By Marc D. Allan, Butler MFA candidate
Leona, a lady beyond a certain age, likes to break out in song. Doesn’t matter where she is or who’s in the room or that it’s well after Christmas and she’s still singing “Silent Night.” She’s going to sing.
At this moment, she’s sitting in a conference room at American Village retirement community, explaining herself between song bursts to Stephanie Anderson, a student in Butler’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Every Tuesday, Anderson and three other MFA students visit Leona and others at American Village to hear their stories and get them down on paper.
Leona talks, and Anderson captures her words.
“Leona feels happiest when she is among her 10 children,” she writes. “She loves to sing a lot too, and this is a gift she shares with her children, especially since it’s a God-given talent. She loves singing in a choir and sharing the community, because God knows when she is happy and sad, and he projects his goodness through her. Leona knows we have to choose happiness. Words cannot describe the joy she feels being with her family, the one at home, and the one at church.
“Sometimes she is so glad to be alive that she bursts into song, being so glad for her life and her gift. She used to teach singing and sometimes she would sing those songs to her children when they felt lonely or sad, particularly ‘Amazing Grace.’ Leona believes firmly in love and laughter and compassion, and believes harder in the power of beautiful love. She doesn’t want to be evil and frowning. She wants to kill sadness with joy. She sings when she is sad and when she is happy, because the voice is the soul coming to the light.”
Sometime later, Anderson reflects on what happens in these sessions.
“We’re making a difference in these people’s lives,” she says. “We’re getting to know each other. We’re making friends. We’re showing ourselves and each other that it’s a big world we live in, but in this circle there’s joy, there’s happiness, there’s laughter. This is marvelous.”
This is Writing for Wellness, a program that MFA students began two years ago to use writing for therapy, for recollection, for relief, for fun. The first classes took place at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, where the MFA students worked with hospital staff who needed an opportunity to relax and unload.
Since then, Writing for Wellness has expanded—to Riley Hospital for Children, Indiana Women’s Prison, Hope Academy (a high school for students recovering from addiction), and Indiana Youth Group (an organization for LGBT youth). The program is soon to add sessions for breast-cancer survivors.
The idea to bring Writing for Wellness to Butler started with Hilene Flanzbaum, the Director of the MFA program. Flanzbaum has taught creative writing on the undergraduate and graduate levels, and her husband, Geoffrey Sharpless, runs the summer creative writing camp at Butler and teaches creative writing at Park Tudor School. They often talk about the psychological benefits of that work, how the participants seem happier when they’re getting a chance to express themselves.
Flanzbaum thought that idea could be incorporated in the MFA program. And since one of the program’s missions is to provide service, Writing for Wellness seemed like a natural fit.
“It’s a discipline that’s fairly well established in other places but had no footprints at all in Indiana or Indianapolis,” Flanzbaum says. “So I saw a real opportunity for our students.”
Around the same time, Flanzbaum was recruiting a new MFA student, Bailey Merlin, who had taught in a Writing for Wellness program as an undergraduate at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
“When we talked on the phone,” Merlin says, “I told her what I did: I bring everyone in, I have people write, they come to conclusions on their own, and it’s pretty fascinating. She’s like, ‘That’s exactly what we want.’”
That led Merlin to choose Butler for her MFA, and she led the MFA program’s first Writing for Wellness group that went to Eskenazi. There, she says, they saw staff members “writing about things they’d never expressed before and crying.” At Riley Hospital, she worked in a behavioral unit with kids suffering from eating disorders and depression.
“To see the spark of life go back into them is just amazing,” she says.
The spark works both ways.
“You would be amazed how much doing this changes you as a person,” Merlin says. “Just to see how you directly affect someone else. You don’t get that opportunity a lot.”
The MFA students who facilitate the program all seem to have that reaction. Tristan Durst has spent her Tuesday afternoons writing with a retiree named Robert, who was part of a 1950s Indianapolis-based doo-wop group called The Counts. The first week, she says, he told the same stories several times.
“Now, he’s remembering more, and more of his personality is coming out,” she says. “And this week, he was cracking jokes left, right and center. He was telling me about his brothers playing baseball and he said, ‘I won’t say that I was the best baseball player. I could, but I won’t.’ He started slipping in jokes, and I’m getting a real sense that he enjoys being there.”
Taylor Lewandowski, the MFA student who’s leading the group at the senior center, says he and the other Butler students are needed there. He tells the story of a woman he’s worked with named Martha.
“Her roommate passed away, and she saw her last breath,” Lewandowski says. “That obviously affected her. She came in three days after that and I worked with her. Afterward, she said, ‘That was really good for me. It was good for me to get out and talk to someone.’ Writing for Wellness creates this community that’s really nice. It’s really a service. We’re there to be there for them and once you realize that, it’s really nice. We’re actually doing something good.”
“Writing for Wellness” was originally posted on butler.edu
Written by Stephanie Anderson, MFA fiction candidate
I moved to Indianapolis from the Chicago area not knowing anyone in Indianapolis. Luckily, I’ve made friends in my fellow MFA students. We’d talked for months about going to a convention, so Camara and Suzie, a veteran of the convention scene, and I made the decision to go to Indiana Comic Con.
