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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W supported Frances Shani Parker is the author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes (paperback, e-book). Parker is a Michigan-based eldercare consultant, writer, hospice volunteer, blogger, and former school principal.

Have you noticed all the negative stereotypes that bombard us about older adults? Too often, this group is portrayed as unattractive, senile, useless, and sexless. A former school principal, when I surveyed fourth graders about the kinds of people they expected to see at a nursing home, they said residents would be old, sick, grouchy, slow, not too smart, and nosey. If these children’s perceptions continue, they can easily grow up to become the stereotypes they believe. Think about some of the older adults you know who have fallen victim to this illusion. Negative stereotypes have influenced how they view themselves in addition to the natural decline in some of the ways they function. They may have more dependence on others, lower levels of risk taking, and decreased self-esteem, due to poorer health.


Although youthfulness is admired and flaunted, there are many older adults who are not living the negative stereotypes. They refuse to focus on assumptions about how their lives should unfold. I wanted them to tell their stories, pay tribute to themselves, and motivate others in the process. Facilitating a Poets & Writers workshop seemed like the perfect catalyst for using the power of written words to promote productive aging. An eldercare consultant active with several senior organizations, I was sponsored by the Presbyterian Village of Brush Park Manor, an independent living community in Detroit. That’s how the Stories of Successful Aging After 60 writing workshop came into being and how a shared vision became a reality.

Most potential workshop participants were somewhat intimidated by the prospect of writing personal stories. Reading them aloud before a group presented another layer of concern. To help guide the process, I attended an exercise class with residents before the workshop started, so we could build trust and bond together. A few weeks later, I read original poems for them during their African American history program. My hope was to inspire them to gain the confidence to write and share their own thoughts and feelings. By the time our five workshop sessions began, we had sixteen excited older adults ranging in age from 60 to 93. Storytellers at heart, they were eager to celebrate and share with others what it meant to age successfully.

I was impressed with the diversity and intimacy of their revelations. Many had conquered and continued to prevail over major obstacles while maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Surviving cancer, heart and kidney transplants, drug addiction, and raising grandchildren were only a few of their victories. They also mentioned spending quality time helping others, enjoying family activities, and working new jobs. Developing talents and hobbies, traveling, and, of course, dating further enhanced their busy schedules. An enlightening collection of stories representing their personal truths evolved through their focused introspection.

References to religious explanations for passing life tests were frequent. Testimonies included receiving numerous blessings, having prayer partners, reading the Bible, and just being alone talking to Jesus. Their praise of a higher power was so strong that it became common during rehearsal readings for someone to shout a religious affirmation such as, “Give God the glory!” or “Thank you, Father!” when other writers read their stories. One man included the partial singing of, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” as part of his presentation. A woman disclosed that music talks to her with, “I’m Gonna Make It After All” being her favorite gospel song.

A lovely luncheon recognized workshop honorees who received and read aloud from their uplifting collection of stories. Each writer also accepted a special certificate of achievement. Several stated they would be sharing their collections and certificates with family, church members, and friends. Now others will benefit from their passionate efforts. Proud older adults savored well-earned praise for their involvement in a writing workshop where we all learned more about ourselves, one another, and aging.

Photo: Frances Shani Parker  Credit: Maurice Sanders

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading took place on May 22, 2014, before a packed house at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center. Sixteen writers representing P&W–supported organizations 826LA, Heartland Institute for Transformation, Lambda Literary Foundation, Levantine Cultural Center, Mixed Remixed Festival, and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore came together to celebrate the diversity of the SoCal literary community and Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops program. R&W (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about this lively annual event.

2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Group

"We are the blood, the blood of a city of mixed hearts," recited 19-year-old poet Laura Davila, wowing the audience with her expansive poems about urban life in Los Angeles and capturing the spirit of Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which celebrates the diversity of our Readings & Workshops program and the SoCal literary community.

Connecting Cultures readings take place yearly in Los Angeles and New York City. Each event is exceptional because it brings together a diverse group of organizations—from the grassroots up—to showcase voices before an audience that is as varied and expressive as the readers themselves.

