I’ve always believed in the power of story. An avid reader from childhood, I love being transported into fantastic fictional worlds while true stories are a comforting reminder that whatever adversity I’m going through, someone has documented and indeed triumphed over something similar. As a former journalist, I also appreciate how words can give the marginalised and mistreated a voice, invaluable control of their own narrative.
When a friend recommended a memoir writing course, ‘The Rest of the Story’, facilitated by Irish-American author, Michael Patrick MacDonald, I was intrigued. Michael Patrick has penned two gripping autobiographies about growing up in Boston’s tough Southside, where he lost several siblings and countless friends and neighbours to drugs, suicide and crime. He now works with survivor families as a tireless anti-violence advocate, public speaker, writer and facilitator.
Since time began, people have gathered to tell stories and Michael Patrick endorses the idea that there is transformative energy and healing in both writing down and sharing one’s experience. He has facilitated numerous groups in Boston, other parts of the US and Ireland. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we could not meet in person, so I joined a mostly Northern Irish group online, a couple of hours one night a week for the five-week course.
Despite fully endorsing the theory, I was apprehensive in practice. Would I really be able to relate to a bunch of strangers over the internet in such a short space of time? Even on Zoom, would it all be too touchy-feely for my rather reserved nature? Would the stories, theirs and mine, be too sad and leave me feeling depressed rather than inspired?
I needn’t have worried. I’m not exactly sure what magic they worked, but Michael Patrick and local host, Sara Boyce, organiser of #123GP mental health campaign with Participation and Practice of Rights, made me feel safe and secure from the get-go. I was under no pressure to reveal personal details nor to share my writing if I did not wish to do so.
The other participants were warm and welcoming. We seemed to bond fairly quickly as a group and I was assured confidentiality would be maintained. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to others read – I empathised, laughed, cried and ultimately came away uplifted. I also felt supported and encouraged to share. The prompts that Michael Patrick proved stimulating without being overly prescriptive. Interestingly, they somehow sparked a host of memories for me, some happy, some sad, but all thought-provoking.
As well as writing in a work capacity, I’ve journalled periodically throughout my life and more recently I’ve tried my hand at fiction, though this past year, I’d not written much for myself. The course has helped ignite the fire again. Best of all, I encountered some folk I feel I can relate to, some of whom I’ve now also met away from the computer screen. I look forward to reconvening our wee circle and interlinking ones, hopefully in real life, and to hearing and sharing many more stories.
Rosie Cowan is a former Guardian Ireland and crime correspondent currently undertaking a PhD in law at Queen’s University, Belfast.