Letting Go

UVA professor and poet leads writing workshops for women with cancer.

Charlotte Matthews leads a writing exercise at a Whistle Words workshop.

Photo courtesy of Red Spark Films

“Knowing that you’re not the only one that has those thoughts and those feelings, it kind of makes you feel like it’s OK.”

These are the words of a participant in a Whistle Words workshop for women impacted by cancer, led by poet and UVA associate professor of English Charlotte Matthews, a survivor of stage 3 breast cancer. “I have women from all walks of life. Women with an 8th grade education and women who are doctors,” she says. 

Matthews started the nonprofit and the six- and eight-week workshops—held at the Emily Couric Cancer Center, Martha Jefferson Hospital, and other local sites—in 2016 with her friend Betsy Cox, an Emmy Award-winning producer who is making a documentary about the program. The name for the nonprofit comes from her third book of poetry, Whistle What Can’t Be Said, about her cancer.

At each of the 90-minute sessions, Matthews gives the group various writing prompts. Sometimes they will be about a musical piece they listened to or about objects found in a suitcase that she brought to class. Later, for those who want to share their thoughts, she will take notes and arrange their words into a poem. 

Many of the women develop a special camaraderie. “I feel like I will have succeeded if after by session two or three I can hear them saying, ‘Let’s meet for coffee.’ Or, ‘Do you want to come over to my house?’” she says. WhistleWords.org


This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue.

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