Davila, who is blind and read not from the page, but from a reading machine, was selected by curator Mike "ThePoet" Sonksen, whose 826LA summer teen writing workshops have received R&W support for a number of years. Like 826LA, all the organizations invited to co-curate the Connecting Cultures Reading have received support through the R&W program.

Other highlights from the Los Angeles event included poet and playwright Jesse Bliss, who performed her reading while holding her baby. "Creation is messy," she read, as little hands reached out to touch the microphone and grab hold of her mother's printed poem.

Melinda Palacio, who was making her second appearance at Connecting Cultures, proudly held up her poetry collection, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting (Tia Chucha Press, 2012), explaining that the last time she read, she didn't have a book, but now she does!

So large is the sprawl of Los Angeles, it wasn't surprising to hear poet Vickie Vértiz say it was her first time reading on the Westside. She read her poem "Tocaya" (meaning "namesake" in Spanish), about being named after a deceased older sister.

Novelist Juliana Maio of the Levantine Cultural Center took us on a journey through the back streets of Egypt while Tony Valenzuela, reader and curator for the Lambda Literary Foundation, read an excerpt from his memoir about coming of age in a San Diego gay bathhouse. Fiction writer Esmé-Michelle Watkins of the Mixed Remixed Festival, gave us a child's-eye-view of a family in turmoil.

When talking of "the medicine," poet Queen Hollins, representing the Heartland Institute for Transformation, declared: "It doesn't do any good if you keep it to yourself."

If what ails Los Angeles is a geography of separation, then writing was the medicine that brought everyone together on this night. Sharing that medicine is exactly what the sixteen Connecting Cultures readers did, reaching across divides and distances to bring us back to what matters most—our human stories and experiences.

You can see more pictures from the 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading on our Facebook page, and a video of Jeffery Martin, representing Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, reading his poem "Serious Poet," on our YouTube channel.

Photo: 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures group. Front: (L-R) Esme-Michelle Watkins, P&W's Brandi Spaethe, Trebor Healey, librecht baker, Heidi Durrow, Jamie Moore. Back: (L-R) P&W intern Leticia Valente, Beyond Baroque's Richard Modiano, Laura Davila, Tony Valenzuela, P&W's Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Gayle Fuhr, Queen Hollins, Melissa Sanvicente, Jeffery Martin, and Chris L. Terry. Credit: Brandi M. Spaethe.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ana Laurel is a writer who has been working as Voices Breaking Boundaries’ managing director since January 2013. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2012. During her time at UH-D, she served as general editor of the Bayou Review, the school's literary and visual arts magazine, president of Sigma Tau Delta (International English Honor Society), and was a regular presenter at UH-D's annual Gender Conference. Upon graduation, she was awarded the 2012 Senior Portfolio Prize, the school's highest honor for English majors.