Friday, we walked around the con, looking at the shops, just taking in the scene for the first time. It was fun to look at all the different cosplayers and take pictures with them. They were some of the nicest people I could imagine meeting because they were so excited to show off their work and be with like-minded people.
There was even a sturdy life-size paper mache Toothless! Each day of the con, I posed a different way with Toothless. Because I cosplayed as Arwen Undomiel, I pretended to care for Toothless: petting him, looking at him with love and care.
The best part of Friday was discovering archery tag. Imagine dodgeball, but with bows and arrows. It was tiring, even for someone who practices archery, but we enjoyed the frenetic fun of pretending to be in a medieval battle, and the kinship of our teammates.
Saturday was my favorite day. I cosplayed as Princess Merida.When I walked into the convention center, I became a face character in Disney World. Luckily, the building was air-conditioned, so even under my silk dress, velvet cloak, and heavy wig, I didn’t sweat like a pig. The day started with the Cary Elwes Q and A. I suppose at least three-quarters of the convention was there strictly for him. The noise when he appeared was tremendous. He was such a charming individual. When a girl asking a question had trouble with the mic, he got down from the table and answered right before her. He told stories about The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and he performed funny impressions of Andre the Giant, Mel Brooks, and Rob Reiner.
Another awesome thing about Saturday was a different Robin Hood. I’m talking about Sean Maguire, who plays the character on the ABC series Once Upon a Time. Sean recognized me as Merida and gave me a hug hello (me simultaneously getting a whiff of his cologne…it wasn’t intentional, I promise) before we pretended to shoot my bow for a picture. My heart did not stop pounding until long after I walked away.
My heart went even further out to Sean because he kindly provided a shout-out to a friend of mine! I told him he was the best Robin Hood, even better than Cary Elwes (I stage-whispered this, since Cary was in the booth next door), before wishing him a good day and skipping away…*sigh*
Sunday was going to be a pure shopping day, but then my friend Camara and I were curious to try Nerdy Speed-Dating. We sat and talked to the rotation of men. As I expected, it was interesting to get to know some of them, if they were willing to talk.
I’m grateful to my friends for sharing this wonderful weekend with me, and to have met so many talented and kind cosplayers too. There will definitely be a next year for this convention, and hopefully the guest stars will again be just as sweet and excited as we are to meet them.
Dave Marsh (Butler MFA 2016) on what a writer realized by attending the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
A brisk Saturday morning, March 4th, not yet 8AM. The end-zones have been converted. One says Indianapolis. The other has the NFL logo and simply Scouting Combine. There are only a few thousand people inside Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, but among them are every sport media powerhouse you’ve ever heard of, NFL executives, and the head-coaching staff of all the major NFL franchises.
It is quiet. Waiting room quiet. So quiet that you can hear the cleats on the turf as each hopeful runs the 40-yard dash under the watchful eye of scouts sitting at folding tables down the near-sideline. We, the public, have been admitted via a lottery process that is new – this event was once closed to casual observers like us. Today is Receivers and Quarterbacks; we’ve drawn a highly coveted session.
There is a talk before we’re led into the club level of the stadium. No cell phones. No food. No clapping. No voices above a whisper. The top college football players in the country are on the field. With each warm-up stretch and each name called, the hours spent alone in gyms since middle-school come down to these attempts to realize a dream – that of turning pro.
But as I sit and look across the field, I’m not thinking about turning pro or football.
I’m thinking about the work.
In football and in writing, it’s not about talent. It’s about doing the work, showing up and intentionally going through the paces. These offensive drills are the query letters, they are the short stories and poetry being launched, spun up into the air, in search of a literary journal that will receive them. The ultimate outcome is beyond your control. All you can do is get up each day, without fail, and sit down at some point to do the work. For these guys – for the ones who have a legitimate shot – the NFL Combine is simply another workout. And for those of us who are striving to take our writing to the next level, each submission – to a workshop, journal, thesis advisor, or agent – is simply another opportunity to present what we do best.
From London to Portland to Indianapolis, Butler MFAs embarked on spring break adventures. Their adventures were as unique as their personalities.
Tristan brought her sassy style across the pond. Here she is at the London Eye.
Greg performed with his band, Wife Patrol, at a First Friday fundraiser for Girls Rock! Girls Rock! is a non-profit organization dedicated to building positive self-esteem in girls and encouraging creative expression through music.
Kim spoke at an International Women’s Day event at The Church Within in Fountain Square.
Bailey Merlin traveled to Portland and hugged a llama. Could she be any happier (I’m talking about the llama)?
John celebrated his Butler Bulldogs 4th seed in the NCAA tourney. I’m expecting him to plan a game viewing party complete with guacamole. Go Dawgs!
Maggie and Andrea led a Writing for Wellness workshop at Indiana Youth Group. Butler’s Writing for Wellness workshops bring the therapeutic power of creative writing to our Indianapolis community. We love our new partnership with IYG whose mission is to provide an accepting, empowering environment to Indy’s LGBTQ youth.
Robert Stapelton, Booth editor, attended Writefest in Houston.
Suzie spent time with friends in Utah where she ate great food and found the Mormon temple.
Josh started a for charity micro press. Because if you are a writer who can’t take a vacation, why not start a press?
Mindy welcomed her son, Hugo. She wins spring break.