University of Arizona Cancer Center, and Congregation Chaverim.
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
I put a strong emphasis on creating a group that serves as an emotionally safe container. Each time we meet, I reiterate the importance of confidentiality and also attend to physical needs. I not only remind people of the location of drinking water and the bathroom, but also check in about their comfort with the temperature, lighting, and room configuration (with, of course, a great deal of variability depending on how much we can change in different spaces). I also remind people that sharing writing is optional. If people do choose to share, they also choose if they’d like to receive feedback, and what kind. I often use a meditation bell timer to set time boundaries on shares so that there is an opportunity for everyone to share at least once in a smaller group, or to give more people an opportunity in a larger group.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a workshop leader?
It’s been very rewarding to witness real shifts in people’s lives. In a recent workshop at the University of Arizona Cancer Center on the topic of “What am I living for?” I appreciated seeing how energized people were by developing visions and goals for challenging phases of life. I liked hearing about how it helped them focus and take action. In a recent workshop at Tucson Medical Center Senior Services, the focus was on writing a will of ethics and values as a way to pass on a spiritual legacy. A woman said that it helped her open up her heart. Several people commented on how the plan for sharing the ethical will with their families, and updating it regularly, had great potential for changing the family dynamic in order to express feelings and to share personal growth.
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
Working with people who are facing death helps keep me awake to the present moment, and reminds me not to play it too safe. The practice of writing a will of ethics and values is rooted in my Jewish culture and teaching it has helped me become clearer about my own values. The combination of these reminders has given me the courage to become increasingly vocal in addressing current issues in Israel. I’ve organized healing rituals and written about them. I’ve recently started writing creative nonfiction that includes reporting, memoir, and political reflection. Here in Tucson, some of us are drawing connections between border issues in Israel and Palestine and the U.S. border with Mexico. On both borders, separation walls, guard towers, and the detention and questioning of people based on their ethnicity are all used to restrict the movement of people through regions that have been their homelands for generations. Israeli writers like Avraham Burg and Ari Shavit have written about how the unhealed trauma of the Holocaust may possibly be reenacted in Israel—in the creation of a state system of racial discrimination, along with those eerily similar guard towers and detention camps. A friend of mine is currently on a trip to Germany that includes speaking publicly about U.S.-Mexico border issues and praying at Dachau, and our conversations have helped bring all these threads together. Since I’ve seen such deep healing shifts in myself and others, I have hope for the healing of societal issues when we address our shared needs for safety, security, and self-determination. I don’t yet know what actions I’ll take to share and place this writing, but I’m carving out time to write.
What are the benefits of writing workshops for seniors?
Seniors usually have the time to write, but can hold themselves back, not trusting their voice, feeling constrained by what people will think, or simply procrastinating without knowing why. Writing workshops give a structure in which people can write an entire ethical will, or get started on a larger project like a memoir.
Photo: Deborah Mayaan Credit: Amy Haskell
Support for Readings & Workshops events in Tucson is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.