Ana LaurelWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) is a special organization for many reasons, but what makes us most unique is the subject matter we tackle and the structure through which we tackle it. Since 2009, VBB has been producing the thematic-based living room art series which aims to find common threads between two seemingly disparate regions (focusing around Houston, Texas and South Asian cities such as Karachi, Pakistan), in order to foster a greater sense of compassion, understanding, and awareness. With additional support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts, and with support from Poets & Writers, we have been able to expand this structure into a multi-year series called Borderlines that explores North American (Mexico-US-Canada) and South Asian (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh) border regions through art. Within each year of our three-year Borderlines series, VBB produces two large living room art productions in residential Houston homes showcasing art created by local and international artists including: two film screenings tackling social issues faced by those in the two border regions we’re exploring, community arts workshops introducing Houston community members to self-expression and healing through the arts, and an interactive website, art catalogue, and documentary granting global access to the content and art covered during the year.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of our very first community arts workshop with the Mamas del Northside from Houston’s historic Near Northside district. As VBB began to work deeper and more closely with different Houston communities, we knew that in addition to bringing high-quality, international art into underserved communities, we would also need to work with them to develop their own artistic talents for self-expression. Then, they would be able to enjoy and appreciate art from a critical perspective. For our inaugural community arts workshop, we teamed up with our community partner, Avenue CDC, and created a workshop based around Mamas del Northside, an amazing group of women who had just begun to meet and discuss what they could do to improve their homes, families, and community. Most of the women were stay-at-home mothers who spoke very little English and had never written creatively before. As we quickly found out, since becoming wives and mothers, they had not even had an opportunity to speak about their own experiences. Though the workshops only lasted a few weeks, and some women only came sporadically due to obligations at home, those who did attend changed dramatically in their time with our experienced facilitator, Stalina Villarreal. The workshops were full of laughter, tears, anger, and poetry. Every woman that came left with her own journal to keep, and it is my genuine hope that they use them to continue writing and discovering themselves as women, mothers, and human beings—and that they continue letting me hang around to witness it.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The most memorable thing that happens (though working in this line of work, there are many!) for me during our season is always the evaluation dinner that takes place at the end of our Writing for Self-Discovery (WSD) teacher workshops. The WSD teacher workshops are free and open to teachers in the Houston area who are interested in sharpening their teaching skills, strengthening their writing skills, and exploring themselves through writing. At our most recent evaluation dinner in May, the two facilitators and I all sat down to eat with the workshop participants. We discussed their progress since beginning the workshops in February. One of the teachers began to cry, explaining that this year was the hardest for her in thirteen years of teaching because the stress (from testing, the school district, etc.) had culminated to a very fine edge that semester, and she found herself truly struggling in the classroom. Then she explained how our workshops came into her life at the exact right moment to fill her with the hope she needed to continue to help children attain the education they deserve. Her words are better than mine, but she told me that the workshops allow her the time and space to think about and forgive who she was and who she is, and help her siphon off and tackle the stresses from everyday life so that she has space in her heart and mind for the needs of her students. That moved me because that’s what we want in our teachers—that kind of dedication, compassion, and commitment to their students and their education, and someone to whom the needs of children will always take precedence. I was just so grateful she let me share in that moment.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
I’m very fortunate because I came into VBB as a writer with a deep passion and respect for language, and now, as the managing director (and only full-time employee), I get to attend all of our arts writing workshops that take place in the community and in schools. While I don’t attend every single session, I usually join them for the first, the last, and one or two in the middle. I get to be around beginning writers (like Mamas del Northside), seasoned writers (from teacher workshops), and young, unfiltered writers (in youth workshops).  In addition, I get to take in the expertise our facilitators bring to the table. Not only do the workshops expand my own capacity to imagine and feel in both my life and writing, but they also inspire me to actively pick up my pen and journal at the end of the day when I’ve worked over nine hours and am completely drained. Because no matter what, I don’t deal with a peer group full of hormones and cliques, a classroom full of students who need constant attention and compassion, or a home full of children and a husband whose needs always come before my own.  If all the participants in our workshops can pick up their pens and journals after all of that, so can I.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Language and literacy are important because they help us express ourselves to each other and through that shared expression, we are able to build communities. Without it, we lose touch with each other, and the ties that bind our communities fall apart. In 2000, Sehba Sarwar decided that she didn’t like what was happening in her home country and wrote a poem to express her distaste. Writing became her form of protest and through that poem, she drew together four other women writers and artists who banded to form Voices Breaking Boundaries, an organization I am now a part of today, almost fifteen years later. These five women created a legacy and lineage of women who continue working and fighting to ensure that language and literacy are not lost, and that all of our stories will continue to be told. After all the trends and gadgets come and go, our stories, told to each other or on paper, will continue on and carry our histories and lessons to the generations that follow. Every community deserves the chance to take part in such a timeless legacy.

Photo: Ana Laurel   Credit: Ana Laurel

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Golda Solomon is a spoken word performer, professor, and the poet-in-residence at Blue Door Gallery. Her poems have been published in the Mom Egg, Heal: Between the Pages of These Folks We Seek a Panacea, the 35th Anniversary of Blind Beggar Press’ Collector’s Edition Anthology, Out of Africa, Fiber Plus, Sacred Visions, and Narratives x4. She is the author of Flatbush Cowgirl (CM Graphic Design, 1999) and Medicine Woman of Jazz (World Audience, 2012). She produced the poetry and jazz compilation albums First Set, Word Riffs, and Takin’ It To the Hollow. Solomon created From Page to Performance workshops and ArtSpeak: Poetic Responses to the Walls, writing workshops (partially funded by Poets & Writers), at Blue Door Gallery.

