The Healing Power of the Pen

Writer Shannon Gibney reflects on UROC’s Witness Creative Writing Program

Writer Shannon Gibney reflects on UROC's Witness Creative Writing Program

Since its launch in 2013 with a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, the Witness Creative Writing Program has attracted Northside writers of all levels who want to explore their own stories in a supportive atmosphere. Coordinated by the University of Minnesota’s Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), the monthly program focuses on storytelling techniques, style and the healing power of the pen.

Program coordinators Hawona Sullivan Janzen, a poet and the curator of UROC’s art gallery, and Nancy Cook, a writer and retired University law professor, work to bring in writers from all over the Twin Cities to facilitate the group, which meets the first Saturday of each month at UROC. Last year, the group was led by its first Writer-in-Residence, Shannon Gibney.

An English instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) since 2007, Gibney won a Minnesota Book Award for her young adult novel, See No Color. She is also longtime writer, Bush Fellowship recipient and former editor with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

Gibney became UROC’s Writer-in-Residence after being awarded a McKnight Fellowship in Writing in 2015. She and then-MCTC interim president Avelino Mills-Novoa worked to merge her fellowship with her teaching and other responsibilities. “He connected me with UROC and after talking with them about the Witness Creative Writing Program and ideas for writing workshops, they asked if I would like to be UROC’s Writer-in-Residence for a year,” she recalls.

In addition to teaching basic creative writing skills, like how to develop characters and tell stories in a compelling way that avoids clichés, Gibney worked with Janzen, Cook and other UROC staff on ways to create a welcoming environment where participants of all ages, races and sexual orientations felt free to share their writing while also giving and receiving feedback.

“The group was fantastic, and every time I was there I was so impressed by their energy and enthusiasm,” she says, before offering a few tips for people who want to write: “Read often, and read everything you can get your hands on, in whatever genres interest you. All that writing will infuse and inform your own writing in ways you might never consciously realize.”

Also, figure out what you need to do to establish a regular writing routine, and then talk to the people in your life in order to get the support you need to make it happen. “It doesn’t have to be every day, most of us don’t live privileged enough lives to enjoy this,” she says. “If you can fit in two hours a week, then fit in two hours a week. Don’t judge; get to work.”