Journaling to Save Your Life -- Tanya Taylor and Pamela Thompson

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

Tanya Taylor and Pamela Thompson used their theater backgrounds to help people create monologues about their cancer experiences. Their book, *The Cancer Monologue Project*, is a collection of these stories.

By Tanya Taylor
WebMD Live Events Transcript

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to the Student Lounge, Tanya and Pamela. Tell us why we have two professional actors here tonight to talk about cancer, instead of an oncologist.

Thompson: Because we work with people who have cancer. And what we do is not traditional medicine, but we work with a creative process to help people emotionally and spiritually heal from their experience with cancer.

Taylor: Pamela and I both have training as professional actors and writers for many years before we began this project we were writing our own one-, two-, and three-woman autobiographical shows in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were very interested, even 12 years ago, in exploring the possibility of using true-life experience to create original, exciting, and interesting theater. Many things happened in our lives including Pamela's husband's diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer at the age of 40, as well as exploring deeper emotional issues in both of our lives. We were inspired to create a biographical monologue workshop where people were invited to use their own life stories and create monologues from them. We found that it was a very healing and empowering experience for both the participants and audience members.

Eventually we were inspired to focus the workshops specifically to cancer patients and their family members and caregivers. We are also currently working with the HIV and AIDS community in Santa Fe, bringing forth their stories. And we found that focusing on a particular topic with as much emotional charge as cancer brought forth amazing and powerful and cathartic performances from these people that eventually led to this book. Ultimately, Pamela and I wanted to use our writing and theatrical backgrounds to serve people in a way that conventional theater can't.

Member: The Cancer Monologue Project is very helpful to those affected by cancer. Are there plans to take the project to other cities?

Thompson: Absolutely. That is one of our main focuses, to take this work not only around the U.S. but also to other countries. And one of the things that we've found here in Santa Fe is that these workshops and performances really start a dialogue, not just within people's homes but also within their communities. And we intend to teach facilitators in communities all over the United States so that they can teach these workshops and begin that dialogue within their own communities.

Taylor: Our vision is to let this project grow organically, and we'd love to see it in hospitals and wellness centers, as Pam was saying. And for us now the main challenge is finding the funding to train facilitators to move this project from a local level to, hopefully, a national or international level. But our vision is very clear and we're getting lots of positive support and feedback about the book from the cancer community. And we're excited about the unfolding.

Member: Will the facilitators have a theatrical background or a medical one?

Taylor: Pam and I have found it very effective to teach as a team. We will probably pair facilitators together to teach as a team. We will most likely pair one facilitator with a writing and/or theater background with one facilitator with a therapeutic background. And additionally, personal experience with cancer and/or other life-challenging illness will be considered in terms of choosing facilitators. Besides that, it will also be important that the facilitators are able to create and maintain a sacred and confidential space where it is safe to explore all feelings and stories that people may want to express. So empathy and passion is as important as any formal credentials.

Thompson: It's a great question because in these workshops we are the facilitators but we are writing and sharing right along with the participants. And what I've found is that having Tanya there to work off of and work with makes me stronger as a facilitator to have a partner. And not one of us has the answer for every situation. So it's vital to have somebody to work with and discuss the direction that the workshop is taking and what creative solutions we might want to use to help facilitate these participants in going deeper and deeper. And as we've found with so many of our participants, they had to go deeply inside themselves. Some people have said that they've experienced a kind of social dormancy, and so we're supporting them in connecting and coming back out of that. And it really helps, I think, in the structure of the workshop that they come into a situation where there is a bond and a deep connection between the two facilitators. It's a type of modeling.

Member: Sounds like a tough team to put together. Will you begin in large cities first?

Taylor: We don't know exactly where we'll begin. It's more a question for us of where there's energy and excitement around the project and I'm fortunate to have a partner in Pamela who encourages us in being led, inspired, and guided. We have an overall vision, but we allow the vision and specific plans to unfold as the opportunities present themselves. We are of course very interested in working in New York, in Los Angeles, and other large cities where we can reach large numbers of people. However, we are also interested in the quality and integrity of the work being maintained and our wanting to grow at a pace that serves that. And, in truth, each survivor in every small town is equally important to us and we encourage them to call us or email us at our web site to find creative ways that we can support them in their journeys.

Thompson: For anybody who would like more info regarding The Cancer Monologue Project, or would like to contact us directly, please go to, or you can reach us directly at [email protected] and [email protected] And as we don't have personal secretaries, we do read these ourselves and we do invite people to contact us.