In 2008, I moved to Yonkers, New York, and came across Blue Door Gallery, a quaint gallery on a main street next to a boarded-up building. Giving back to community and nurturing diversity is essential to who I am. I began as a volunteer, facilitating writing workshops, and with the help of Poets & Writers, I became Blue Door Gallery's poet-in-residence, and ArtSpeak was born.

The ArtSpeak workshops give participants an opportunity to use exhibitions as writing prompts and inspiration. A packet is distributed that contains an agenda with the current exhibition program, ArtSpeak Walk (which includes questions, poems, and readings related to the artwork), an explanation of ekphrastic writing, and an evaluation form.

I facilitate eight workshops each calendar year, as well as two in the community outreach summer program. Each workshop is two and a half hours and allows leisurely viewing of the art with ample time for first draft free-writing and sharing in a welcoming atmosphere. Recent workshops have included an additional From Page to Performance workshop hour. Friends, family, and community members are invited to witness our “raw” work. On occasion, the artists attend, answer questions, and are invited to write—a rewarding experience for all.

It’s been said that I am playfully stubborn in my determination to bring out the best in all who are there. My background in communications has taught me how to help those with public speaking jitters and I personally understand what it’s like to have anxiety. As a child, I stopped playing the piano because of my fears and I try my best not to let that happen to anyone in my care. As one participant remarked, “For me, this was the best workshop/writing experience I’ve ever had. The group of writers was as varied as our ages and it gave the event incredible energy. I also felt free of my fears. In this workshop, I allowed myself to read my poem without quivering.”

It is gratifying and a privilege to work with these writers and receive positive feedback. One member noted, “This need to accept my creative side is the invaluable part of the ArtSpeak experience for me. The other part is working with visual art and having this art as prompts to stir my words."

Blue Door Gallery has included ArtSpeak poems in publications and honored the artists with three ArtSpeak chapbooks. The gallery will soon inaugurate Blue Door Quarterly with writings from each ArtSpeak workshop. These publications have offered an opportunity for established writers and emerging poets to be published together. Support from the Readings & Workshops program of Poets & Writers has helped establish Blue Door Gallery as a cultural center in downtown Yonkers. On these streets of grit and energy, I am proud to be known as the ArtSpeak lady. I am always teacher and learner.

Photos: (top) Golda Solomon, (middle) Golda Solomon and ArtSpeak Class.  Photo Credit: Maureen Hatch.

Photo: (bottom) Golda Solomon. Photo Credit: Zak Sherzad.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poets & Writers Literary Roundtable meetings are great opportunities to connect with fellow presenters, presses, teachers, and writers. They bring together people from all aspects of the local literary community to share ideas, news, and resources, and possibly form partnerships. It's also a chance for members of the community to learn more about P&W and how its Readings & Workshops program might support their literary events. Brandi M. Spaethe, program assistant at P&W Readings & Workshops (West), blogs about a meeting in Fresno, California.

Fresno Roundtable

When I went to the Poets & Writers’ Fresno Roundtable meeting on March 27, I was excited to return to the place where I received my MFA in poetry last May. One thing I told Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops Program (West), on the drive up was that not only does Fresno have a rich poetic history, but it also continues to be home to a strong and diverse literary community. It’s a place where inhabitants stick around because they are passionate about their projects and the city. Fresno is a place that wants to be loved.

In attendance was Fresno’s poet laureate, James Tyner, who runs a reading series at the Gillis Branch Public Library in Fresno. Tyner was elected Fresno’s first poet laureate in the fall of 2012. S. Bryan Medina came to discuss his new baby, the Inner Ear Poetry Jam, which features slam poets in the area. Medina told us that the slam community in Fresno has been alive for roughly twelve years, a fact not widely known. Michael Medrano, who was a P&W writer-in-residence for the Readings & Workshops blog in July 2013, has been an important member of the local literary scene with his Random Writers Workshop series that meets monthly in Fresno. Others in attendance included an agent, local literary enthusiasts, and a new member who had recently relocated.

