Thursday, August 27, 2009

Women Writing for (a) Change with Men!

Many readers know that Women Writing for (a) Change has an outreach program for women in the Monroe County Corrections Center. We are now entering our fourth year of taking our unique writing program which celebrates women’s words and voices into the jail. The women have surprised us with their willingness to write and to share the pain and joy of their lives. We always feel honored to write and read in their company.

Recently I had the opportunity to take a writing circle into a men’s block. Addicts in Recovery (AIR) is a select group of men in the corrections center who have decided to focus on beating their addictions. The hope is that they will return to their lives on the outside and not go back to drugs or alcohol. This is no easy task for most of them.

A friend has been volunteering on this men’s block for the past several years, and invited us to come and write with them on a Saturday afternoon. We have a simple and elegant ritual when we write together: we pass a candle or some symbolic object to signify the beginning of the circle, we read a selected poem, in this case it was Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander, we check in and introduce ourselves, we go over agreements of the circle, and then we begin to write.

Afterwards we pass a stone, say our names and read what we have written back to each other. While we listen to each other we write down our favorite words and phrases that we hear in each other’s writing. At the end we echo those words back into the circle. It becomes a kind of group poem, and if you have ever been part of one of these circles you know it can be magical.

Each time you hear your own writing read aloud, or you read something and hear a shiver of recognition, you realize how writing and stories are an integral part of community. This men’s community was no different.

I told the men that the rules and rituals might be rather unusual, but they should lean into their discomfort and by the end the would enjoy the practices. I put a box of tissues out and they asked me what they were for. They were quite fixated on my tissues. I told then that often when in writing circles people would read painful things, and they might cry. They scoffed but, you guessed it, they needed Kleenex before the end of the afternoon.

The were all very earnest about their recovery and learning. They loved the poems and the writing prompts, and they shared some remarkable words and stories. One gentleman leaned over to me at the end and said, “I thought that passing the bowl was crazy, but you were right, I loved it by the end. I got it.”

The men’s and women’s circles weren’t so different from each other. All seemed absorbed by past mistakes and wanting to understand and make amends. All seemed to enjoy the writing and the words. All were touched by each other's stories, a shared moment of recognition, a little laughter, some pats on the back, regrets, lists of things they miss, tears...


  1. I am touched by this post: how quickly the men were able to "get" the experience. This broke down some assumptions I had. Took a lot of courage from all parties involved to pioneer this to the men's block. Way to go!

  2. I'm so grateful for all the work you do with these circles!