Six women gathered around a narrow, rectangular table one Wednesday in April to write. Some were strangers, some were not, but they would all be more familiar at the end of the 90-minute session than they were at the beginning.
The Write to Heal and Have Fun! group meets every Wednesday morning at 11 at Mary’s Place, a shelter and drop-in center that works with homeless and formerly homeless women and families. Participants sit together for an hour and a half responding to writing prompts delivered by group leader Julie Gardner, a volunteer with the organization.
Now, after five years, what was a writing group is now also a collective of published authors who put their pieces out in a formal way that both demands recognition and gives back to the organization that brought them together.
“Original Voices: Homeless and Formerly Homeless Women’s Writings” is a compilation of 126 writings, photos and images by women who have come through the Mary’s Place writing group. The self-published book retails for $14.99 on Amazon, and proceeds benefit the organization.
The pieces are either raw or lightly edited to preserve their authenticity, said Gardner, editor of “Original Voices.” In some cases, the original handwritten copy from the workshop is reproduced alongside its sans serif counterpart, a visual reminder of its provenance.
The result is a book by the women but for the world outside Mary’s Place, offering a window into the sorrows, struggles and successes they experienced on their winding road to that narrow, rectangular table.
“The books arrived two weeks ago. We were all in tears that day,” Gardner said.
Gardner leads the group with the confidence of one who has done it many times before. She uses the Amherst Writers & Artists method, a technique that asserts that anyone who puts pen to paper, regardless of training, is a writer.
The approach requires only two things. First, all work is treated as fiction so that the writers can feel comfortable sharing their work. Second, the teachers or leaders write right alongside their pupils.
Those edicts also apply to journalists who come to report on the group.
Gardner’s prompts take the form of a question, another work of writing or an object. Participants get 10 minutes of thought and scribbling to respond to the subject; at the end, they can choose to share their work with the group or not. Each member of the circle then gets to ask questions about and respond to the writing before moving on to the next reader.
Although the group presumes that the pieces are fictional, prompts can elicit a range of styles. One prompt, a poem titled “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, resulted in decidedly autobiographical works. Another prompt, a list of vocabulary first deployed by the bard William Shakespeare, turned into a game of mad skills mad libs.
A simple, white baby’s blanket became the inspiration for one of Beebe B.’s contributions.
When everyone is born they’re wrapped in a white baby blanket.
We all start out life in the same way
Some babies grow up in a great family,
others grow up in chaos, and
some babies grow up in a combination of both.
We need not forget,
when life gets wary,
that we all started the same
wrapped in a white blanket.
A stylish young woman, born of immigrant parents, experienced homelessness in Seattle’s shelters before finding Mary’s Place and a stable place to call hers. Beebe had started journaling on her own when she found the writing group.
“It helps me collect my thoughts and be in the moment,” she said.
Although intellectually she knew that her writing was going to appear in book form, seeing a physical copy was a shock.
“It feels really good,” Beebe said. “[Gardner] said it was a book, but I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”
Copies of “Original Voices” can be found at Amazon.com.