The Writing Workshop at Journey House is an eye-opener, week after week. The writers, all incarcerated girls aged 13-17, join the optional workshop only if they genuinely want to come. That is key. We decide for ourselves how we want to run the workshop, who speaks, who reads aloud, and what we write about. There are no grades, no assignments, no evaluations, and no deadlines.
The writing is formidable.
These writers have lived, and they have stories to tell. Their words are vivid and raw, and when they read their work aloud, the heartfelt honesty is often gut wrenching. They’ve written about drugs, murders, stealing cars, pimps, bad mothers, good mothers, protecting little sisters, losing weight, rape, the skin color of handsome boys, lesbian love, wanting to remain unknown, suicide, sex, heartache, religion, the street, snitches, abuse, loneliness, and hope. The same girl who writes about Skittles in one piece might write a eulogy in her next. One girl’s journal entry about her first rape might inspire the next girl’s poem about revenge, and tendrils of patterns unfurl. We notice the connections.
In a typical workshop, three to eight writers will meet with Joanne Hayes, the English teacher of Journey House, one or two attendants, and me, the visiting writer, around six pushed-together tables in the cafeteria. I pass around a jar of cookies and ask if anyone has come with any writing she would like to read aloud. If so, we start listening. If not, I’ll pass out a poem for us to consider briefly, and then we’ll write in silence for five to ten minutes. After that, the writers volunteer to read their pieces aloud.
In fact, however, no workshop is ever truly typical. Our meetings are different every time, with vibes of support, hostility, humor, celebration, and depression depending on who comes and what has been going on lately in Journey House and in the writers’ lives. Sometimes, the girls start writing and don’t want to stop. Other times, we read aloud so much that we don’t get around to writing. Sometimes, a girl comes purely to sit by a friend. Once we met in a windowless sitting room. Another time, we cooked and talked about favorite books. Over the span of six weeks, a bond sometimes grows among the girls who regularly attend, and they trust the group with more personal pieces. When that happens, it can be intense.
For me, the workshops both break my heart and inspire me. I admire the unflinching honesty of the writers, and their artistry. I appreciate that their stories are complex. When one of them tells me, point blank, that she intends to return to her old life and continue on as she did before she came to Journey House, I try to understand. I try to grasp what choices these girls genuinely have.
Then I’m glad when they show up the next week to write some more.