Spotlight on Cynthia Pierce Liefeld: Psychologist, Scuba Diver, Writing Workshop Creator

June 22, 2016 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment


Cynthia Pierce Liefeld  (2nd from right), in Essoyes with fellow Writing from the Hearters and Janet Hulstrand (at left)

Cynthia Pierce Liefeld is a wife, mother, grandmother, developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence, scuba diver and underwater photographer, and the founder of the nonprofit organization A Day In My Shoes. Cynthia participated in my Writing from the Heart workshop in 2009. She recently took the time to answer my questions about what she learned through Writing from the Heart, and how she has applied it to her work with women who have experienced domestic abuse, both in the Pittsburgh area and in the Cayman Islands.

Janet Hulstrand: What brought you to Writing from the Heart in Essoyes? That is, what made you decide to come?

Cynthia Pierce Liefeld: I was a writer of sorts in all of my academic positions (researcher, curriculum developer, vice president for academic affairs), and I wanted to write for myself—as the writer and as the audience. I spoke with you before I made my final decision to go, and that clinched it for me. You assured me that other participants would be at various writing abilities and that we would all start together, as a group. Your  method of writing to a prompt and sharing the readings if desired, for feedback, was appealing to me. And I have to be honest, I love France, I visit France often, and this gave me the opportunity to combine travel to a new part of France for a fresh raison d’etre.

 Did you have a specific writing project in mind when you came to the workshop? If not, what did you gain from the experience?

I’ve wanted to write children’s stories for a long time, but I thought it would be best for me to put such a large goal aside and open myself up to “writing from the heart.” I found the writing prompts to be inspirations for reflecting on both my childhood and adulthood. I found them to be invitations to explore writing spontaneously and to see what showed up on paper. I knew I could take the prompts and apply them to characters I was thinking about, but found that writing about emotion, memories, hopes, losses, mistakes, dreams, and myself to be very centering. And what I took from that was that I could next write “outside” myself with what I had learned about myself.

I also appreciated the feedback from you and from the other writers in the class. No one offered negative criticism. It was all offered in the spirit of reaction to the writing piece. Sometimes, the feedback was enough for me to continue writing about the same theme in the next prompt you offered.

Can you tell me about the work you’ve done with women living in shelters, and about your work with women in the Cayman Islands? 

I kept writing after my trip to the workshop in Essoyes. I enrolled in an undergraduate class at the University of Pittsburgh on Writing for Young Adults. It provided guidance, structure, critique, and direction for me. I also attended a second writing workshop in Aix en Provence, based on the Amherst Writing (AWA) method. The method incorporated what I had learned during your workshop, but it was much more formal, structured, and directed. What I took away from that workshop was that I wanted to instruct using that method, but it would take me four years before I completed the five-day training. My life got in the way, mostly in good ways. And I kept writing.

What I discovered while I was training was that I wanted to work with the population of women that the non-profit I started focused its efforts on. The non-profit originally was (and is) a photography project to raise funding and increase awareness for women who have experienced domestic violence. We have since added a writing component, which is an extension of what I learned from you, in the format of the AWA. I learned from you that no matter what one puts on paper, truth or fiction, that writing comes from the heart. What I learned from the AWA method was how to apply it to unprotected populations.

I wrote a proposal that was accepted by a local women’s shelter in Pittsburgh, to run a writing workshop for a select group of volunteer participants. We met Monday nights for six weeks, writing to a set of prompts I selected that would help them grow, both in their opinions of themselves and their writing opportunities. All work was/is considered fiction. They were encouraged to read their responses to prompts for feedback based on only three questions: “What stood out for you in this writing? What resonates with you in the piece? What do you remember most about this piece?” (We don’t refer to the writer as “You” when giving feedback, we always use, “the narrator.” This adds a layer of anonymity, whether needed or not.) Some revealed their autobiographical pieces, but many chose to step beyond and write truly fictional responses to the prompts.

While the writing was not promoted as being therapeutic, many found it to be self-revelatory. I’m a psychologist, which I did not hide from the participants. I wrote with them and read my own work, opening it up to their feedback. At first they were not very brave about this, but with time there was trust, and with trust, they knew they could give me feedback too. I like to think this was an area of growth for many of them. While not an authority, I was “the teacher,” and few of them had experience with giving teachers feedback, as equals.

