Mental Illness Through a Literary Lens

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Presented by Melanie Figg in partnership with The Writer’s Center

The Writer’s Center presents Lead Artist Melanie Figg in a groundbreaking symposium addressing the subject of mental illness in literature and popular culture, offering free creative writing workshops followed by a panel discussion. In addition to Melanie, featured writers include Abdul Ali, Rocky Callen, Jenny Chen, and GG Renee Hill, with an introduction by Mark Cymrot and moderated by Patrick Covington. The symposium concludes with a reception for all attendees.

All events are FREE and open to the public. Limited space, registration required. Please scroll down to sign up!

The Workshops | 1:30-3:00pm

Please register for ONE workshop using the form below. Workshop registration includes admission to the panel discussion and reception.

  • Writing through Madness | Workshop Leader: Abdul Ali
    Living with mental illness can be challenging. Writing, whether poetry or prose, can be a powerful tool for unraveling one’s own thoughts. This mixed genre workshop will give you the chance to explore what you think and feel, and how to get it onto the page.
  • The Spaces Between Us: Reading Experiences that Bridge Understanding | Workshop Leader: Rocky Callen
    In this workshop, we will dive into exploring how form and textual nuance impacts our understanding of character, in particular characters with mental health conditions. By doing so, we open up the conversation of how we can portray their unique experience on the page beyond the prose. We will look at the spaces between and around the words to understand how things like white space, strikethroughs, and a variety of forms and textual nuances add texture, feeling, and honesty to the character’s experience. While these devices and techniques can be applied to any character or genre, it is important that we take special care as we construct these populations so that way we can build a bridge of understanding.
  • Friends & Family: Writing About Those You Love Who Have A Mental Illness | Workshop Leader: Melanie Figg
    Loving someone with a mental illness can include a range of feelings: loss, hope, frustration, worry, humor, etc. Writing poems and creative prose that express our unique experience can help us understand better, remove stigma, and create powerful work. If you’ve been waiting for “permission” to write about this topic—or want to explore it deeper—please join us for some writing exercises, close-readings to guide us, and discussion.
  • Healing through Storytelling | Workshop Leader: GG Renee Hill
    We have a choice to be empowered or disempowered by our experiences. In this workshop, writers will identify positive and negative experiences they’ve had with mental health and illness. In the spirit of healing through storytelling, writers will choose two personal stories to write, share and discuss with the group.

The Panel | 3:15-4:15pm

To attend the panel and reception, please register for one of the workshops listed above.

  • Following a special introduction by The Writer’s Center’s Board Chair, Mark Cymrot, our workshop leaders are joined by author Jenny Chen and moderator Patrick Corvington for a discussion on the way the literary community addresses mental illness, how we get it right, and where we need to do better. Reception to follow.

The Participants

Abdul Ali is a poet, literary activist, and educator. His debut collection of poems is TROUBLE SLEEPING, which won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Book Prize. Ali works as a program coordinator of a Humanities initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Community College of Baltimore County. He curates a traveling monthly salon, Works-in-Progress, and often teaches writing workshops at The Writer’s Center.

As the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant and political advocate for immigrant communities, Rocky Callen has experienced and witnessed the silence around mental health issues and the dire need for open communication. Rocky Callen has grappled with depression and aims to dispel the stigma with her voice and stories. She worked as a behavioral therapist for over ten years before receiving an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A BREATH TOO LATE is her debut YA novel about suicide, depression, and domestic violence and the tragedy of silence and secrets.

Jenny Chen is a writer of nonfiction and poetry with works appearing in The Atlantic, Guernica,, NPR, and more.

Patrick A. Corvington is a Senior Fellow for the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Prior to joining the Campaign, he served in President Obama’s administration as the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Mr. Corvington also served as a Senior Vice-President with Habitat for Humanity International where he created a management and deployment infrastructure for the over one million Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Of Haitian origin, he took particular interest in HFHI’s development efforts, assisting in managing a large-scale housing construction project and over four hundred volunteers who built 250 houses alongside President Carter, in Haiti. Mr. Corvington served as Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation where he engaged directly with some of the top social innovation intermediaries in the nonprofit sector including Venture Philanthropy Partners and Echoing Green and has co-authored publications such as Ready to Lead: Next Generation Leaders Speak Out and Next Shift: Beyond the Nonprofit Leadership Crisis. He has also served as a Research Associate at The Urban Institute, where he conducted housing policy research and worked to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations in Russia. He has worked as a patient advocate in a community-based HIV/AIDS clinic; traveled the east coast migrant stream as a case manager for Haitian migrant workers; and volunteered his time working in the infirmary of a shelter for homeless persons.

Mr. Corvington received his BA in Sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park and earned his MA in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University where he received the National Minority Leadership Fellowship from the Kellogg Foundation and Independent Sector. He also received an honorary doctorate from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and as a naturalized citizen was most privileged to receive the Outstanding American by Choice Award while serving in President Obama’s administration. He serves on the Board of Directors of D.C. School Reform and The Writer’s Center. He previously served on the Board of Directors of Echoing Green, the Washington Regional Association of Grant-makers, The Nonprofit Workforce Coalition, and the Takoma Children’s School. A native of Haiti, Mr. Corvington is fluent in French and French Creole and speaks conversational Spanish.

Lead Artist Melanie Figg has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, and more. Her writings have been widely published. Her award-winning poetry collection, TRACE, explores many traces by writing about visual arts, memory, myth, mental illness, identity, and forgiveness. As certified professional coach, Melanie offers writing retreats and works one-on-one with writers and others.

GG Renee Hill is an author, speaker and advocate for self-discovery through writing. She has published a free-verse memoir about heartbreak and healing, a book of short essays for quiet women who want to be heard, and a mindfulness workbook for self-reflection and personal growth. She brings her experience as a blogger, memoirist, ghostwriter, and creative coach to the courses and workshops she offers on her website,

The Writer’s Center’s Board Chair Mark Cymrot leads BakerHostetler’s International Arbitration and Litigation practice team. His book Squeezing Silver, The Trial of Nelson Bunker Hunt was published in February 2018. He has chapters in two prominent legal books, Going First Makes A Difference: Decision-Making Dynamics in Arbitration (Wolters Kluwer, 2017) and the upcoming Enforcing Arbitral Awards against Foreign States (Cambridge University Press, 2018) He has numerous articles in professional journals such as “Cross Examination in International Arbitration in Disputes Resolution Journal,” “Barricades At The IMF: Creating A Municipal Bankruptcy Code For Foreign States,” The International Lawyer, and “Welcome to the Jury System: Supreme Court Limits Sovereign Immunity for State-Owned Companies” in Business Law International. As a speaker on litigation, arbitration, and sovereign immunity issues, he has appeared at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and American Bar Association and International Bar Association conventions. He is a member of the ICDR and AAA Commercial Panel of Arbitrators, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. He has represented governments, major international companies, and individuals in litigation and arbitration nationally and internationally. He is ranked in Chambers Global and The Best Lawyers in America© (International Arbitration – Commercial and Governmental) and is listed in Who’s Who in America.

Thank you to our supporters!

This event is supported in part by a Creativity Grant from the Maryland State Arts Council (








11 seats available
Writing through Madness | Abdul AliFree
14 seats available
The Spaces Between Us | Rocky CallenFree
13 seats available
Friends & Family | Melanie FiggFree
13 seats available
Healing through Storytelling | GG Renee HillFree