Moderator: What do you think compels people to attend your workshops? It seems like it requires baring parts of themselves that could be uncomfortable at first.

Taylor: It can be uncomfortable and often we have to talk people into taking our workshop. At least we did initially. But beyond people's fears of exposure, I believe there is a yearning to be heard and to be seen and to have their life experiences validated. What we offer is authenticity. What we offer is an opportunity -- an opportunity that they may realize may not pass their way again: The opportunity to stand on a bare stage with fellow survivors and have ten full minutes to say that which they most need to express about their experiences, and have the audiences full and undivided attention.

The experience is very powerful for both the participants and audience members alike. We have yet to do a show where the survivors telling their story do not get a standing ovation. They give a lot, sometimes it's scary, but they receive a lot and I believe what drives them to do this is the desire and the subconscious knowing that it will manifest deeper connection with themselves, their families, and their communities. This is what Pamela and I have had the privilege and honor of witnessing time and time again.

Thompson: From my own experience with cancer, I found it to be, for my husband myself, very disempowering and isolating. I also found that just to function on a day-to-day level, it seemed that my husband needed to shut down certain rooms in his heart. What I have found that these workshops and performances give people is, I've seen them stand on that stage and they take their power and voice back. And in standing up there so vulnerable and so speaking from their hearts, I feel they make such a deep connection with the audience and what they receive, to me, seems like the greatest power, and that's love.

Moderator: For people here tonight or reading this chat later, what is the first step for them to take to create or record their own cancer story? (Until your workshops come to town!)

Taylor: Pamela and I put together a list of writing tips that may be helpful to some. It is important for us to express that we acknowledge that writing tips don't work for everyone. One of the things that make our group work so well is that we all come together with a shared purpose and intention. That said, we do support people in working with simple and excellent writing books, for example, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. In terms of creatively unblocking, there is probably no better book we can recommend than The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron.

We also encourage people to find a writing partner, if possible, someone who is safe to share deeper thoughts, feelings, and emotions with.

In Natalie's books they will find some excellent tips on free writing, which assists people in bypassing their own internal critic and editor to get their stories flowing out of them. We feel very inspired by Natalie and Julia's work. In many ways it has the same premise as our own work, which is that of unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves, allowing ourselves to write badly and to make mistakes. That is part of the creative process and if we don't allow ourselves room to make mistakes or to write uncomfortably in the beginning, we will miss the opportunity of finding the gold and gems buried beneath the surface of ourselves. Just beginning, just sitting down for five minutes a day and allowing oneself to begin to express one's voice is a great accomplishment -- just to begin.

Moderator: And here is that list of tips to get you rolling:

1. Find time to write. It is so easy to let other things get in the way. Make it a priority. Carve out time in the morning, evening, or during your lunch. If you can do this for one month it will become a habit.

2. Do not judge ANYTHING that comes up. A good way to short circuit the "critic" in your head is to keep your pen moving on the paper. Do not let your pen stop even if you are writing, "I can't think of anything to write, I can't think of anything to write," Do not correct spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Trust and keep your pen moving.

3. Find a writing buddy. You can check with each other as well as getting together to write.

4. Topics are a great way to tap into emotions and feelings. Start making a list of things like:

  • Home
  • The smells in my grandmother's kitchen
  • My first pet
  • My first kiss
  • 1978
  • My child's laughter

Write on these topics, etc, and do not let your pen stop moving for 10 minutes (or three pages).

5. Write a list of your passions and obsessions. Write for ten minutes on each of them.

6. If emotions come up, just keep writing. Do not try to push them away. Honor them. In our workshops we often have had people cry and we simply encourage them (and YOU!) to go into the emotion and keep on writing through it.

7. Write in a place that is comfortable for you. Some people get up early to take advantage of the quiet. Others find that a cafe or coffee house is a great place, with its "white noise," to write. Experiment. Have fun discovering the perfect places for you.

8. As you become comfortable with your writing practice begin using more detail. For example, "the car" can become "my father's 1969, maroon, Chevy Impala with the white vinyl interior." In exploring smells, sights, tastes, colors, and sensations in greater detail you will find t taking you more deeply into your memory and experience.

9. Keep a pad of paper next to your bed and jot down your dreams. Write about them and how you felt, etc., as soon as you wake up.

10. Write for yourself. This isn't a term paper or a resume. Have fun. Go deeply. Explore your memories, dreams, emotions, and desires. Be open to surprising yourself and you will.