When the course ended, the women all believed they had become better writers. They also expressed a strong desire to have the workshop again. The changing nature of participants in evening workshops will likely prevent the same group from gathering again, but the shelter is open to my hosting another writing workshop.

I also taught the same workshop, in a condensed fashion, at a women’s shelter on Grand Cayman. The Cayman Islands have not recognized domestic abuse as a public health issue for very long; the shelter opened about seven years ago and houses up to four families at a time, though they have room for more women. Four women and one woman’s 13-year-old son wrote during the workshops. All of them committed to the AWA process and truly enjoyed keeping each other, and me, accountable. Sometimes the women, all of whom were from Honduras or Mexico, wrote in Spanish, and they would read them in Spanish to each other. Then they would share with me. This was an option I gave them, as writing in your second language often produces a different type of writing than in your first language. One staff member who was a survivor of domestic abuse also participated.

Both sets of women (in Pittsburgh and in Cayman) found it difficult at first to not write from their own perspective. I engaged them in prompts that required them to write in the voice of an animal, which helped them loosen up. Afterwards, each took a little more liberty with creation, unless the prompt resonated with them in a more profound way.

I did not purposely use prompts that would engage the participants in reflection on an abusive past. Sometimes it was hard to avoid. I truly wanted to avoid the “therapy” aspect of our time together. I always treated them gently, of course, and allowed for tears, and for those who chose not to read. However, I typically asked those who refused the first time, if after the others had read their writings, if maybe they would like to share. More often than not, almost everyone shared. The constructive and positive feedback to the fiction the participants wrote made for some heavy days, but for joyful ones as well.

As with the women from Pittsburgh, the Caymanian participants reflected that they enjoyed learning more about writing, about giving feedback, about using constructive criticism, and about engaging in an art that they had avoided in the past.

Both writing groups proved to be two of my most rewarding volunteer experiences. The non-profit is now positioning itself to incorporate writing groups into the services provided, in the hope of reducing the stigma associated with being a victim of domestic violence and empowering those survivors for achieving the most from their lives.

What do you think is most important for people to know about women who have been in abusive relationships? Perhaps another way of stating this is, what misconceptions do many people have about these women, about this issue? And how can we be helpful to them?

 It is never the victim’s fault. Victims come from every social class, race, age, and gender identity. Giving them a voice through writing seems to propel them into victors. Society needs to learn how to look at these women (or men) not as victims, but as survivors. In a perfect world, there would be no stigma attached to saying, “I was in a domestically abusive relationship.” But sadly, some people will always judge from their own perspectives.




Cynthia Pierce Liefeld transplanting elkhorn coral in the Cayman Islands.

In addition to your many other activities, you are a passionate fan of scuba diving and a very fine underwater photographer. Do you see any parallels between scuba diving and writing from the heart? 

Certainly, though the connection is really between writing and photography for me. Scuba diving takes precision to a new level, since one must depend on an essential set of skills to begin and complete a dive. I love the serenity of the descent into the blue, the smooth gliding through the warm water, the discovery of sea creatures or a seascape that deserves preservation by camera. Whether writing from the heart or taking underwater photographs and video, the focus is laser clear. Seeing the writing on paper (or on a screen) and seeing the photographs downloading from my camera to the computer is incredibly fulfilling for me. Polishing the writing  or editing the photographs is mind-intensive and very satisfying. Both writing and photographs are products of my heart, finished off with a bit of cognitive concentration.

What do you think is the most important thing people can gain from writing, especially writing from the heart?

Insight into themselves. Motivation. How to take feedback and use it to further your writing. Opening yourself up. Learning how to take risks, and doing it. Using a safety net if you need one. Telling a story, true or not, or half-true. Giving yourself license to tell what is inside of you. Giving yourself license to share your stories, to put them on paper, to recognize your voice, to communicate your joy, concern, imagination, depth and/or lack of knowledge, to travel—in your mind, in your heart, or in the world, with words. To know that putting into words all of these things can empower or guide you, and those around you.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. This post is third in a series of interviews with past participants in her Writing from the Heart workshops. 

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