In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
This month marks a full year of collaboration between Sojourner House and Chatham University’s MFA program, which offers a creative writing class called “Make Mine Words” to the Sojourner House women on Thursday mornings. The class is co-taught by Sheryl St. Germain, Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Chatham, and Sarah Shotland, Program Director of the Words Without Walls Program, which brings graduate students into the Allegheny County Jail to teach creative writing. Make Mine Words is an outgrowth of the Chatham Words Without Walls jail program.
Each woman is given a journal when they start the program, and asked to write poems or prose each week in the journal in response to readings and prompts. Each week, for inspiration, the women read contemporary poetry, fiction and nonfiction that address varying themes such as substance abuse, recovery, violence, family, love and sex, and body image. They are given instruction in craft and revision so that by the end of each session they will have a finely crafted piece to contribute to a publication of the best work generated in that session. The last event of the class involves a final reading at Most Wanted Fine Arts Gallery where the books are presented and the women read aloud to an audience from their work. The pieces included in this book are from the Spring 2014 class at Sojourner House, and photographs of the women taken by photographer Teake Zuidema accompany them.
The work the women produce in the class is powerful and deeply moving. They write about first experiences with drinking and using drugs, moments of insight on their road to recovery, memoirs and poems that involve their children and other family members, and some have even written adventurous pieces from the point of view of their children.
Writing is an important tool to use in recovery, a tool that encourages the writer to be honest and brave about sharing her story. One woman who took the class said that it “teaches you more about yourself and how to get in touch with gifts you never thought you had. I think women should write books and poems, to write for other women who might have the same issues.” Another has decided to pursue a teaching career in English after the class.
Creative writing is both a spiritual and healing activity that can offer fresh insights into drug and alcohol use as well as provide tools to help with recovery of all sorts. Learning to write poems and stories about one’s life provides valuable tools to assist with substance abuse, and provides, as one of our former students wrote, “hope in a hopeless place.”
But don’t take our word for it. Read what one of our long-term students, Mia, has to say in her introduction, and then read the work that follows of our students from the Spring class.
We would like to thank Chatham University for their support of this project, as well as the staff at Sojourner House. We could not do what we do without many hours of volunteers helping us, and without the help of special donors such as Laurie and Henry Reich; Melanie and Fred Brown; and Margaret and Tom Whitford. Special thanks to Kinsley Stocum for the design and layout of this book, Erin Hutton for her organizational skills and eagle eye, Katie Orr for typing up the women’s work for us and all the women whose work is displayed here for sharing their stories with us.
-Sheryl St. Germain and Sarah Shotland