Whistle Words is a multimedia project that uses writing to help women in cancer treatment reclaim their sense of self. The group has released a new book called Truth: Voices of Women Changed by Cancer. It’s an anthology of writings by women who are currently fighting the disease or in post treatment. Charlotte Matthews is one of the founders of Whistle Words and she’s our featured speaker for Books & Brews in February 2019. She spoke with WMRA’s Chris Boros.
Charlotte Matthews: Whistle Words uses writing to help women in and post cancer treatment reclaim their sense of self. And we run writing workshops mostly here in Charlottesville at hospitals and also at community centers. Writing is our tool and not the goal. And so often a cancer diagnosis will strip you of an authentic sense of self a genuineness and our goal is to bring that back to women – empowerment through writing.
WMRA: So the writing is a way to cope.
Matthews: Well I would say even more than to cope. It’s a way to sort of prevail and a way to find light and illumination in what can be a dark time.
WMRA: In your new anthology book Truth: Voices of Women Changed by Cancer you present a variety of poems, journal entries, essays, and stories. How do you hope this book will help women who are fighting cancer?
Matthews: Well I think there are three ways that I hope it will help. One is the nature of the work itself has a sort of searing truth to it (hence the title) that so often with cancer people might gloss over the reality and the pieces in this – the essays and the poems – are the result of the writing workshops themselves. So it’s pretty unedited, some of them are quite raw and real. So that’s one way. The other is you get a sense of who each woman is whose written the piece so there’s a small biography – just a short brief bio – and also a quotation from that woman, something that matters to her. And finally, it’s a bit of a workbook so it makes for someone who can’t attend the workshops there are the same exact prompts so someone could do this at home.
WMRA: You were diagnosed with stage three breast cancer when you were 39. How did that affect this book and this whole project?
Matthews: Well I guess it was the kindling. I felt like I got tremendous care by every medical person that I encountered and by family and friends, but I still felt like there was something missing that I couldn’t recognize who I was anymore. I was forever changed. And I found a great curative power in writing.
WMRA: Have you ever encountered someone who doesn’t want to write, who’s a little reluctant – how do you encourage them to give it a shot?
Matthews: Well that is a huge part of Whistle Words. Our expectations are not that women come in who love to write or are daily journal keepers. Instead this is like an offering, saying look at what you can possibly do. So to answer your question directly, I will give things like free associations where I will say, “I’m going to say a word and I want you to literally just move your pen or pencil for 45 seconds. Don’t stop moving. Think of this as an activity like you’re doing jumping jacks.”
WMRA: Have you ever had a woman say “I’m a terrible writer” and then four weeks later they read what they’ve written and they’re like “Wow, I’m actually pretty good at this.”?
Matthews: Absolutely. In fact we just had a woman who emailed us a poem and she said “I am mightily proud of this. So I came in thinking that this is the last thing I wanted to do and I am mightily proud of this.” Something she could frame or put on the refrigerator.
WMRA: If there is one thing you hope someone will take away from reading this collection, what is it?
Matthews: I think a sense of understanding sometimes what is not said during treatment and diagnosis, what is not spoken. We can buy a pink mix master, we can run a 5K, and while those things can benefit monetarily in a discreet way, they have a beginning and an end. And I think that this is something that permeates deeper into their life and really offers a sense of support that is an undergirding that other things are not.