MFA Student Headlines Writing For Health and Healing Retreat

In her dual role as a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA program at Dominican University of California and senior communications officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Beth Toner was the ideal fit to lead a workshop at the free virtual “Writing For Health and Healing Retreat” on Saturday and Sunday, February 20-21.

Beth, a registered nurse, has a unique perspective on how storytelling can help with illness and health-related experiences.

“Despite a broken health care system—which often tells us the health care providers are the experts and we should `listen to orders’—we all are experts in our own bodies and our own lived experiences,” Beth says. “We can use storytelling and language to help shape our health care experiences even in that broken system. We can also use storytelling as an opportunity to heal in the face of serious illness or to process a bad health care experience.”

The writing retreat, sponsored by Dominican’s MFA in Creative Writing program through the School of Liberal Arts and Education, was a free service to the public designed to explore ways that writing can help people face today’s challenges and rejuvenate the spirit.

The transformative learning experience with writing workshops and a craft talk included, among many presentations:

  • “Dear Cancer: Palliative Letter-Writing.” A workshop by English teacher and MFA student Sonya Evans.
  • “The Magic of Everyday Moments.” A session facilitated by author and Dominican alumna Kim Culbertson and MFA student Allison Baldwin.
  • “Who Your People Be” Keynote lecture with poet Raina J. León.
  • “Shakespeare in Prison.” A panel discussion with the director of Marin Shakespeare and returned citizens who have worked with the company while incarcerated and since their release.

Dominican also extended a special welcome to health care providers. Registered nurses could apply to earn five continuing education units (CEUs) for attending the retreat.

Beth became a nurse 10 years ago in her mid-40s after spending 20-plus years in journalism, marketing, and communications.

“I wanted to make the world a better place,” she says. “I’d worked in a number of health care systems, and had a real passion for writing things like health education, and had interacted with a number of nurses — including my own sister. I finally got to a point where — with evening and weekend classes — I was able to make it happen.”

Beth’s sister, Kelli, saw a write-up about Dominican’s Low Residency Creative Writing MFA program and passed it onto Beth. The timing was perfect.

“I was excited to find an MFA program with a narrative/poetic medicine track —a perfect combination of my two loves/skill sets,” Beth says.

In the meantime, Beth continued her job with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s biggest philanthropy devoted to health and health care. She also has worked bedside in long-term care and now occasionally volunteers at a free clinic as an intake nurse.

When Judy Halebsky, Director of MFA Creative Writing at Dominican, presented Beth with an opportunity to lead a workshop at the retreat, she jumped at the chance. Beth has teaching experience plus, she quips, “Hey, I was a theatre major in my first undergraduate program. I am a true extrovert and love presenting and sharing.”

Beth’s presentation at the retreat was “You Are The Expert Of You: Writing To Heal And Improve Your Experience As A Patient.” She hoped it was impactful, given it was presented in the midst of a pandemic.

“I have done no hands-on patient care during the pandemic, but because of my volunteer status, I am excited to be part of the volunteer vaccine effort in my home county, though,” Beth says. “However, in my ‘day job,’ I’m incredibly proud of the work I have led in ensuring that the stories of nurses working on the front lines have been lifted up—we nurses are better at talking about our patients than we are about the work that we do.”

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