Before she received a Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis at 39 years old, UVA writing professor Charlotte Matthews lived on a cattle farm. Whenever the farmer found a dead cow in the pasture, he bulldozed a grave and buried the animal. Matthews remembers the farmer whistling to himself in these moments.
“He was so authentic in his whistling,” Matthews says, “Sometimes there just aren’t words. That’s how I felt a lot during treatment. Chemo played with my brain.”
Matthews underwent a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation—mere millimeters from her heart, as she wrenchingly describes in her poem “Whistle What Can’t Be Said,” from her third book of poetry with the same name.
After her diagnosis, Matthews struggled with depression and feeling powerless. As a lifelong writer with a notebook always nearby (she used to have a white dashboard in her car where she scribbled thoughts in black sharpie), it was only natural that Matthews turned to words to process her experiences.
“We have a culture that is very willing to superficially talk about cancer,” she says. “We put a sticker on our car, run a race, buy a keychain.” Though she feels grateful for those efforts, something is still missing. “Do we get deeper?” she asks. “Not yet.”
Matthews became determined to empower other women impacted by cancer to go deeper—to put their stories into words and collectively raise their voices. With the help of friend and filmmaker Betsy Cox, the multimedia Whistle Words project was born. It’s a series of free writing workshops facilitated by Matthews, where participants can share their stories, for possible inclusion in a documentary film that Cox will produce.
“If I meet another woman who has or who has had [breast cancer], it’s like meeting your cousin,” Matthews says. “The veneer drops to the floor. I can ask, ‘How was it when they lopped off your breasts?’ Real kind of talk.”
In a previous workshop, Matthews prompted participants to envision a room—anything from a childhood bedroom to a bathroom at a party—and write for 10 minutes.
“What came of that was so incredible,” says Cox. She remembers the experience of a friend who participated in that session. “She told me, ‘I knew I had things to work through, but placing myself in that room made me realize how much I had to say.’ Has there ever been a more important time for women to speak up?”
After 14 years teaching writing at UVA and institutions like Hollins University and Bard College, Matthews has learned that the answers are only as good as her questions. She believes in the power of silence and play. She incorporates whimsy in every workshop, like having participants play Bananagrams or Scrabble.
For another prompt, Matthews asks the women to bring in a commonplace photo of themselves—not from their wedding, graduation or other major life event—and write for 10 minutes in response to it. The participants share however much they choose, and in turn, the women listening share which aspects of their peers’ stories resonate with them.
“We’ll make a group poem out of the lines they share—it’s immediately a community,” says Matthews, emphasizing that the workshops are judgment-free. “I want these women to walk away from a workshop with tools and a community.”