People trickled slowly into ARTS 157 last Tuesday afternoon. Most quickly found their seat while others darted up to say a quick hello to theater professor Tiffany Ana Lopez and playwright Migdalia Cruz. Only a few brave souls plucked up the courage to sit in the front row. The others camped down in the back until Lopez laughed and asked that we fill in. Even then, the third row quickly became the spot of choice. After all, it’s a given: The third row is far enough to not get called on and close enough to not get called out.

Attendance was perhaps 30 or 40 people, but the sight of notebooks on almost every lap told me that attendees were here for business. We were here to learn from a playwright who has written more than 50 plays in the course of her career, who has seen her work produced on stages as far as Greece and even earned a kiss by Robert Redford on the cheek. Nuyorican playwright Migdalia Cruz traveled from the East Coast to Riverside on Tuesday night to shed light on the art of storytelling. Cruz specializes in writing about subjects containing violence and trauma, including self-harm, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Lopez began the evening by introducing herself and Cruz, thanking the department and the Tomas Rivera endowment for their part in bringing Cruz to our shores. At first glance, Migdalia Cruz is an average woman. However, describing her first play at the age of six in 1964 — a puppet show featuring a black rubber ball against tissue paper, depicting racial issues between African Americans and the KKK — audience members found she was anything but the sort. It wasn’t until she was eight-and-a-half that she really became a writer — when her best friend was raped and thrown off a roof. “We keep away from the sandbox now. It’s strange when people from an island are scared of sand,” she read, telling the story of the men in her neighborhood who caught the rapist and brought him to justice in the sandbox.

Over the next couple of hours Cruz discussed her slow path of playwriting with her tough (in Cruz’s words, “really, really mean”) but much-beloved mentor Maria Irene Fornes, and her incorporation of music into the soundtracks of her characters. She interspersed this with readings from several of her plays that were by turns poignant, funny, strange and occasionally downright dirty. (“What do you call a woman without an asshole? Single!”)

Later that evening, aspiring writers gathered in HUB 302, hoping to gain knowledge on the difficult task of using their pain to create a compelling story. The Gender Respect-sponsored event began at 6 p.m. and allowed guests to get up close and personal with Cruz, the intimate setting including only a few round tables, chairs and sheets of paper. “Everyone get up and find open space,” Cruz instructed. She then conducted a 20-minute physical exercise that included deep breathing and stretching. Cruz explained that writing is a sacred practice and should be treated as such. By allowing yourself to relax, you are able to give the process your undivided attention.

Cruz proceeded to explain the importance of being visual as a playwright and encouraged the use of poetry, music and paintings to spur creativity while writing. Cruz explained how to channel rage with ease, stating that you simply must be willing to relive your memories. “I always say I used to have a boulder on my shoulder, now I have a chip,” said Cruz. She continued that you have to release rage because it’s the only way to heal. Guests were able to give it a try when she assigned everyone the task of writing a poem, scene or monologue and asked if anyone would like to share what they’d written. Painful circumstances were prominent in the expressed pieces, but Cruz reiterated the value and healing in writing.

Living through self-harm, sexual abuse or any kind of trauma can feel like a trap. It’s extremely difficult to reach out for help when feelings of embarrassment, depression and shame often accompany these realities. According to Cruz, creative writing is an effective first step in allowing yourself to accept traumatic experiences while also expressing the suppressed emotions that may accompany them. “Having respect for yourself is going to allow you to write what you need to,” Cruz told the audience. Ignoring or being ashamed of what’s happened to you will not only prevent you from excelling creatively but also prevent you from being content with the ways in which you choose to live the rest of your life.

Cruz concluded by encouraging everyone to continue using the writing practices that she demonstrated during the workshop and thanking those that attended. The event was a therapy session as much as it was a writing workshop and consequently left attendees inspired to embrace their own stories in order to create honest works of art.