Writers Giving Back: Pass the Torch

Catherine Wald
From the May/June 2004 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For some writers, community service comes naturally. But for those of us who are accustomed to guarding our precious writing time with our lives, the very thought of adding another activity—no matter how worthy—is daunting. We watch in awe as fellow writers teach, mentor, and travel to remote locations to give workshops to populations ranging from the incarcerated to the homeless to senior citizens. Why do they do it? How do they find the time and emotional energy? Is it possible to serve others without neglecting one's own work?

"The philosophy I learned coming up is that you give back whatever resources you have," says poet and arts activist Kenneth Carroll. "I'm terrible at technology, carpentry, and pretty much everything else useful, but I do know how to write—and I can teach that."

Carroll is executive director of DC WritersCorps, which sends writers to teach middle school students throughout Washington, D.C. Teaching adolescents to "see writing as a lifelong tool for success" may prevent them from dropping out of school. It also enriches Carroll's life and his writing. "I'm always learning and boning up on the fundamentals of my craft, which in turn informs both me and my work," he says.

For novelist and professor Rosellen Brown, volunteering is a chance to "shut up and listen" to people who have never tried to tell their stories on paper before. A board member of Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) and an occasional seminar leader, she says the work has affirmed her belief that "everybody potentially has a voice that can be heard on paper."

NWA volunteer writers lead weekly workshops for adults in a dozen different venues across Chicago, including libraries, homeless shelters, and social-services agency offices. As part of its mission to provide "an avenue for people to write about their personal experiences," NWA reaches out to everyone from recent immigrants to residents of housing projects. The organization publishes students' work in a quarterly literary magazine, Journal of Ordinary Thought.

"The students are people who are eager to tell their stories," says Brown. "There is a tremendous desire to go on record with terrible things that have happened in their lives, to celebrate the wonderful things, and to learn to appreciate the details that will make a terrific story or poem." For Brown, the work is not just about "doing your bit for the community." It's a unique opportunity to hear authentic voices that are "different from your own solipsistic voice and the voices of those you teach."

Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (Anchor, 1992), also gives talks to NWA students, as well as to young teachers and students in public schools. For him, deciding which invitations to accept and which to reject is never easy, but "I figure [these talks are] the least I can do, since I can't afford to give back in a significant way financially."

Kotlowitz finds he sometimes welcomes the chance to engage with the world in the midst of long writing stints, and he also enjoys the chance to discuss his work with students who have read it. "I don't write for myself-I write to be read. So there's nothing more rewarding than to know I'm being read, and to talk about my writing with students who are discovering the joy of reading and writing."

Los Angeles screenwriter Allison Deegan went to a meeting of WriteGirl, expecting to write a check and duck out the door. Instead, something about the group's work—matching high school girls with writers—made her feel "warm and fuzzy," so she signed on to become a mentor.

Deegan had never worked with teenagers before—"I was afraid of them"—but she found the work rejuvenating. "Writers are so neurotic that we often don't value what we do. But as a mentor, you see the difference you're making right away. As you give [someone else] validation, a little bit of your insecurity about whether writing is worth doing goes away."

Not that the relationship is always smooth sailing. "In our training, we emphasize that mentors have to really commit to the communication process and not see it as a rejection if the girl doesn't call back," says Keren Taylor, founder and executive director of WriteGirl. Case in point: Deegan's first mentee disappeared from the program for several weeks, despite repeated phone calls and letters. It turned out the eighth-grader had been caring for six younger brothers while her mother was at work.

Although mentoring cuts into Deegan's writing time, she says the feeling of community and the affirmation of the value of writing make it worthwhile. "This work has transformed me," she says. "I feel it's a privilege knowing all these girls and their challenges."

For award-winning activist and poet Allison Hedge Coke, mentoring helps heal the wounds of the past. As a Native American who has experienced homelessness, family mental illness, and poverty, Hedge Coke is active in mentoring and teaching Native Americans on reservations, in urban settings, and in prisons in South Dakota and other states. From this work has come several published anthologies representing migrant and rural children, Native American youths, and disabled youths, as well as recognition as Mentor of the Year in 2001 by the Wordcraft Circle of Writers and Storytellers. She is currently working on collections by children of schizophrenics and members of the Native American working class.

"These are all places of renewal for me, as I give back to where I came from myself," says Coke, who was mentored herself as a teenager by a Native American poet. "Whether my students are aware of how much we share or not, I know. It gives me a personal truth to return to my own beginnings and do some good work there." The work is fraught with challenges, including burnout. But every once in a while there are "those moments when something clicks and a student erupts into a writer from a nonwriter. It is always magic. There is nothing like it."