Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Creative Writing Workshop: From Scars to Healing

We all have scars. Some physical, some emotional. That’s probably why the leader in my creative writing workshop  last month told us, “You have 15 minutes. Write about scars.”

I knew immediately that I would write about the scars my son has on his body from  his compulsive skin-picking habit, one of the symptoms of his Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder; my sadness seeing his scars and inability to help him stop picking; and my hope that people can see beyond the scars to what a lovely person he is inside.

I was in the writing workshop because the volunteer humanitarian-aid organization I’m involved with, Ve’ahavta, (Thou Shalt Love, in Hebrew) was teaching volunteers, like me, to run creative writing workshops for marginalized and homeless people living in shelters around Toronto. Shelters for abused women, shelters for homeless people, shelters for recovering alcoholics.

Ve’ahavta believes that if we volunteers were going to encourage other people to write and share their stories, as was our plan, we should practice doing it ourselves first. Fair enough, because not only would we be encouraging people to write, we would be asking them to read their pieces with other people in the group, and to make comments (positive only) as each person spoke.

My training included hours of writing exercises, then reading my pieces, on topics besides “Scars,” including “Advice I give others but never take myself,” and “Dreams I Still Hold Onto.” We were also asked to write a short biography that included one lie in it. The group then had fun trying to determine what the lie was. We hardly ever got it right.

Ve’ahavta believes everyone has a story to tell and should be given a voice. To encourage this, the organization started a Creative Writing Contest ten years ago. The idea of the contest is to empower the homeless and marginalized through their writing, to recognize that they may have the skills to pursue education or writing, and perhaps find their way off the street.

First prize?  $2000. To encourage entries, Ve'ahavta volunteers went to shelters in the city to talk about the contest, and encourage people to enter a 500 word piece of their choice, on any topic, in whatever, style or format they chose.

The response to the contest has been overwhelming.

Because there has been such interest in the contest from people in the shelters, as well as shelter administrators, Ve’ahavta began running the creative writing workshops, like the one I was being trained for, before the contests. People at the shelters come to the workshop on a volunteer basis only, and get the support and encouragement they might need to take their first foray into writing.

Last year, 2011, the Creative Writing Contest received over 200 entries.

First Prize:  ‘Reflecting Glass’ by Mike Reilly
Second Prize: ‘I Am’ by Henrick Sales
Third Prize: ‘A Dear John Letter to My Drug Addiction’, by Kerri Anne

Matt wrote a piece titled “Reflecting Glass” about the experiences he had when he became mentally ill and hospitalized. Second Prize Winner of the Technology Bundle (Laptop, Digital Camera and 12 Months of Mobile Internet Service) was awarded to Henrick Sales, who wrote a poem,  “I am”. The year’s Third Prize Winner of $1000 was Kerri Anne Moore for her piece “a Dear John Letter to my Addiction”.

Theresa Schraeder, the Grand Prize Winner of the contest in 2005,  has now become a fulltime staff member at Ve’ahavta and was Coordinator of last year’s Special 10th Anniversary Edition of the Creative Writing Contest.

I felt ready to lead the workshop after my training, and was looking forward to my first session at a downtown shelter for homeless men. Roughly 20 people attended the session. After handing out paper and pens, I explained the basics; write anything you want on the topic I give; feel free to read your piece aloud afterward, but if you’re not comfortable, don’t feel pressured. whatever anyone writes or says stays in the room; positive feedback only.

Another important guideline: “We are going to assume everything someone writes is fiction. For instance, when we comment on someone’s writing, we’ll say the ‘narrator’ wrote really honestly about the abuse he received from his father as a child”. The purpose of this rule is to allow people to share difficult experiences they might want to talk about. By assuming what they say is fiction, it could help people feel less exposed  when reading their work to people they may not know well or be open with.

The men seemed keen. The first topic I gave them was “My friends always tell me I should ….”  Some began writing furiously, others stared at the ceiling. Of course, I had to write too, since that's part of the job description of workshop leaders. If we're going to ask other people to share themselves, we should be in there sharing, too.

When the 20 minutes of writing time was over, 15 out of the 20 had written something, and 12 shared their pieces with the group. I read my piece along with them. All were remarkably confessional, honest and nicely written. After someone read, other members of the group either clapped, yelled out “Good job,” or said something brief about what they particularly liked about the piece.

I couldn’t get over how supportive and kind everyone was to one another.

Since we had been together for over an hour, I could tell the men had had enough for the day. I encouraged them to enter the writing contest, whose final entry date is March 12, 2012.  Several people stayed after the session to talk to me. They liked the writing exercises. Some asked if I could leave them more paper. A few asked for suggestions of what they should write about.

“What you know about,” I encouraged. “And don’t worry about using big words or trying to sound a certain way. Write the way you speak. Write the way you did today. You did beautifully.”

I felt heartened when I left. One of the men in the group, from Ethiopia, had done a lot of writing when he was in his homeland. He said something I have always known myself.  “You never know how much is inside you until you start writing. It all starts pouring out then, doesn’t it?”

It surely does.