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.”

Writing by members of “A Circle of Women, a Circle of Words,” a women’s writing workshop sponsored by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority’s resident services office:

Beverly Morrison (journal excerpt)Dark things, mood swings, children’s latest anticsWords that scream from my pages or words that can not be heardSleepless nights, stressful times, love lettersAnger managementNew life or loss of oneA bill in the mail or an annoying phone callToo many chores, constant crying and feelings of hopelessnessParenting woes, new adventuresWhat is marriage all about anyway?Friends who come and goMan, am I getting oldTime keeps on going without meAlmost 30, then what’s next?Fights between my kids over such little things, seemingly meaningless thingsBut then one day, I will miss it.The house will be so still; I will seem empty as well.My journal will be here long after I’m dead.And if my kids read it, they’ll swear I was absolutely out of my mind.Whatever floats their boats.Karen Singer (journal excerpt)My journal holds all that is not who I am but what I should have been.The contents are disappointing to me because what I’ve become is more comfortable than what I should have been.You’ll first find the principles that shaped my character, or so others think. There are trials I’ve emerged from, and there are aspirations I’ve never had but was told I should have.Very often I write in code, so should anyone try to journey through the pages they find not meaning in what pen has put to paper.If they should find the real me there, they would surely think me something different than who I desire them to perceive.My journal gives no escape from reality, nor does it fulfill promises.Instead, it’s purpose is to expose the true self that each of us possess and expose it to only the one who is in search of it.Melanie Jones (journal excerpt)Oh so many, many things I have in my journal.A tear once fell from my eye.I have a lifelong road no one could surely miss.I have rainbows of ink.I have love.I have laughter.I have many moments I miss,Moments of my childhoodMoments of my mind, wandering,Long walks, mother-to-daughter talks.I have beauty and peace and prayers to the creator.I have scribbles of plenty and even a warm winter coat,A cup of hot chocolate and pink cotton candy.I have a first kiss and Leo, my childhood friend.I have images of my great-grandmother and the many scents of her world.So many, many things in my journal.Melanie Jones (journal excerpt about great-grandmother, who lived on a Navajo reservation)She would wake as the new day arrived, and I’d watch her say a morning prayer as the son would rise.She sprinkled corn pollen and prayed in Navajo. I could smell the wood as she built a fire. She cooked breakfast over an open fire. She started her day in the most peaceful way. She had water stored in barrels and gave me a drink. I didn’t understand the words she spoke, but I understood her when I looked in her loving eyes. She’d take me out to feed the sheep. I’d get a special lamb to feed a bottle to.My great-grandmother always smelled sweet. I’d sit on her lap and she’d hold my hand as the lamb would suckle. I remember her weaving beautiful rugs in the shade of a tree. Sitting upon the earth, she would speak to me, telling me about the meaning behind her weave. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. I wish I had a rug she wove herself into.”LoveBy Sandy McCarrenLight across tangerine-green fields under production,Open minds that move about freely,Values that are practiced as good as they’re preached,Ecumenical churches, fat with bread, are eaten up by love.Extreme WeatherBy Sandy McCarrenLiving with me on Fillmore Street was Bill. We were living as boyfriend and girlfriend when one afternoon came, bringing gusts of 40 or more mile per hour winds. A storm’s coming. Tree leaves are already sticking to the street. I don’t know what kind of trees were on our street. Bill said they were fucked up trees.The storm was picking up power, small tree limbs were landing. The storm was throwing punches at the windows. Upstairs, John and Pam weren’t home. Next door, Ted probably was home.Standing at the screen door of my little one-bedroom apartment; Bill was watching the storm from deeper indoors, I heard the break. The sound was loud, the cracking sound, was loud like thunder, and the rain was rambling down. Took a second or two for the next thing that happened. The tree just off the front porch was falling toward the street, which was the only thing that could take this big tree coming down on its slow journey to the end of its life.Talk about beauty. Talk about grace. The tree went this and that way — beautifully and gracefully, though, in the aftermath, it blocked the street and destroyed a car. Wow … everybody was thinking. Some young guy Bill and I didn’t know walked up to us and asked us if we knew how lucky we were. Oh, we were pretty lucky right then.Back in the DayBy Sandy McCarrenI have seen again but what from old postcards? River banks to storage the boats, like arms around them, back in the day before spin doctors, Jihad, welfare, Archie Bunker — whom everyone said was nothing like Carroll O’Connor.Back before Michael broke his collar bone … twice. Michael, my brother. Back in the day under Eisenhower and Nixon. Kids had transistor radios and AM was cool. No one had heard of Vietnam. Everyone now wishes they had never heard of Vietnam.Black and white boats from old postcards, like the color of neighborhoods and TV and telephones. Back in the day when log cabins came in a can. Dad wasn’t drinking anything harder than Black Label beer. Back when the snow was up to my knees: the interstate was as big and wide as it was cold. Moreover, the things I would learn were beginning to call me.I reckon I’ll spend some time here and be happy just to have made it this far.