Peter Cunningham, a participant in a P&W-funded writing workshop for cancer survivors at St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, writes about his experience in the workshop. Cunningham, originally from Scotland, just became a citizen of the US after living in this country for twenty-two years. A passionate founder and part owner of Absolutely Wild, a New York City-based event design company, he was sidetracked last year by the discovery of stage-three rectal cancer. The resulting year of treatment forced him to step down from his position and focus on his own healing, spiritually and emotionally. He calls the cancer a life-giving experience. He is now not sure what he wants to do or be. Through what he calls "The Gift" of the Roosevelt Hospital Writers Workshop, he has found his voice in ink. He is in the process of writing a book about his experience with the goal of getting more people to "take their butt to get a colonoscopy."
Another hospital? I moaned to myself, as I slowly exited the elevator onto the first floor. Why did it have to be in a hospital? All my chemo senses were kicking into high gear. I took a deep breath and hoped this was going to be fun. I wandered down two wrong corridors and opened three wrong doors. Finally I made it to the Cancer Writing Workshop led by Sue Ribner. I was at the end of my treatment for rectal cancer and was hoping to meet some other men with the same diagnosis. But no, God had a better plan, as all God's plans are. She's funny that way. A conference table filled with women. Not for the first time in my life, I was the only male at the room. What could I possibly have in common with all these ladies? After a round of introductions, I quickly made it clear that I was not going to even try to balance out the energy levels. The damn chemo had made sure I did not have the strength to do that. Plus, I had grown enough in the past six months to know it did not really matter.
We began with some simple, fun writing exercises and then progressed to longer passages. Nothing about cancer, yippee! Lots of fun topics from the teacher and a great array of stories from each of the attendees. Some were more reticent to verbalize their jottings than others. Some more fatigued, some at the end of their treatment, and others in a chronic stage. All just happy to be alive and writing, no matter how bad it was. As the weeks progressed the topics raised more memories that we had all forgotten. Postcards, shoes, the softest thing, grandmother; something which is too small, memories of a bathing suit, swimming, hair, school prom, skin, voice, sex, trains, sleeping outdoors, a lover, romance, homage to your favorite body part, first memory, a scoundrel, a corsage, tea leaves, a bar of soap, how you would like to be remembered, learning to drive, kitchen table—and so the prompts went on. Each week a new thought would unravel and lead us to places we had put aside to deal with our most pressing needs in the now. The past was coming back to make us cry and to make us laugh. Always to make our writing richer. "Homework" was not a favored title and "work from home" eased some of the school-time angst. "Work from a bus" was always an option.
As the weeks hurried by, we, the seven scribblers, opened up, and instead of people dealing with cancer we became human beings with stories to tell, to voice. Cancer was on the back burner for two hours each week and we reveled in the escapism. Slowly but surely the single paragraphs became passages, the details enhanced, and our weakened bodies emboldened. Wondrous phrases flowed onto the pages: "bubbling naughtiness," "mad cap cackles," and "my heart was racing and the super was pacing" were among the many. We were becoming writers, if only in our own minds. On occasions, someone had to miss a session. Silently and deep down we all knew why and we were relieved to see them return the next week. We have found our voices in a place where we did not leave them. We are stronger in ink and more assured that nothing is certain. An unspoken bond bubbles between the pages and the conference room seats. We are united in moving through the different stages presented to us each day. We are able to help each other grow and bring out our unspoken best in just 120 minutes. No battles, no fighting. Just being. No therapy needed today.
Photo: Peter Cunningham. Photo Credit: Peter Cunningham.
Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.