One question we all wanted to explore: What drives Fresno's passion for the arts? What is it about Fresno that attracts writers? Well, it’s not a glamorous place. Fresno is very much a working-class city, they agreed, a place about work. Former United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine has spent a number of years teaching, writing, and living in Fresno and is well-known for writing about Detroit's working-class. This city is a realist city. Its faults are right on the surface and many of its citizens come from blue-collar backgrounds. A strong work ethic, a powerful drive, and sweat breaking over your back can remind you that you're human. That your body is capable of affecting and destroying and building again—if you spend enough time in Fresno you can see it. You can see it in the poetry.

The other thing that drives Fresnans is that they must fight for the arts. Cindy Wathen, treasurer at the Fresno Arts Council, shared with us that there’s just no budget for the arts, thus all efforts are grassroots. A few attendees spoke out about how fighting for your art creates a strong sense of identity, a sense of ownership and pride that comes with building your own establishment. As the largest Central Valley city, Fresno boasts a variety of agricultural communities, folks who have watched the land change and bear new fruit each year, some natives working directly to cultivate the crop. The arts, too, are nourished in this way.

One thing I noticed about my own time in Fresno is how separate the university and the locals were in their literary endeavors. Often the local writers would host events and some students would come, and vice versa with the MFA student events through Fresno State, but crossover was rare. There exists two camps: the nonacademic writer and the academic writer. "In what ways can the two come together?" we wondered. What are some events we'd like to see in Fresno that might bridge the gap? Some suggested a writers conference inclusive of non-academic writers, others mused that a retreat or publication would be a good addition to the scene. Annual show? Fringe festival? Excitement began to build in the room.

Fresno has been a poet’s place. It still is a poet’s place. Folks often forget about it, and the city itself has developed a reputation in the nation for being something that it’s not to the native. There’s a real sense of community there.

I am sitting at the dinner table, rolling a hot dog
into a corn tortilla, boiled beans and white rice,
the air growing smokey from the tri-tip barbequing
outside, my cousin bringing in a plate of pan fried
noodles from the place down the street.

I am home.

I am Fresno.

—James Tyner, "Fresno, California. 2013."

Photo: Fresno Roundtable Attendees  Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

JP HOWARD, aka Juliet P. Howard, is a poet, a Cave Canem fellow, a member of the Hot Poets Collective, and a native New Yorker. She curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) and blog. WWBPS hosts monthly literary Salons in New York, and the blog accepts submissions of poetry from women. JP has been selected as a 2014 VONA/Voices Poetry Fellow, a 2012 and 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow, and a 2011 Cave Canem Fellow in Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was a finalist for Astraea’s Lesbian Writers Fund for Poetry and the recipient of a Soul Mountain Retreat writing residency. Her poems have been published in Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, the Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias iPad Companion, African Voices Magazine, Kweli Journal, the Mom Egg, “Of Fire, Of Iron,” Talking Writing, Muzzle Magazine, Connotation Press, TORCH, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008-2009, Cave Canem XI 2007 Anthology, and Promethean Literary Journal. She was awarded an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York in 2009, holds a BA from Barnard College, and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.

Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) is a dream come true! After receiving my MFA from the City College of New York in 2009, I wanted to continue to be a part of a community of poets and decided sometimes we have to create the community we desire. WWBPS is a Literary Salon Series, modeled after traveling salons that were popular during the Harlem Renaissance. Our first Salon was held during National Poetry Month in April 2011 and was created with the goal of establishing a venue where women writers could come together in a supportive, creative, and nurturing space. The Salon is also open to men. As curator and nurturer of WWBPS, I host monthly literary salons and writing workshops throughout New York. Poets & Writers has generously funded WWBPS since 2012.

Our monthly Salons have grown and can now accommodate between twenty-five to thirty participants. We have served over six hundred participants in the past three years and continue to expand opportunities for Salon members. This year I started a Spring Reading Series “Celebrating a Sacred Space for Women’s Voices: Women Writers in Bloom” at the Bowery Poetry Club, featuring dynamic and diverse Salon poets. This new Series, also funded by Poets & Writers, has its next installment on May 18, 2014, at 1 PM. We had our first out-of-state Seattle-based Salon during AWP at an off-site venue this year. I was recently awarded my very first Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) Community Arts Fund Grant on behalf of the Salon. This grant allowed me to rent the gorgeous DUMBO Sky venue for our April celebration. Last month WWBPS was one of four literary organizations whose members were invited to participate in Poets & Writers' fifth annual Connecting Cultures Reading, which was a true honor for the Salon and our members.

