Word power

Women's writing workshop creates soulsearching space

A half dozen women -- young mothers, grandmothers, recovering addicts, nearly all residents of public housing -- trickle in and take seats around a table.

The meeting place is the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority's resident services office, and it's within walking distance of where most of the women live: Edgewood Homes, the Section 8 apartment complex on Haskell Avenue.

For two hours a week, they walk away from the noise of children, pressures of looking for a job, stresses of wondering how they'll pay next month's rent (or catch up on the last three months) and enter this quiet space where they can reflect and, for a few of the women, refocus on what they always meant to do before life got in the way: write.

"I try to write on my own, and it's like utterly impossible anymore. I used to eat breathe and live it. It used to be my very existence was writing," says Beverly Morrison, a 26-year-old mother of three who has written three science fiction books but published none. "I think I've had writer's block for the past seven years. Once I met my husband, I think I put it in my head that being a wife and mother was more important. I've never actually tried to sit down and force myself to get into my novel writing."

So this women's writing workshop, a free service of the Housing Authority, is her weekly vent. Tonight is the last time the group will meet until the summer session begins in June. The instructor, Lawrence writer Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, passes out a William Stafford poem called "What's in My Journal" as a prompt to get the women thinking about the bits in their own journals. Ten minutes pass, silent except for the sound of pens and pencils scrawling words onto pages. Then, the women share what they've written.

It's not the poetry and prose of pretentious writers with the time and energy to wax metaphysical in the back corner of a shadowy coffee shop.

"Dark things, mood swings, children's latest antics
Words that scream from my pages or words that can not be heard
Sleepless nights, stressful times, love letters
Anger management
New life or loss of one
A bill in the mail or an annoying phone call
Too many chores, constant crying and feelings of hopelessness
Parenting woes, new adventures
What is marriage all about anyway?"

Morrison finishes reading, and the other women acknowledge her work with smiles, nods and affirmations.

Creative, therapeutic outlet

Goldberg helped start "A Circle of Women, a Circle of Words" in the summer

of 2000 as a pilot program. The response was so enthusiastic that the housing authority has continued the workshops, which convene once a week for six-week periods in the summer, fall and spring.

"One of the barriers we were interested in addressing is that women don't take time to do things for themselves," said Kris Hermanson, director of resident services at the housing authority. "We felt that it was such an important program, and it provided not only a creative outlet but a therapeutic outlet for our residents."

The workshop is funded with money from a three-year, $200,000 Resident Opportunity and Self-Sufficiency Grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant has been renewed through 2005.

The women in the group are all low-income, and many of them are recovering from abusive relationships, addictions, illness and poverty. For such a modestly sized group, it's quite diverse. Native American, black and white women from their early 20s to their 60s explore their lives through writing.

The housing authority provides free childcare, journals, pens and snacks, and pays Goldberg a stipend for her work. About once a year, the group publishes a book of the women's writing (it stays within the circle unless a member chooses to share her work).

"My favorite possessions of my job are the booklets that come out of these sessions," says Carrie Lindsey, an employment specialist with resident services who sometimes sits in on the workshops. "I love my job. Part of the reason why is because I get the opportunity to see this happen. It's an incredible, positive thing going on in this community."

Our place

Sandy McCarren isn't shy about the words that seem to spill out of her head at all hours of the day. The 43-year-old Edgewood resident has no children and no job. When she's not working on developing job skills, McCarren reads other people's work and writes her own.

She has a deep pool of experience from which to draw. McCarren was an "army brat" who lived all over the world. She didn't finish junior high, let alone high school, though she later earned her GED. She got mixed up in bad relationships and drugs and was even homeless for a while. Her past addiction surfaces in her poem "This Much to Say":

"I put your hat,
Out of here,
Where it's been now,
Past a year.
I've been OK,
Or not half bad,
But whichever was a way,
Just passed us,
You know now,
Nothing couldn't be,
Smoked up."

"That poem has to do with a relationship I had years ago that was centered around drugs," she recalls. "This guy and I, we lost everything. In other words, we just smoked everything up."

"I've come about a million miles since then," she continues. "I probably should have been dead long before now, but I just basically landed in Lawrence six years ago, went through a good four or five years of therapy at DCCCA and have great friends now. I've never done this well in my life."

Attending the writing circle helps keep her balanced.

"The writing group is the one place that's like ours," she says. "The thing about reading other people's writing is that you never know what it might trigger in your own head. ... These women, they're not globetrotters. They're talking from the ground up.

"To read that writing -- it's not like you picked up one of the glossy magazines. It's the down-to-earth stuff that we all need a little bit more of every day. It just makes us feel good, ya know?"

'A breath of fresh air'

Morrison had her first child at 19. Her last came a month ago.

"Beverly came to one of our classes this session very, very pregnant," Goldberg remembers. "One Tuesday night she was here writing; the next day she gave birth. The Tuesday after, she was back with her new son."

"I wouldn't have missed the class for nothing," Morrison says.

The sessions provides not only an emotional release, but also a time when Morrison and the other women get to be the center of attention. As a truck driver, Morrison's husband is frequently on the road and not much for calling or writing. She's trying to find a part-time job because, she says, her husband tends to spend a lot of the money he earns.

"I'm left with leftovers," she says. "I'm more of an independent person, but I would like to be noticed sometimes. ... Going to that class really helps me because I can feel like I can be normal for two hours. I don't have to worry about my kids or what they're doing or what they're getting into. It's a breath of fresh air."

Unlike traditional creative writing workshops, the women's circle doesn't involve critiques. Goldberg's specialty is transformative language arts, and she's training to become a certified poetry therapist.

"The goal is helping people find the words, aloud or on paper, for growth and change, for healing and self-discovery, for building community and making a home for themselves," she says. "So critiquing is hardly ever a part of it."

The sessions usually include a few writing exercises, sometimes using poems or stories as prompts. Then the women share their work and provide positive feedback. Class ground rules give the women freedom to opt out of readings and to write whatever they want, even if it doesn't follow the suggested exercise. They're not allowed to speak negatively about their own writing.

"I stress the importance of not worrying about grammar, spelling or making sense, and instead clearing the way for what wants to be said," Goldberg says. "In turn, many participants find the safety and support to take the risks necessary to speak their truths in their own voice."

"It basically gives you strength to survive for another week," Morrison says of the workshop. "It's like a church. I would consider it a religious experience."

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