Member: I have stopped writing in my journal since I joined a support group, should I try to return to it?

Taylor: Journaling, for me personally, is a somewhat different process than free writing. For some people journaling works very well as a cathartic experience. My own experience with journaling was that it allowed me to process the top level of my experiences. In other words, day-to-day worries, concerns, mundane tasks, etc. A support group can also be used effectively in this way. Free writing, for me personally, has taken my writing to another level where more of my dreams, deeper experiences, and the mystery in my life has the possibility of revealing itself. Journaling is a very personal experience; free writing has the possibility of moving more deeply into the realm of the creative self-emerging. I believe both support groups and journaling are wonderful tools. If one wants to go deeper with their stories, I recommend the process that Pamela and I have been sharing about and the books that we've recommended.

Whatever you choose to do, I support you whole-heartedly in being gentle with yourself. Processes come and go and work more or less effectively at different times in your life. Move where your heart dictates and do no feel guilt if you don't feel like journaling since you started your support group. Do what feels the most supportive to your own self and allow room for silence and inspiration.

Member: What do you suggest women do when they feel they need to hide their journal from their family?

Thompson: We're not therapists and we would like to clarify that. But what our work is about is to, first, getting to the deeper, more intimate experiences and feelings that you've had with cancer and really exploring and feeling that.

Taylor: If you feel like you can't share this with your family, we would encourage you to find a safe person through friendship, a support group, or therapy who you can share yourself with fully. We have found through our own experiences and that of those we have worked with that the intimate connection, whether it's one person or thousands of people, is supportive of the emotional healing process.

Moderator: It's a long way from hiding your journal to doing what people in your workshops have done, which is to perform monologues about their cancer experience on stage. But I'd bet you've met people just like our chatter, who couldn't imagine bringing their story out from the nightstand.

Taylor: Yes. There have been people in our workshops that have allowed themselves in the safety of our workshops to explore very scary topics.

For example, the inability to be sexual because of their treatments or the impossibility of leaving a spouse who wasn't able to be there for them. If people in our workshops do not want to share something onstage that they have not fully come to terms with or are not comfortable sharing, we support them in keeping that private and confidential within the group. We do find, however, that their being able to share it with us, either just Pam or me in a one-on-one session, or in the group, is very freeing for them.

So we encourage anyone reading this tonight to connect, even if it's only with one other person who feels safe in your life. It's a heavy thing on the spirit, mind, and emotional self to carry something that feels shameful or terrifying alone.

Moderator: Looking over some of the monologues, there seemed to be a common theme about the precious quality of life. What other threads did you discover in these stories?

Thompson: Tanya and I feel that part of our work in supporting each unique voice, but in these kinds of experiences we definitely have found common threads, threads that the participants have certainly bonded on. Some of those themes are unhappiness with the medical community or their treatments, problems in communicating with spouse and family members, anger, frustration, rage, depression, and anxiety.

Taylor: Fear of the unknown and fear of the future. One quality of having experienced cancer is always the fear of recurrence. We've also found threads of amazing courage and the willingness to face their grief, their mortality, and most importantly to me has been their desire to express their love, and an urgency. Cancer has brought them to a sense of urgency to express that which matters most to them, and I would say in every case there is a desire to express love. And once they process in our workshops, and the early parts of their writing, a lot of the grief, the terror, the depression that may arise from a cancer diagnosis, they find their way to more freedom in expressing that love.

One misconception about our work is that it is all very heavy or grief-centered. It's true that we cry together, but we also laugh a lot, probably much more than people would expect. We often notice that many of our participants have developed a sort of dark humor that helps them get through their experience. We also notice a desire to speak from a very real place. The superficiality that can pass as communication in many areas of life has been stripped away. They have a desire, and so do we, to get past that and a desire to be intimate with themselves and with each other. And if there is a gift in cancer or any life-threatening illness, perhaps it is that the desire to be real and know one's self and know others deeply comes more to the surface of a life.

Moderator: Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Taylor: Thank you for having us and we send certainly our love and best wishes to anyone who is currently facing cancer. We hope the book brings comfort and connection and, again, we invite people to email us to continue this conversation.

Thompson: And also those who are supporting people with cancer. It will help you navigate this new and sometimes terrifying terrain.

Moderator: Thanks for joining us members, and thanks to Tanya Taylor and Pamela Thompson for being our guests. Their book is titled The Cancer Monologue Project.

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