It has been an amazing feeling to watch the Salon blossom in both membership and outpouring of support. Our three-year anniversary celebration on Saturday, April 26, at DUMBO Sky was one of our largest, most successful events to date! We had nearly seventy guests in attendance. It was wonderful to have the support of Poets & Writers for this anniversary celebration. Our featured poet, phenomenal performer Mahogany L. Browne, performed an excerpt of her manuscript turned multi-media poetry production, #redbone, along with musical accompaniment by Mel Hsu. The performance was inspirational and mesmerizing. Since a large goal of the Salon is to support and nurture women writers, I also honored two long-time Salon members: dynamic poets Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, curator of the Calypso Muse Reading Series and the Glitter Pomegranate Performance Series, as well as Lorraine Currelley, founder and director of Poets Network and Exchange, were presented with certificates of appreciation in recognition of their outstanding dedication to our writing community. This event was spectacular! Salon members and volunteers donated tons of food, wine, beverages and gave freely and generously of their time. This was an event created for our community and was truly a success because of our community!

Photo: (Top) JP Howard, (Middle) JP Howard, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Mahogany Browne. (Bottom) JP Howard, Lorraine Currelley. Photo Credit: Akinfe Fatou.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Mary McMillan lives and works in Lake County, California. She has been facilitating the Writers Circle, a monthly free public writing workshop sponsored by the Lake County Arts Council and supported by Poets & Writers, for more than five years. She worked as a journalist for several years, and has written novels and creative nonfiction. In 2010, she was selected as Lake County’s Poet Laureate and published This Wanting, a poetry chapbook, as well as the textbook Get Inside Your Relationships, related to her work as a marriage and family therapist. Along with a private psychotherapy practice, McMillan works as a mediator for family court and teaches parents in the court system how to communicate better with their co-parents.

Mary McMillan and RosieSince fall 2008, I have been funded by Poets & Writers to facilitate the Writers Circle, a free public writing workshop that meets once a month in the Lake County Arts Council gallery. Located in rural Northern California, in a valley isolated by mountain ranges, Lake County is both cursed with the problems that come with extreme poverty, and blessed by clean air and breathtaking scenery. Many artists, writers, and professionals retire in Lake County, where they can enjoy mountain trails and the largest natural freshwater lake in the state. Centuries ago, a now-dormant volcano created rich soil in the valleys—soil that now attracts small family farms growing organic produce, walnuts, pears, and wine grapes.

Since I took over the position of workshop facilitator, I've been fascinated and moved every month, as participants have brought in material often hoarded and hidden for years—and I have watched these writers bloom into confident authors of exquisitely funny, terrifying, or touching stories and poems.

Ten years ago, Fran Ransley began writing her memoir, This House Protected by Poverty, about being a welfare mother. This month she is preparing to submit the final version of her manuscript to Amazon’s CreateSpace to print her first edition. Each month, when Fran read her stories of frustration laced with irony and wit, participants practically fell off their chairs laughing—appreciating the absurdity Fran saw in every situation— yet offered constructive criticism. For instance, when Fran rambled into interesting or thoughtful digressions, we helped her construct ways to weave those observations into her central narrative.

Writers CircleIn 2010, participant Lourdes Thuesen started writing a short story about a developmentally delayed girl whose mother was addicted to methamphetamine. As we continued asking her questions about this mother and her history, Lourdes ended up writing a compelling novel with the addicted mother at the center of a complex web of relationships. And, recently, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair has joined us, keeping us enthralled with excerpts from his memoir, So You Want to be a Quadriplegic.

Over the years, I have offered an encouraging ear, and ensured a safe place for people to bring sensitive material and tell their stories. I have always felt impressed with the fine quality of both writing and listening that participants bring to the workshop, but even more, I have felt privileged to witness the rich and complex lives they have come to share.

Top: Mary McMillan and her dog, Rosie; credit: Patty Dalton. Bottom: The Writers Circle; credit: JoAnn Sacato.
Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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